We have all been there. We begin a meaningful conversation calm, cool and collected and with the best intentions. Then it happens. We are suddenly migrating a verbal minefield. Our heart is racing, face turning red. The other person has, in what seems like the blink of an eye, morphed into the enemy. His or her words are now potential bombs, and it's war.
The deployment of verbal ammo becomes almost compulsive, and it's aimed to render verbal assault. One person blasts the other with, "How can you believe that?" which inevitably invites, "You have got to be kidding me?" Then comes the fourth round of, "You're just not listening" circling back to a third variation of, "You just don't want to understand." Both people part ways spirit-wounded, character-assassinated and with more pain and discomfort than when the well-meaning conversation began. Then it hits. Distance. Loneliness. Perhaps, more anger.
For most people, these types of conversations are relatively rare. Even so, it's helpful to have a few tools in your back pocket for navigating intense conversations. Below is a list of conversational grenades. If you do your best to avoid them, your conversation and relationship may survive and perhaps even grow.
Grenade #1: Believing you have to agree
Why does agreement have to be the goal? Substitute the need for agreement with the desire to understand and be understood. The reality is there are certain topics some people are simply not going to agree on. Conveying your goal is to understand can travel miles in a relationship.
Grenade #2: Using aggressive nonverbal communication
Be mindful of how you are sitting and standing as well as other little nonverbal ways you communicate. Yes, this is to you eye-rollers and cringers. Something to keep in mind is that the other person is likely to mirror your demeanor. If you'd like for them to be open to your thoughts, it can be helpful to set kindness and openness as the precedent. Remember that whole golden rule? It might be time to bring that one back.
John Gottman is a leading researcher in the field of relationship therapy. On his website he describes how "softening your 'start-up'" can contribute to keeping your conversation respectful and calm. He writes, "Arguments often 'start up' because one partner escalates the conflict by making a critical or contemptuous remark. Bringing up problems gently and without blame works much better."
Who says you can't stand by your convictions with kindness? Try saying something like, "I hear you, and I can see what you mean. For me, it's a little different, and here is why…"
Grenade #4: Trying to teach
There's a distinct difference between talking to and talking with a person. Is there anything more frustrating than when someone says, "What you need to understand is…"? The subtext suggests they think they know more and are going to do you the favor of enlightening you. There are more respectful ways to let someone know why you feel differently.
Make a decision from the beginning to treat the person with dignity. You'll get to express your convictions. Have patience as you seek to understand the other person's point of view. Even though you disagree, you are much more likely to maintain the relationship, and perhaps they will return the favor.
Grenade #5: Attacking character
Once the original conversation has taken that sharp turn to the land of criticism—particularly criticism of the person's intelligence or character—it's pretty difficult to get back on track. If you find yourself continually thinking insulting thoughts about the person, you're probably not ready for the conversation anyway. Revisit this topic when you feel like you can approach it out of respect for whom he/she is and where this person is on their own journey.
Grenade #6: Forgetting about time-outs
You do not have to finish the conversation right then and there. In fact, it's pretty unlikely that a particularly charged topic is going to be resolved in one conversation. It's okay to say, "I want to think about this for a bit before I respond," or, "I want to digest some of what you've said. Is it ok if we revisit this next time we get together?"
What's more important? Putting the person in their place or preserving the relationship?
If you find yourself looking for ways to delegitimize the person, just stop. It's not helpful; and, honestly, the person can probably tell that you are fishing for that elusive "smoking gun" statement that will discredit them.
Instead, ask questions. Seek to understand. Remember, you don't have to agree. This person, who you care about, is so much more than this conflict.
Grenade #8: Forgetting that loneliness and feeling misunderstood are horrible
Prioritize the person over the point you are trying to make. A lot of good can come from a statement such as, "I'm so glad we don't have to agree today. I like being someone you can talk to about this." You've accomplished much if you've conveyed to the person that they matter to you. You can remain firm in your convictions while still speaking with love and understanding.
If you choose an approach that reflects openness, curiosity and respect, the relationship can be preserved. And the likelihood of the conversation ending in a firestorm diminishes significantly.
It's okay to have conflict. There is an opportunity for growth, love and understanding in every difficulty. Without a good amount of tension here and there throughout our lives, we wouldn't grow. When conflict shows up we can either attack, avoid or connect. It's my hope that more often than not, we will choose to connect through understanding and supporting one another.
Kristin Marie Bennion, LCSW, is a therapist at Intimate Connections Counseling, LLC, where she treats issues related to intimacy, sexuality, eating disorders, and other relationship and mood concerns. Visit www.intimateconnectionscounseling.com for i