I’m a fairly idealistic person at the best of times, but let’s face it: conflict is an inevitable part of life. We are all unique individuals with a unique set of needs, goals, desires, dreams and wishes in life. Whether it’s with your friends, family, spouses, bosses or colleagues, in any situation or context, there are going to be times when your needs and the other person’s needs are in conflict. It’s great when you can see eye to eye with the people who are around you, but what do you do when you want to eat Chinese for dinner but your partner wants burgers? Or when you want to design your website this way, but your colleague wants to design it that way? Or when you have strong opinions about how you want to live your life, but your parents have opposing views? Some conflict may be for BIG things, and some conflict may be for small things. Regardless of whether it’s big or small, there is great benefit in gaining skills in interpersonal effectiveness so that you have a way of communicating and asserting your needs to those around you effectively, but without damaging your relationship with them. I thought it would be worthwhile to share some of my thoughts on this topic and shed some light on how I have learned to resolve conflict effectively in my own life.
What is the importance of human relationships? Why do we need people anyway?
I guess the first thing I wanted to talk about is why maintaining a good relationship with others is so important.
For our survival
As human beings, we are social creatures. It’s pretty simple, really. Humans need each other. We are highly dependent on others for our survival. Nearly everything we have in our life is made possible with the help of others – even life itself! There is no such thing as life without connection. Cooperation therefore gives us greater survivability. When people effectively cooperate with each other, great things can happen – we can go to the moon, advance science and medicine and be successful in our business ventures.
For our creativity
All of our current ideas, knowledge, tools and skills come from billions of years of interactions, relationships, exchanges, conversations, art and books. Our creativity would be stifled without other people. Other people can inspire us to achieve things that we may not have ever aspired to on our own! True learning doesn’t just come from reading textbooks and applying our knowledge – it also comes from learning the art of interacting effectively with people. Speaking from personal experience, I’ve learned more about human beings through the experience of interacting with them than what I ever did in my 6+ years of reading about them in academic journals and textbooks at university.
To meet our emotional needs
People play a crucial role in our lives – they make us smile, cry, laugh and think. Our interactions with others grow us. Having people around you that care about you can be a great source of strength and resilience. We also know that when people lack meaningful close relationships with others, they suffer. Being lonely therefore also creates a risk for developing mental health issues. We have a basic psychological need to feel connected to others. The research in this area suggests that people who have close relationships are healthier, less stressed and have a higher life expectancy than those who don’t. Close relationships also boost our immune systems! So, your family, friends, partners and community can all help you to live a richer, fuller and more satisfying life.
Just because we need people, it doesn’t mean we have to be needy.
Needing others doesn’t make you needy. Western culture and society bombards us with this idea that we can be “self-made” individuals, that we can solve our own problems, remain emotionally detached and live completely independently without any help or support from others. It’s the classic “dream” and it’s used as justification to push people away. You know what? I call BULLSHIT on this. Maintaining a façade of complete control and independence isn’t strength of character; it’s avoidance – pure and simple. Anyone can shut other people out and pretend to be ok on their own, but it takes much more strength and courage to be vulnerable and transparent with others. No one is self-made! We live our stories together, and our stories become more meaningful and purposeful when they are shared with each other.
It’s also true that some people need closeness, intimacy, attachment and love more than others, but in general we all need close and caring relationships. Personally, I’m an introvert by nature, so I get my energy from being alone or in smaller groups. Being in large crowds of people or spending too much time around others can be energetically depleting for me, whereas extroverts tend to want to spend more time around others, as they get their energy from being around other people.
Being needy, on the other hand, is when you don’t take responsibility for your own self-worth and wellbeing. It’s when you see yourself as the victim and blame others or your life circumstances. It’s self-judgment that creates the emptiness that leads to the neediness. So stop judging yourself! When you’re empty of self-love you expect others to “fill” you with their attention, love and approval. When your intent is to learn to love yourself and others and to learn to fill your own cup then you are better able to pour into others’ cups. This comes from an authentic need to share love and connect with others rather than a need to feel wanted. We need to connect with others, but we can’t do so when we are disconnected from ourselves. So forgive yourself first; show yourself compassion and kindness first. You will be way more likely to find the courage to ask for forgiveness from others when you can forgive yourself first.
