5 techniques to navigate conflicts
An inability to express ourselves and communicate our needs in a way that does not give rise to a defensive response, can cause us so much frustration. We may even at times think to ourselves or say to the other person – “Well that’s just how I say things. Perhaps you should grow a thicker skin.”. Or we may think that communication comes naturally to some and we’re simply not one of those people. But you see, as British composer John Powell explained – “Communication works for those who work at it.” It’s an ongoing process and it’s a skill that despite not coming naturally, can become second nature to you if you put in the effort.
Hopefully I have managed to convince you that communicating effectively is not only a skill that you wish to have, but one that you can indeed have. Here are five techniques for you to get started.
1. Develop “inner listening”
The art of effective communication with others starts with our ability to listen to ourselves. When we talk to other people, everything they say triggers reactions within ourselves. Only when we learn to listen to our own reactions, we can really begin to hear what the other person has to say. By acknowledging and gently setting aside our own feelings in the moment, we can distinguish what the person is really saying from what it can seem to us that they are saying.
You can practise the skill of “inner listening” on your own by asking yourself more frequently during the day – "How am I feeling in my body right now? What feelings am I aware of?". When you notice you're having a feeling or a sensation, welcome it – "Hello. I know you're there. How are you?”. This may seem ridiculous, but it's actually a powerful technique which can provide you with so much clarity in the moment. As Dutch philosopher Baruch Espinoza explained – “Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.”
2. Listen with non-judgemental curiosity
Once you’ve started to listen to your own reactions without judgement, apply the same non-judgemental curiosity to the things that the other person is saying. What if by listening to them you’re going to learn something new? That something may come from what they’re saying or from how you’re listening to them.
If the things they are saying feel too hurtful and you’re unable to set them aside in the moment, don’t feel bad. Simply acknowledge that and ask the other person gently to park the discussion. You may even share how you’re feeling – “I’m aware of something that feels hurt within me as you’re talking. I’d like to let that feeling soften, so I can really listen to you.”
3. Choose to hear needs over criticism
Most arguments and conflicts arise from the fact that when one person expresses their needs, the other person gets offended. They become reactive as they feel criticised.
When you start feeling criticised or attacked, take a deep breath and focus on your breathing for a few seconds. Then remind yourself that the person you’re speaking to is most likely trying to express their needs and finding it very challenging. Their primary intention is likely not to make you feel bad or criticise you, but ask you to help them fulfil their needs, values or desires. While you may be unable to do so, you won’t know unless you listen to them.
4. Ask open-ended questions
Try to steer away from asking yes/no questions such as “So, does this mean that you can’t stand me when I do this?”. Same goes for questions leading to a conclusion you have already made for yourself – “Don’t you think what you’re saying is a bit unfair?”.
Instead use curious open-ended questions with a friendly tone, such as – “How does that make you feel?”, “What could be the reason that you’re feeling this way?”, “I wonder what I could do to make this less challenging?”.
5. Cultivate patience in discussions
As Pema Chödrön, American Tibetan Buddhist, explained – when we argue “everyone is naturally going to want some kind of resolution to this edgy, moody energy. And there isn’t any. The only resolution is temporary and just causes more suffering.”
So instead of striking out and hitting back the other person with hurtful words, try to the best of your ability to be patient in the moment. Firstly, acknowledge for yourself that you’re feeling hurt – don’t ignore it. Then, remind yourself that when we feel hurt, we crave that immediate resolution, but that there isn’t any. Finally, give yourself a moment to gently park the painful feeling, knowing that there will likely be another time to address it.
Now let’s assume that you’ve done your best, but the discussion has still escalated. You may have even said things you’re not proud of. What are you likely to do? You may be inclined to beat yourself up and feel like an awful person. Is it helpful? You know it isn’t! Instead remind yourself that your reaction was a result of your primal instinct to defend yourself when you saw yourself being under threat – an evolutionary response that is so ingrained in us. There is no doubt that we can learn to “self-regulate” our instinctive responses, however like any skill it requires repeated practice. Be kind to yourself and give it another try.