Tom G. Stevens Ph.D.
These ideas are from my book, You Can Choose To Be Happy: "Rise Above" Anxiety, Anger, and Depression (1998).
Wheeler-Sutton Pub. Co.
The process of resolving a "conflict," "disagreement," or "mutual problem" involves a number of specific interpersonal skills which both partners may be able to improve.
Following are the descriptions of key skills to assertively and intimately communicate and resolve differences to obtain "Win-Win" solutions:
Before stating your position, use the following guidelines.
Step 1--State EMPATHETIC understanding of partner's position. What are your partner's feelings and thoughts related to this issue? Possibly start by asking your partner to explain his/her feelings and thoughts about the issue. In any case state your most empathetic understanding of their thoughts and especially their feelings on the issue at hand.
Step 2--Explicitly state RESPECT and caring of partner and partner's feelings and acknowledge positive aspects of partner's position. Explicitly state positives about partner first. Express caring, "I care about your feelings." Express respect or appreciation for their past efforts--whatever they may have been. Express genuine respect for aspects of their position, feelings, and/or previous actions or attempts.
Step 3--State the PROBLEM:
Step 4-State the GOAL--what (ideal/minimal) actions do you want from your partner. How is that different from what your partner has been doing?
Step 5-Follow up with listening, persistence and other assertive skills.
This set of skills is appropriate for all listening situations. These include your partner's response to your statement of the problem, situations where your partner is upset with you or "criticizing" you, or situations where your partner is coming to you for help with a problem. These skills will be discussed below.
EMPATHETIC RESPONDING PROCESS--Maximizing In-depth Exploration
Step 1--Identify your partner's emotions. Use your partner's "body language," statements, and your own feelings as ways of identifying your partner's feelings. Following are steps to identifying emotions and making an empathetic labeling of the emotion.
Step 2--Mentally summarize content (your partner's main points)
State your summary in words they would use or agree with. If you state your summary in words that come from your frame of reference (or position) instead of your partner's, frame of reference, then your partner may not accept that you understand their point of view. Consequently, your partner may begin to argue or stop constructive exploration of the problem. You must normally get their approval that you understand their position.
Example: NOT: "You're saying that you were really selfish about how you spent our money." INSTEAD: "You're saying that you spent the money on purchases that you thought were important."
Step 3-State your empathetic response to your partner
Formula: "You feel (feeling), because (summary of content/causes)."
Example: "You feel hurt because you think I was inconsiderate."
Step 4--Use their feedback to correct your response if necessary.
Positive feedback-your partner keeps exploring the problem: If your partner says that you understood and/or continues to explore the problem in a constructive manner, then you can be assured that your empathetic response was "on target." Your partner believes that you understand her/his feelings and content so far.
Negative feedback-your partner STOPS exploring the problem: If your partner corrects you, but continues, that is OK too. However, if your partner argues with you about your interpretation of their position or stops exploring the problem constructively, then it is crucial that you assume that you did not state your partner's point-of-view adequately. Your partner is always right about what his/her feelings and thoughts are. If you believe your partner is being dishonest, you can still say, "I hear you saying that you feel..." (If you think your partner is not being open or truthful, tell them what you think later when it is your turn to state your position.)
Examples: Feeling words are in bold, the content summary is underlined.
Step 5--Continue making empathetic responses throughout the entire discussion--especially if someone gets upset, confused or needs time to think. Even more useful is the general rule that if you don't know what else to say, make an empathetic response to your partner. I do this if I feel hurt, angry, or confused as a way to "buy time" to deal with my own feelings before saying something that will upset my partner more.
Tell your partner that you care about her/him and her/his feelings. Tell your partner even in the midst of the most heated part of a disagreement. Even though I might feel hurt or angry, inside I know that I still care about my partner and her feelings. Telling my partner that I care helps us both de- escalate the emotions, become more cooperative, and focus more on the central issues.
Encourage your partner to be specific. Do not assume you understand what your partner means-- especially about key points. Try to get your partner to be especially clear about what she/he wants from you.
Example: "I want you to be happier about this. I care about how you feel. Please give me some examples of how your would like to say (or do) this. I don't understand exactly what you mean."
Identifying central underlying issues. How do we tell if we are exploring the real underlying issues that are causing most of the problems? That is not an easy question to answer. Here are some questions to ask yourself.
If the issue meets any of these criteria, it is probably an important underlying issue. If it meets many of them, then it is most certainly very important, and your relationship will probably suffer and have continued conflicts the issue until significant resolution occurs.
