Dealing with conflict and constructive communication

by Mx Ruby-Rouge

In our everyday lives, we have to deal with conflict; whether it is a simple misunderstanding to a full scale argument between two or more people. We’ve all yelled at someone for doing something we’ve repeatedly asked them not to, and we’ve all been yelled at for doing something we thought we had done right. Some people are great at dealing with conflict; others not so great. We all have formed our own ways of dealing with conflict in our everyday lives, from our parents, from society, from our friendship groups. Sometimes we are just very good at dealing with conflict, and are able to rationally and fairly tackle problems and negotiate solutions. Sometimes we act irrationally, emotionally and aggressively, bull-dozing people whom we consider have caused us a great injustice, and are single-minded in our own rightousness. We’ve all done it, and we all fall foul of it from time to time. The important thing is to recognise if you are likely to act unreasonably, and to take steps to try and avoid that if you can.

For the polyamorous person, the quality of being able to deal effectively with conflict is highly useful and somewhat undervalued. When conflict arises between two people who care about each other, tensions can become high very quickly, when conflict arises between two or more people who care about each other, things can get out of hand very quickly. The key to dealing effectively and constructively with conflict is to know how you deal with conflict, and how the other person deals with it, and working with that knowledge. Knowing how to approach the problem is half the issue; approach someone in the right way, and the problem can sometimes be dealt with very easily. Approach someone the wrong way and a small problem can quickly become huge and turn things very sour indeed. By identifying how you deal with conflict, and taking steps to try and deal with it as constructively and rationally as you can will stand you in good stead for sustaining long, loving relationships where conflict can arise and be dealt with, without lasting resentment or anger between the people involved.

So what kind of things can cause conflict? The simple answer to this is that everything and anything can become a cause of conflict. Repeatedly doing (or not doing) something that your partner has asked you to not do (or do), a miscommunication of needs or wants, a misunderstanding of an agreement, intentional deceit, or breaching a serious relationship rule or agreement. Some of those causes can be fairly minor, such as repeatedly forgetting to put wet towels in the linen basket to be washed, or can be serious such as a breach of safer sex rules. In either event, the way the issue is dealt with can mean the difference between an open, honest, constructive discussion with a good ending, and a heated, vindictive argument where everyone is left unhappy, and the situation is much worse than it was before.

We all deal with issues within our relationships (loving and otherwise) in very specific ways. Some of us act like the proverbial Ostrich, choosing to bury our heads in the sand, and pretend the problem doesn’t exist. We don’t want to speak about it, discuss it, even admit the problem is a problem. Others do the opposite, and act like the Bull in the china shop, going in headfirst, all guns blazing and demand the problem is solved, now and how they want it to be solved, and are quite intimidating to deal with. Then there are those of us who are a bit like the wise old Yoda, who try our hardest to be rational and calm, step back from the situation, and form a clear understanding of what we feel the problem is. We take our time to talk properly to the people involved with the problem, hearing all sides, understanding why people feel the way they do, and try to find a compromise for making things better for the future.

If you nodded to one of those descriptions that fitted you (or one of your partners) the most, you know what I mean. Identifying your own and your partners’ conflict type is a useful way of understanding how arguments can arise, and how you can introduce strategies into your communication to reduce or avoid negative, destructive communication in the future. For example, if you are the Bull and your partner is the Ostrich, you are typically going to find dealing with conflict hard, as the Ostrich will become non-communicative at the aggressive tactics of the Bull. Likewise if you identify more as a Yoda you will be challenged to deal with the non-communication of the Ostrich, or the aggression of the Bull.

There are a few possible options we can try and adopt. The first is to try and identify why you act like your typical conflict type.  If you identify as someone like the Ostrich, who is so afraid of conflict they hide, pretend and avoid it altogether, you need to identify why you are afraid of dealing with conflict. Are you afraid conflict means someone doesn’t love you anymore? Do you have self esteem issues, and think that criticism can’t be constructive? Have you previously had conflict with a Bull, whose aggressive and cutting words hurt you, and made you too scared to try and negotiate through conflict? Identifying the cause of the need to hide from conflict may be the key to getting the Ostrich to remove its head from the sand, and actually deal with the problem. Similarly, the Bull can try and identify why they are so quick to lose their temper, and why their intinct is to be angry. Were they ignored in previous conflicts, and so found the loudest voice gets heard? Identifying the cause behind the short fuse may help the Bull avoid repeatedly locking horns with people.

What if you are the Bull and know you tend to see red quite quickly, shout or otherwise loose your cool, become irrational and emotional, especially at times of stress, and find it difficult to refrain from using personal attacks when dealing with conflict? If your partner is also a Bull, you may find a lot of your discussions quickly turn into heated arguments, raised voices, personal attacks, aggression and even violence. On the other hand, the Bull may get similarly vexed when faced with the apparent cowardice of the Ostrich, or the seemingly indifferent calm of Yoda. The second option available to all conflict types is to know thyself and to be aware of the way you are likely to act in a conflict situation. For example the Bull may know they are likely to become angry, irrational and unreasonable within a few minutes of a discussion. A very good solution here is to take a time out, for all parties to go away and write down the main points they want to discuss and suggestions on how they want to resolve it. Agree to come back when you know you will all be in a calmer, more rational and prepared frame of mind, whether that is thirty minutes, a day or a week. Given some time to prepare their answers, the Ostrich may feel braver about popping their head above the parapet of sand; the Bull may be more able to communicate how they feel and why in a constructive way, and Yoda will be able to deal with all sides on a rational and fair basis. By knowing thyself, and aiming to moderate the extremes of your conflict type, all parties have a much better chance of open, constructive and positive conflict resolution.

The final suggestion is to utilise someone who identifies as a Yoda as an adjudicator. If this is someone all parties trust and respect as a person who is calm, rational, fair and unbiased, this can work wonders for conflict types who can generally bang heads and get no-where. The Yoda can chair the discussion, ensure all sides are heard fairly, suggest time outs if the Bull gets too heated, and encourage the Ostrich to have a louder voice in the proceedings. Whilst involving someone else in a conflict is a heavy thing to ask of someone, it can bring very positive results if they are listened to in the role they have been asked to do.

Dealing with conflict is never easy, even for someone as wise and old as Master Yoda. Yet whatever our conflict type, we can seek to better ourselves as people and partners by aspiring to moderate our excesses, play fair to our loved ones and to communicate openly, honest and rationally. If you can get to the point of admitting you are afraid of being deserted by your lover, or that you can accept you are generally very hot-tempered and need a time out, or that you can sometimes be a little too detached from things, you have taken the first huge step into becoming a better communicator. Being good at communication isn’t just about the hot and heavy discussions at the outset of a relationship of needs, wants, desires and fantasies. It is also about how you deal with the problems, the changes throughout the relationship, the re-negotiations and how to sustain enduring, equal, loving friendships and relationships. We all have a natural communication type, but we also all have the ability to emulate the best of communicators, to strive to do better, and be better.

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