From Conflict to Connection: Turning Breakdowns Into Bridges
Ever since my husband, Keith, and I made the decision to come out of the relationship expert closet, it seems like we just keep getting handed one opportunity after another to demonstrate what we know and practice what we preach. Relationships are easy as long as you keep each one safely contained in its own little comfort box. You know, the one that steers your conversation with your mother away from certain topics so that you can both make nice and get along. Or the one that lets strangers know just enough about you that you don’t really have to let them know you at all.
But what happens when you find yourself in a situation where your comfort cover gets blown? When all-of-a-sudden you realize that while your guard was down, an uninvited guest has somehow made it through your security system undetected? When this unwelcome guest comes in the form of an unpleasant and/or unexpected communication, how do you keep your cool?
As we teach in our book, The Seven Steps to Successful Relationships, interpersonal conflicts tend to stem from simple misunderstandings. Here’s how it works:
These four steps happen so quickly that I am not even aware that they are happening at all. Therefore, I don’t realize that I am reacting, based on my own interpretation, rather than responding to what the person actually said. So what’s the difference between reacting and responding?
The American Heritage Dictionary provides the following definitions:
React 1. To act in response or opposition to some former act or state. 2. To be affected or influenced by circumstances or events. 3. To undergo chemical change.
Respond 1. To reply; answer. 2. To act in return or in answer. 3. To react positively or cooperatively.
The first definition of “react” includes the word “opposition,” which indicates conflict. The second definition - and even the third - indicate a condition that tends to be involuntary or automatic, rather than a conscious choice. The first two definitions of “respond” are more neutral, while the third definition indicates a positive cooperation, rather than conflict. So which do you think is more likely to create successful relationships, a reaction or a response?
Our answer - both. As stated above, our reactions are largely involuntary - we don’t really have a whole lot of control over them, initially. They just come up. It’s important to allow ourselves to have our initial, gut reactions (and often the best place to do this is in the privacy of our own minds, or in a personal journal), then give ourselves some time to calm down, detach from the situation and open to a different perspective.
What Keith and I usually do at this point, is a little bit of investigative work. If the person we received the unpleasant or unexpected communication from is someone we already know well, we simply think about what was going on for this person in his or her life at the time that might have influenced the delivery of the communication. If it’s a stranger, we gather all the information we can about the person to get a better understanding of where he or she might be coming from. In either case, we look closely at the exact words the person used, and instead of sticking with our initial reaction to these words, we seek to gain some insight into what the words meant to the person who said them, and why he or she might have chosen those particular words.
This may sound like a lot of trouble to go to, but when you stop to realize that without this kind of inquiry most miscommunications end up in conflicts that can be ineffective and even quite harmful, it’s really worth the time it takes to understand ourselves, and others, better. Our five-part communication tool, The Format TM - which you will find in Step Five of The Seven Steps to Successful Relationships - helps to make this process simple and, eventually, even automatic.
The important thing to remember is that when someone says something to you - especially if the person seems to be attacking you - the communication is not about you, it is about the person delivering it. If you open your heart, and look at the words with compassion, rather than defensiveness, you’ll see them in a whole different light.
What situations are you currently involved in, where moving from reaction to response could help you improve the relationship? Notice the next time you find yourself in reaction mode, and try something different this time. The results may surprise you.
Successful Communications, Inc.
Los Angeles, California 310-823-2661
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