Effective Conflict

There are many factors to discuss that lead to effective and skillful communication, especially when it comes to conflict. I will just be focusing on one: having curiosity about the other’s experience and perspective. 

In order to have productive conflict you need to be genuinely curious about the other’s experience. 

But first, in order to be aware of our curiosity or lack thereof, we need to be able to self-sense. Checking in with ourselves, feeling our bodies, feeling our emotions, and being in touch with our gut feelings is a prerequisite. This is a skill that we need to develop and master, and it is all the more difficult in the face of conflict, a disagreement, or any interaction that feels weighted and potentially activating. 

There’s an enormous amount of literature on exactly this topic, ranging from mindfulness meditation, nervous system regulation and embodiment techniques. All are meant to provide greater access to taking a step back, regulating, breathing, feeling your body, feeling your intuition, your instincts and your gut. When you are able to do this well, any interaction you have will go better. For more information on this, Stan Tatkin speaks to this very well from a neurobiological lens in his books, most notably “Wired for Love”. With greater access to sensing yourself, you have more capability to ask yourself, “Am I genuinely curious about this person’s experience or perspective?” 

Coming along with the capacity to ask this question is the capacity to shelve your agenda and your feelings for the time being. We are all challenged to regulate ourselves well enough to be able to compartmentalize anger, frustration, disappointment, or any other emotion we may be feeling in conflict. This is not easy. Assuming you are curious about the other person’s experience, it gets more complicated—but before we get there let’s first talk about when you’re not genuinely curious. 

If you’re not curious about someone else’s experience or perspective then own it. You don’t need to engage in a conflict or argument with that person. If you continue to, It simply will not go well. If you don’t care to know about the other person’s perspective and you continue the dialogue regardless, then it’s likely that you’re either just lashing out, people-pleasing out of some misguided sense of duty or responsibility to that person, or simply overriding your “No” to the conversation for any number of other reasons. Sam Harris in his book “The End of Faith” describes this in slightly different terms. He makes the distinction between having a conversation and having an argument. He states, 

In order to have a conversation you must be open and willing to have your opinion or perspective change. 

If you are not open to changing your mind then you are having an argument. Your opinion or perspective will be more likely to change if you are curious about the other. If you are not curious, your point of view will likely not change. So we must be asking ourselves: “Am I open to this person changing my mind? Am I open to hearing this person and having the conversation potentially change my perspective and my feelings?” 

If you check in, and indeed you are curious and open, then lead from that curiosity first. This will make the other person feel prioritized and it will reflect your investment and care in them. They will feel this. This is how you build trust over time. If my partner or a dear friend constantly asks about my experience, and they do this at the beginning of conflicts, I feel like they really does care about me and my experience. I feel like I can trust them to be open-minded and open-hearted so that what I say and express would impact them; that they would potentially change their perspective. 

I come across this dynamic all the time in my work with clients. Often in conflict we get caught in our own story, our own narrative, our own agenda. So much so that it can be easy to feel like our needs and feelings must be addressed immediately. If we don’t get our needs met now then they never will. If we meet others’ needs then ours will not get met. It can often feel like a tug of war. The internal belief is: If I provide space for your feelings and needs, then mine will be forgotten or dismissed. 

One of the best ways to build trust and intimacy in any relationship, friendship or romantic, is to have genuine curiosity about the others experience. Prioritizing that curiosty is vital when there is a conflict especially early on in that conflict hopefully before either person is to activated. Put this first and the conflict will go better and take less time. This skill will make you a more effective and skillful communicator. 

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