The Simpler The Better For Handling Conflict
Keep It Simple Stupid
The Cat, the Fox, & the Hounds
The fox was bragging to the cat about how smart he is when it comes to evading the hounds that chase both of them. He said he has 7 plans for escaping them; and each plan has 3 or 4 sub-plans.
The cat was impressed, and said, “I have one simple plan. When I hear the sound of the hounds I just climb the nearest tree. The fox scoffed arrogantly. Just then, the sounds of the barking hounds could be heard in the distance. The cat executed his simple plan by finding and then jumping up the nearest tree. The fox became so confused trying to figure out which plan to use, that he was caught by them. The simple organizing principles for the cat enabled it to execute a plan, even when there was intense fear or confusion. The simplest solution when partners are in high conflict is to separate from one another. It’s a simple solution, but it is very hard to do without training, education, and practice. Because, it goes against our human reflexive nature to defend ourselves from emotional disturbances.
The highest organizing principle of engaging a partner who is upset with you is to show with your ‘FIRST WORDS’ that you are taking what your partner is saying seriously. You do this by reflecting in your first words that you see some truth in what is being said about you, that you acknowledge that their thoughts and feelings make some sense, and that you’re willing to make amends. This is know as ‘sweeping my side of the street’ first, before expressing my experience and point of view.
Learn the organizing principles of handling conflict with confidence. There is an elegant simplicity and common sense behind the five agreements and the two skills. In the heat of any argument with your partner you will both appreciate the simplicity of the principles and techniques. The organizing principles of what couples learn in the seminar include safety, listening, and then expressing in that order. This simply means that emotional, mental, and physical safety is the highest priority, followed by listening to the partner’s concerns and finally expressing one’s thoughts and feelings and requests. No one should be listening or expressing when it is emotionally or mentally unsafe. And, the most respectful second step after establishing safety is to be the listener first. Finally, it’s time to express your thoughts and feelings.
There are five foundations of respectful behavior covered by the agreements in the Course:
- I’ll listen to you until you feel done when you ask; and I’ll expect the same from you.
- I’ll spend 20 minutes a week with you to listen to whatever you need me to understand.
- I’ll let you leave the room, if you feel overwhelmed, flooded, scared, or angry.
- I’ll let you define if you feel disrespected by my tone of voice, and I’ll stop when you ask.
- And, I’ll get some professional help if I cannot reasonably follow my agreements with you.
One of the most important concepts of this program is recognizing that when we are physiologically aroused by our hurt, angry, fearful and defensive emotions we can get out of control and end up saying and doing things we don’t mean, yet cannot take back. When we feel defensive the body and mind can only focus on running or fighting. Some people might just call this ‘going nuts,’ or ‘losing it!’ The body produces a hormone called adrenaline, when it feels attacked, that has many effects on the body and the mind. When adrenaline is rushing throughout our bodies we become incapable of having a rational productive conversation. We are in ‘fight or flight’ mode.
When adrenaline is in your bloodstream, it becomes extremely difficult to
care about what your partner is experiencing. The ‘fight or flight’ mode
stays active longer if one feeds the narrative (self-talk) that “I’m a victim.”
Adrenaline and the fight or flight system is designed for physical survival. It gears not only the body but, the mind, for completely focusing on running or fighting. But, the fight or flight system kicks in with emotionally threatening situations as well. Picture yourself sitting quietly enjoying a television program and your partner enters the room with a stern face saying, “Honey, I’d like to talk with you about our relationship.” You know that sensation that starts in the pit of your stomach and expands until your breathing either stops or gets faster and then your heart starts racing like it’s going to beat out of your chest. Your mind becomes solely focused on preparing to defend yourself. That’s adrenaline! This is when people need to have the last word. Or, they need to defend, blame, run away, distract, deceive, or win. Once adrenaline is flowing there is not much room in your mind left for thinking about what other people may be thinking or feeling. There is no room for thinking about what role your behavior has played in the problem.
Under these biological and mental conditions, there’s little chance that you will be trying to understand what your partner’s experience would be like. In other words, adrenaline has now rendered you almost incapable of being responding in a constructive way. In the throes of an adrenaline rush, you are not very sensitive or empathic for your partner. You now have no sense of responsibility and little capacity for empathy; the two most important qualities needed for good conflict resolution. Do you think it’s a good idea to stay in the room when both partners are under the influence of an adrenaline surge? I’ve asked couples before, “Of the last ten times that the arguing became very intense, how many times did it work out great by staying in the room hashing it out?” The answer is usually one or none.
Most of my seminar attendees identify with the insanity of staying in the room, trying to get that last extra point made, even when it is so obvious that the argument is dangerous and no one is listening to the other. Many of them have been that couple, that continue to argue even when it is obvious that it will only get worse. They all agree that they wished there was a remote control button they could push that would guarantee them that they would stop arguing. Please surrender to the concept that there are times when you are out of control and must simply zip your lip and take a Time Out and leave the room. The problem seems to be that each person in a hot conflict is waiting for the partner to stop. The surrender I’m talking about is that I need to stop talking and leave the room. It’s me, who is the problem right now! My heart rate, my mouth, my words, my tone of voice and the look on my face; which is creating more conflict.
A good motto to follow is Let the changes begin with me. You and your partner will begin to trust each other more with every passing day. When your partner trusts that there is always an avenue for talking about his or her thoughts and feelings then there is never a need to interrupt, yell, or argue. When each partner trusts that if someone cannot stay in the room there is an agreement that allows that to happen.
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