I’m sure you’re familiar with the old saying, “It takes two to tango.” In a marriage relationship, it’s easy to allow even the smallest of matters to grow into heated arguments. Whether it’s forgetting to do something that was important like leaving the toilet seat up, squeezing the toothpaste from the middle instead of the bottom, arguing over which direction the toilet paper is supposed to go, or how each other drives a car. The list is endless on how little things can escalate into big things that call for the boxing ring announcer Michael Buffer to say in his famous voice, “Let’s get ready to rumble!”
The truth is that conflict in any relationship is inevitable. The issue is how we choose to respond.
According to marriage and family counselor Dr. John Gottman, a true expert in this field, 69 percent of marriage conflicts never are solved. Yes, 69 percent! That means we often are having the same fight over and over again.
This is actually good news. Why? If we have similarities or patterns to our fights, it means a) we are not alone and b) we can study, predict and course-correct our arguments before they explode. The question is, “How?”
How can you turn conflict into an opportunity for growth, understanding and intimacy? Before I share with you a framework that can help you handle conflict in a positive, healthy way, it’s important to understand the five levels of communication. Dr. Gary Smalley points out a predictable pattern that goes like this…
Five Levels of Communication
- Clichés: This is basic, routine comments that are safe: “How was your day?”
- Facts: “It’s supposed to rain today. Baseball practice is at 5:30.”
- Opinions: This where most conflict happens … we state our opinions about issues like money, sex, in-laws, raising kids, etc., that turn into arguments.
- Feelings: This is where we share our feelings with each other: “I was hurt when you said…” or, “You made me feel … when you forgot.”
- Needs: This is where we say, “I just need you to hold me or support me … I need you to encourage me or show appreciation for me.”
As you can see from these five levels, it is at level three that we experience the make-or-break point in our communication. It’s when we voice our opinions toward each other or situations that can turn into heated arguments and divide rather than unite one another.
We have to keep in mind that all conflict is a result of unrealistic, uncommunicated, unmet or unfulfilled expectations. The next time you find yourself in a level three place of communication in your marriage, with your kids, or with someone at work, consider these six steps to help you get a H.A.N.D.L.E. on the conflict before it gets a handle on you.
Hold Your Temper:
Before you fly off the handle by expressing your anger in an unhealthy, unproductive way, hold your tongue and stay calm.
Admit Your Anger:
This is a good place to help your spouse or child understand why you’re upset and what they did to upset, disappoint or offend you. It’s important to admit your feelings rather than stuff them or allow them to explode on the other person.
No Judgment Allowed:
One word that will cause conflict every time is when a statement starts with the word “you.” “You always…” or, “You never…” or, “You should have.” Those statements can cause us to be put on the defensive when we feel blamed or accused of something.
Deal With the Facts:
It’s easy to assume that we know what the other person is thinking or feeling. We can also go “historical” in moments of conflict where we bring up the past. It’s important to deal with the facts at hand so that the argument doesn’t create more hurt or misunderstanding.
We have to remember we have two ears and one mouth. Simply put, we have to shut our mouths and listen to what the other person is trying to say. It’s easy to hear what someone says without listening to what they’re actually saying. Just like going through a drive-through window and placing an order, we need to practice “drive-through” listening. Listen and repeat what you think you heard.
Let the dust settle and learn from our mistakes. Identify root problems that will allow us to grow in our communication and relationships. Are we going to let it drive us closer together or further apart? Unite us or divide us? Make us bitter or make us better?
Rodney Gage is a family coach, author, speaker and the founding pastor of ReThink Life Church that meets at Lake Nona High School. His passion is to help families stop the drift and start living with greater intention. To learn more, check out familyshift.com and rethinklife.com.