Try saying this to yourself: "I care about my partner and myself and recognize that this problem and resultant hard feelings will be a thorn in our flesh until we get it under control. I will persist in working on the problem as long as I believe it is productive. I will also recognize and respect my own and my partner's limits about how long to discuss the issue at any one time (or about how often we discuss it)." Then do it!
"Escalation" means "raising the stakes" which may also increase the emotional intensity for both partners. Raising the stakes may occur when one partner makes accusations or threats toward their partner or tries to "manipulate" the other. "De-escalation" is when the partners begin to get more emotional control and deal more constructively with the issues again. Almost all of the techniques discussed in this session will generally help "de-escalate" the level of the conflict. Moving from "I win"--"You lose" positions to "win-win" positions can be of fundamental importance for de-escalating. So can avoiding use of negative labels, blaming, exaggerating, attacking, bringing up past or irrelevant mistakes, etc. Agreeing to change yourself, making empathetic, kind, loving, and cooperative statements to your partner can be powerful de- escalators. The following section has additional suggestions.
If Your Partner Begins Using Negative Labels, Attacking You, Manipulating You Or Using Aggression, You Can:
(These questions get your partner thinking more responsibly and fairly. He/she may even change his/her opinion when looking at the situation in more depth.)
Avoid assuming that you understand what your partner feels, thinks, or wants. Instead, ask. If you assume that you know what your partner means and do not ask, your partner may think you are trying to change how they feel. Your partner may feel "controlled," "manipulated," "dominated," "insensitive," and assume that I do not care enough to ask. Have you been accused of this and wondered why? Assuming you know what they want or what is best for them could be a major reason.
To the extent that your partner's underlying motives are unclear, assume the best. Assume that her/his underlying motives are that (1) your partner loves her/his self and (2) your partner loves (cares for) you. If you assume your partner does not really care about you, then (1) it will make them feel hurt, not understood, and angry and (2) it can greatly increase your own unhappiness and make it much more difficult for- you to be constructive in how you deal with the conflict. Recognize that ultimately your partner can never "prove" to you what is inside of her/him.
When you have doubts about your partner's caring, you can make a choice of what you will believe and which assumption you will act under. One way that you can help keep the emotional tone of the discussion positive is to keep looking inside yourself to focus upon your feelings of love and caring for your partner. You can also focus upon situations where you felt sure your partner cared about you (to get more in touch with the knowledge that your partner truly does care). [The above statement is not the same as saying that you will "trust" a partner who has repeatedly violated your trust.]
Avoid negative or unsupportive tactics or approaches to your partner. Many persons (especially men) tend to play a "devils' advocate" type of role to "help" their partners clarify their position. They may think that arguments help clarify issues. However, most of their partners--especially many women--feel unsupported and attacked when their partners use these conflictual methods designed to get better "logical clarification." The issue is not so much "logic" as exploring feelings and related issues. Good exploration of emotions is not a strictly logical process--nor should it be!
Use neutral, descriptive statements--no negative labels. Recognize that putting yourself or your partner down by using negative labels only causes you and/or your partner to feel more negative and tends to lead to tangents and unproductive "fighting" over terminology. INSTEAD: Use more neutral and descriptive words. For example instead of calling your partner "selfish," say something like, "There are several times when I felt hurt and angry that I would like to discuss with you... Then just describe what they did and your resultant feelings. You don't need to use any labels.
Avoid exaggerated statements, evaluative statements, and other "zingers" toward your partner. Avoid extreme statements. Expressions like "always," "never," and "every time" will usually just lead to irrelevant discussions related to use of those words. Avoid dogmatic or authoritarian statements. Dogmatic or authoritarian statements are those you may feel very sure or confident about and state it with extreme confidence leaving little room, for doubt. These statements can be "red flags." Your partner may get angry and get a permanent impression that you are "arrogant," "egotistical," a "know it all," and are very controlling.
When my partner and I cannot reach agreement, our "resolution" of the conflict may be to agree to disagree, to understand and respect each other's position, and to avoid unnecessary discussion or "zinging" each other.
Separating consequences in areas of disagreement may help. For example if two people don't agree how to spend money, then separating their budgets as much as is practical can help reduce conflict and resentment.
If you are in doubt about where to turn for assistance, please feel free to call the Counseling Center at 661-654-3366
This information was prepared by Tom G. Stevens, Ph.D. and the California State University Long Beach Counseling Center to assist students with mental health issues.