I don't even remember what the disagreement was about, but I do remember that it wasn't pleasant. My wife felt strongly about her perspective and I felt strongly about mine. We did the usual disagreement dance that most couples have perfected. I tried to help her see that I was right and she tried to help me see that she was right.
When was the last time you were in that kind of situation? Yesterday? Last week? What did it feel like? Did it end on a positive note or a negative note? How did you feel? Were you drained and discouraged or did you part feeling understood and encouraged? Well, back to my story.
Right in the middle of our argument, my wife played a dirty trick on me. In mid-stream she changed strategies. Instead of trying to convince me of how right she was and how wrong I was she started to really listen to me. Then she began asking a few questions to help her better understand what I meant. She stopped reacting to how I was talking and focused her attention on trying to understand what I was talking about.
What does it feel like when you know someone is listening to you? When you know that, while they may disagree with you, they are sincerely trying to understand you? As my wife and I continued to talk I felt my frustration and defensiveness disappear. I found myself wanting to understand her position. I began asking her questions. I stopped reacting to how she was talking and began responding to what she was talking about.
While this conversation took place many years ago, it transformed the way we deal with conflict. This week I continue the 7th “key” to building strong families: Understand the value of healthy conflict resolution. Conflict is one of the uglies of life. Most couples don't “do” conflict very well. None of us enjoy it. Most of us will do whatever we can to avoid it.
In over 30 years of working with couples and families I've noticed that relationally healthy people don't avoid, suppress, repress, deny, or ignore conflict. They see it as an opportunity to listen, understand and grow. Once we change how we see conflict it becomes easier for us to exchange our defensive and combative posture for a creative one.
No one wins in a world where we don't speak the truth in love, where conflict is denied or avoided. No one grows where the truth is absent, where no one is pushed to be and do the best. Without conflict we remain relatively shallow. Intimacy can never develop. You will never become all that God has made you to be. The next time you are engaged in a conflict keep these seven principles in mind.
Seven Principles about Conflict
- Conflict is inevitable. An occupational hazard of being human is that if you are in any relationship for any length of time you will experience conflict.
- Most conflict isn't dealt with in healthy ways because most of us don't know how. When faced with conflict we personalize it, interpret it as an attack or see only one solution . . . ours.
- Healthy conflict provides opportunities for growth and intimacy.
- Unresolved conflicts interfere with growth and satisfying relationships. Problems don't magically disappear. They go underground and grow into other problems. The more you deny, hide from, overlook, and avoid conflict the greater the problem will become.
- Conflict isn't good or bad, right or wrong . . . conflict simply is. It is how we choose to respond to conflict that creates the problem or produces the growth.
- Constructive conflict involves a commitment to serve, encourage and be vulnerable to one another.
- Constructive conflict involves a commitment to stop, look and listen, then, maybe, speak.
The biggest mistake couples and parents make when dealing with conflict is the same mistake I made in my conflict with my wife. We try to show the other person where THEY are wrong and WE are right. How many times in your life has that helped?
The next time conflict stares you in the face try these three simple steps.
Step #1: First of all, make your primary goal to understand the other person. Take a few minutes to acknowledge, discuss and define the conflict and then listen. Proverbs 17:27, 28 says that, “He who restrains his words has knowledge, And he who has a cool spirit is a person of understanding. Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise.”
Step #2: Ask yourself, “What is MY contribution to the problem?” Most of us find it easier to identify the other person's contribution to the problem, how “they” need to change and what “they” could do different, rather than our own.
Step #3: Commit yourself to understand what the issue looks like through their eyes. Proverbs 25:12 tells us that, “It is a badge of honor to accept valid criticism.” Listen to what the other person has to say. Even if you think that 90% of what they're saying isn't valid, listen for the 10% that might be true. Look for even the 1% that God could use in your life to help you deepen and mature.
Proverbs 12:18 tells us that, “The tongue of the wise brings healing.” If you'd like to learn more about healthy conflict, read chapter 10 of How To Bring Out The Best In Your Spouse by H. Norman Wright and myself AND take some time to study the book of Proverbs. You'll be amazed at how much practical wisdom and insight is in this little book.