Deal with conflict directly
Have you ever washed your mouth out with soap? Have. I remember when I was about eight years old. He was standing at our kitchen door, yelling ‘I hate you’ and my mom saying, ‘don’t talk to me like that!’ She grabbed my arm and led me to the sink and held my head while she squirted dishwashing liquid into my mouth.
My mother used to say, “If you can’t say something nice… don’t say anything at all.” Or if she doesn’t like something, she shouldn’t admit it, but be polite and say ‘that’s interesting’. Did someone say something like that to you?
Have you ever held on to your truth for fear of the consequences of speaking out? Or have you ever overreacted, blurting out your feelings and thoughts, and then regretting it? When we grew up, most of us learned to express our feelings and deal with conflict in indirect and unhealthy ways.
I learned early on that if I didn’t want to be threatened with “the belt” or washed out with soap, I had better control my anger or express it less directly: I learned to be smart.
Once, when I was mad at my mom, I hid her favorite necklace in a little pink and white striped china jar in our bathroom. When I heard her yell, “Where’s my necklace?” She secretly glowed. Later, when she was nice to me again, I returned it.
So how do you deal with conflict and express your feelings? What’s the problem anyway? So you could be a bit indirect. So what is the problem?
The big problem is that there is a huge and heavy cost to our unskilled ways of dealing with conflict and our indirect ways of communicating.
When we are dishonest or hyperactive, we undermine our own integrity. We undermine trust in ourselves and we undermine trust in our relationships.
Bestselling author Stephen Covey, in his book ‘The 8th Habit,’ cites a recent Harris survey of 23,000 employees, which found that only 15% of employees felt they worked in a high-trust environment and only 17% He felt that his organization supported open communication.
The bottom line is that we have a global epidemic of mistrust and unhealthy ways of dealing with conflict and communicating.
We see countless examples of unhealthy ways of dealing with conflict in the news all the time: from domestic violence, to alcohol and drug abuse, to bullying, to legal battles like divorce, and of course, major conflict. of all, WAR. Speaking of war, have you ever heard of Victor Frankl? Frankl was a prisoner of war who survived the Nazi concentration camp. He realized that some people survived the camps much better than others… even though they were exposed to similar horrifying experiences. He noted that what differentiated the survivors was their response to what happened. The external circumstances were similar for all, but the key to the strength of the survivors was in their response, in their inner state. Frankl said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space; in that space lies our power to choose our response. In that response lies our growth and freedom.”
So how do you find that growth and freedom to deal with conflict more effectively?
One simple and specific thing you can do is stop and pause throughout the day whenever you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation. Ask yourself, “How does this make me feel? What do I need? How might the other person feel? What might they need?” Taking a moment to be aware of feelings and needs before communicating can help you be more effective, clear, and direct.
For the past 20 years, I have focused on improving my conflict management and communicating more authentically. After years of attending personal development courses, going to therapy, overcoming anorexia and bulimia, reading lots of books and listening to CDs, I think I’m a little better at handling conflict now. I should be!
Recently, I had the opportunity to see how well I could lead by example. Last July, I visited my family in the United States; I hadn’t visited them in two years, and I went shopping with my mother.
Looking at a pants hanger, my mom said to me, “Oh Sally, you shouldn’t wear pants with that flat bottom of yours, we all look terrible in pants, you should stick with skirts.” “And that new boyfriend of yours is a personal trainer,” my mom continued, “can’t he do something with ‘that medium’ of yours?” In a streak now, she added: “And don’t you feel uncomfortable when you run, honey? Have you ever considered breast reduction surgery?”
I felt a familiar sense of shock, and I walked into that moment as a helpless, helpless, and ashamed little girl. Then all my years of training kicked in: I stopped, paused, and asked myself, “How do I feel? What do I need?” and I steeled myself to say:
“Mom, when you made those comments about my body, I felt very hurt. I really want a sense of self worth and I want to be valued, appreciated and accepted for who I am. Please NEVER say those things to me again.”
And you know what? My mom just listened and said, “Okay, I’ll never bring it up again.” And I did not wash my mouth with soap.
So, in summary, when an uncomfortable situation arises, STOP, PAUSE, BREATHE and ask yourself, ‘How am I feeling?’ and ‘What do I need?’ When you can listen to the message of your emotion, you can communicate that feeling and the underlying need to another and, as a result, create a more authentic relationship. More importantly, you will feel aligned within and with a sense of wholeness. By speaking directly, you will begin the process of dissolving the conflict and connecting with yourself, and connecting with the other person as well…a much better result than washing your mouth out with soap!