To understand and connect with others we have to be open to learning about loving ourselves and others. To open up a genuine connection and sharing of love with others, we also have to open our hearts to taking responsibility for ourselves.
The importance of Empathy
We are able to successfully interact with and connect with others when are able to understand their feelings. To empathise with someone means to imagine being in their shoes and to try to understand how they might be feeling and perceiving the situation. Our ability to empathise with others falls on a spectrum. Some people are better able to empathise than others, but sometimes emotions can get in the way. Fleeting emotions, such as anger or fear, reduce our ability to empathise with others.
I would strongly argue that a lack of empathy is usually the root cause of most conflicts. Empathy erosion occurs when people fail to attend to the feelings, interests, thoughts, opinions and ideas of others. Narcissists, for example, are only able to see the world in relation to their own needs and desires. Narcissists do not see the intrinsic value of other people.
Fear and trauma can sometimes also create barriers in interpersonal effectiveness. When you have been repeatedly hurt, bullied or invalidated in your life, your defences are naturally going to be a lot more sensitive and reactive. When you’ve experienced trauma or abuse, you are conditioned to protect yourself against any further danger or threat – so things that are perhaps not such a big deal to others, may be perceived as a great big deal and major threat to you.
Learn how to be a Lover and a Fighter.
Some people think that in order to get along with others we have to always put their needs before our own. This is not true! You don’t have to subjugate your needs, be a passive people-pleaser or a doormat so that people will like you. In fact, people will probably like and respect you more if you are not always agreeing with everything they say, want and do. The good news is that it’s possible to be a lover and a fighter. It’s possible to assert yourself and your needs without damaging relationships. It’s all about the approach.
Get to know yourself and your needs first.
Understanding yourself is the first step. The more you can understand yourself and your own needs, the better able you will be to communicate them effectively with others. What is it that you want or need from this interaction? Can you meet this need for yourself, or is it something you need from someone else? Why do you need it? What do you have to do to get this thing that you want? Where does the need come from? Observe and describe your thoughts. Be curious about what you feel and need.
Notice and manage your judgment
Try to observe, but don’t evaluate. Take a non-judgmental stance with yourself, but also with others. Try to detach your opinions from the facts of the situation. Try to see the situation for what it is. And when you find yourself judging, don’t judge your judging! Let go of any vengeance, anger and righteousness that hurts you, and most importantly doesn’t even work! Stay away from thoughts of “right”, “wrong”, “should”, “should not”, “fair” and “unfair”
Preserve the relationship with the other person
Act in such a way so that the other person will still like and respect you. Balance your immediate goals with the good of the long-term relationship. Remind yourself of why maintaining this relationship is important to you, both now and into the future. Ask yourself, how do you want the other person to feel about you after this interaction is over? What do you have to do to keep this relationship intact?
Preserve the relationship with yourself
Respect your own values and beliefs. Act in a way that is in line with your values and that makes you feel moral. Ask yourself how you want to feel about yourself after this interaction is over? What do you have to do to ensure you will feel this way? What will work?
When you are using dialectical thinking, you are embracing the idea that there is always more than one true way to see a situation and more than one true opinion, idea, thought or dream. Two things that seem like (or are) opposites can both be true! Dialectics teaches us that all people have something unique, different, and worthy to teach that and all points of view have both true and false within them. You may be right, but the other person may be right also. Look for what is left out of your understanding of the situation. Open up to expanding your way of seeing things. Avoid assumptions and blaming. Get unstuck from conflicts and stand-offs. Find a way to validate the other person’s point of view. Let go of “black and white” thinking – bring a greater sense of flexibility to the way you see things.
In a conflict situation, it can be helpful to remember the DEARMAN GIVE FAST acronym from Dialectical and Behaviour Therapy (DBT)
Describe: Describe the current situation and what you are reacting to. Just stick to the facts.
Express: Express how you are feeling about the situation.
Assert: Assert yourself, asking clearly for what you want or saying no clearly. Assume that others cannot read your mind. Assume that others will not figure it out themselves unless you ask and don’t expect others to understand how hard it is for you to ask.
