Communication in Conflict

Sometimes we find ourselves in the midst of a disagreement that quickly degrades into an argument, or even a fight. How does this happen? Why is it that we so often find ourselves in these situations where we feel like our words are falling on deaf ears, where all we say seems to worsen the situation?

One thing that we all have a tendency to do is to put our guards up when we feel challenged. Most of us don’t even realize we’re doing it, but we notice when others do it. You say something, and suddenly the person is on the defensive; they’re arguing with you, and you don’t even know why. There must be a misunderstanding. So you try to clarify. And the arguing continues. You start to get frustrated. Now it’s a confrontation.

Somewhere in there, your guard went up, too. They weren’t hearing you, it’s true; having your guard up puts you into a position where you try desperately to be heard, and stop listening – or, at least, you stop making it known that you are listening. With both people on the defensive, both people also focus on trying to clarify their own position, hoping that, if they can only be clear, the disagreement will abate.

But that isn’t how arguments are defused.

All we want is to know that we are being heard. But when tempers are running high, that is a difficult thing to achieve. You have to pay close attention to yourself. If you find yourself getting tense, if you feel you are under attack or being misunderstood, remind yourself that the other person probably feels exactly the same way, and needs a kind word as much as you do. If you can do that, you might even be able to do the hardest – and most important – thing: let them know you hear them.

Now, making this clear takes more than simply saying “I hear what you’re saying.” You need to demonstrate that you’ve been listening by paraphrasing. This is an amazingly valuable tool that anyone can use – and nearly no one ever does. The key is to think about what the other person has said, then say it back to them the way you would say it yourself. If you find yourself in an especially heated debate, you can preface it with “Let me make sure I’m understanding you,” or follow it with a confirmation question, which could be as simple as, “right?”

For some discussions, it may be necessary to abandon being heard altogether for a time. Until and unless the other person visibly relaxes, it is unlikely that they’ll hear your side. If you can really focus on hearing them out completely, you will probably be pleasantly surprised. You may find you didn’t understand them as well initially as you had thought, and clear up a misunderstanding of your own; you may find that, once they feel heard, they are willing, maybe even eager, to hear your side.

No matter what the outcome, you will be practicing something that takes a lot of courage: self-reflection. So even if you don’t manage to resolve the argument right away, give yourself a pat on the back for being self-aware enough to recognize you were on the defensive.


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