Reinforce: Reinforce or reward the person ahead of time by explaining the consequences. Tell them the positive effects of getting what you want or need and tell them the negative effects of not getting it. Show gratitude to that person ahead of time for doing or accepting what you want.
Stay Mindful: Keep your focus on the objective. Maintain your position and don’t be distracted.
Appear confident: Appear effective and competent. Use a confident voice, make eye contact, speak clearly and don’t whisper.
Negotiate: Be willing to give to get. Be willing to compromise and ask for alternative solutions.
Be Gentle: Be gentle, courteous and temperate in your approach. No attacks, no threats, no judging.
Act Interested: Listen to the other person’s point of view, opinions, reasons for saying no, or reasons for making a request of you. Don’t interrupt or talk over them. Be sensitive to the other person’s desire to have the discussion at a later time. Be patient!
Validate: Validate or acknowledge the other person’s feelings, wants, difficulties, and opinions about the situation.
Use an Easy Manner: Use a little humour. Smile. Ease the person along. Be light-hearted. Remember that you will catch more flies with honey than vinegar.
Be Fair: To yourself and the other person.
No Apologies: No overly apologetic behaviour. No apologising for being alive or for making a request at all. No apologising for having an opinion or for disagreeing.
Stick to Values: Stick to your own values!
Be Truthful: Don’t lie, act helpless when you are not, or exaggerate. Don’t make up excuses.
How I deal with conflict: My own journey in forgiveness
In my own life, I don’t always deal with conflict perfectly. I’ve found that using some of the principles from DBT in my own interactions with others has improved my life tenfold. We don’t realise how much negative energy we carry around with us when we are actively engaging in regular conflicts with others. Holding grudges against others is also pointless. Sometimes it means having to be the bigger person to apologise. Apologising doesn’t mean the other person is right, it just means I have more room in my heart for forgiveness, compassion and kindness. And regardless of what someone else has “done” to me, forgiving them creates more space in my life for peace and contentment. No one else is responsible for my life or how I feel. Only I own my own feelings so nobody can “make” me feel a certain way.
I’ve always believed in forgiveness. I was raised that way. I’ve always forgiven people for the hurt they have caused me to feel, no matter how major. The reason for this is because I recognise that other people are not actually responsible for what I feel. Nobody causes another person to hurt. Even if you had killed my entire family, you would still not be responsible for my feelings. The only person responsible for how I feel is me, and in order to be able to move forward after a conflict, I need to claim responsibility for my own feelings and actions. Likewise, I am not responsible for any anger or resentment that other people feel toward me. I am also not responsible for their actions, only they are, and vice versa.
I see my own parents, who’ve been married for 30 years, and the most important lesson I have learned from them is that people make mistakes, and sometimes, those mistakes lead to people hurting as a consequence. Yet, despite all the mistakes in the world, one thing has remained constant, and that is the fact that they care about each other and are able to appreciate each other for their positive and negative attributes. There are probably times when they don’t love each other. In fact, there are probably times when they hate each other too! But, they never stop caring. It’s not about giving people chances… it’s about recognising that everyone is on their own journey in life, and that during that journey, there will be many lessons to learn. Friendships and relationships are about attempting to walk down that journey together. The problem, however, is that in attempting to walk that journey there will still be individual lessons to be learned. Ideally you would want be able to learn from others’ lessons and therefore continue down that journey together… but often the individual lessons become a priority and the path splits into two. However, even when that path splits, there is still opportunity for it to meet at a crossroads again in the future and continue where it left off, but that can only happen if people choose to continue walking down the same path together. Unfortunately, not everyone chooses to do that.
In my life, I have walked down paths with many people, and there have been times when those paths have split and then met at a crossroads again. I have learned a lot about others and myself in going down those paths, and I still have much to learn on my own path in life. I have learned to heal from hurt by finding meaning and making sense of the things that have happened on my journey. It helps me to understand why things have happened the way they have, to learn from it and to forgive myself.
I hope this post has shed some light on your interactions with people and helped you understand that it’s possible to be a lover and a fighter. Feel free to share your thoughts with me!