When disagreements arise, it can be difficult to stay connected with the disagreeing person and yet remain true to yourself at the same time. If feels more natural to either blame the other person or to walk away. But if we are to grow into emotional and relational maturity and wellness, we must learn to be able to ask and manage this question in times of conflict:
How can I be fully me and fully us at the same time?
Put it slightly differently: “I want to be true to myself (to be fully me) while I stay connected to you (to remain us), even when we disagree. How can I do that with you?”
I learned this idea from one of my family therapy supervisors many years ago: move from “either/or” thinking to “both/and” thinking.
We often think in “either/or” terms especially when we are caught up in a fight-or-flight mode during a conflict. Being able to engage in “both/and” thinking instead gives us new power for creative collaboration.
How does it work?
Learning to calm our emotions and reach out with the question “how can I be BOTH fully me AND fully us at the same time” can be easy or difficult depending on how much childhood trauma we have experienced. As you read through these ideas and try them out, don’t worry if they feel difficult. Keep trying. If there have been adverse childhood experiences in your life, reach out to a good therapist to help you work through your trauma.
Here are some ideas for both/and possibilities during conflict.
Listening. This is the basic foundation for any good relationship. It is not possible to be recognised for who you are if the other person is not listening to you. And of course, the other person is also not fully recognised if we are not listening to him/her. Listening deeply means stepping into the shoes of the other person, and really hearing them out as they experience themselves. The deepest empathic listening occurs when you can almost feel the other person’s experience as your own. It involves putting aside your own reality while you listen and become immersed in the reality of the other person. To allow the other person to be fully themselves while they are in disagreement with you means to be able to see, feel, and validate their position even as you hold on to your own.
Give and Take. We can’t always achieve fully me and fully us when it comes to splitting up limited resources that we both want. Some give-and-take may be necessary. However, there is a magic to listening that when one party feels heard, sometimes they are willing to give in and be more flexible. It is important to remember that being stuck in either/or conflicts may be more about emotions and perceptions than about actual choices. When our voices are heard and we feel seen and respected, we can still be fully involved with the other even if our way was not the final decision. Being fully me is not always about having things my way, it can simply be about knowing that the other person cares. Sometimes, how much I matter to you is more important than how much I get from you.
Techniques. The importance of listening to one another and having give-and-take in a relationship is pretty standard advice. It’s easy to say, but when actual conflict hits home, it’s much harder to do. Below, I offer a couple of tips and links to help you get started on managing self and relationships — the foundation to living and leading well.
(a) Managing Self. Managing self is primarily about managing negative emotions. We have to learn to stop ourselves from spiralling out of control emotionally and give ourselves the time required to think things through reasonably—considering different angles to an issue—and then making well thought-through choices. A simple way to learn how to manage stress and regulate emotions during conflict is through deep breathing. Here is a helpful introductory video on stress and breathing.
If you have heard of the phrase, “count to 10 before replying,” change that to “count to as high a number as you need while engaging in deep breathing before replying.” It works!
(b) Managing Relationships. Learn how to communicate through disagreements with others effectively. This may involve engaging a coach or relationship therapist to help you and your partner learn how to do it, but once you have learned, you can practise it regularly. An easy method for communicating through disagreements is the Speaker-Listener Technique from the PREP relationship education program (www.prepinc.com). Here is a handout of how it works, and a helpful video which demonstrates it. It may not be easy to do at first (as this funny video shows), but with practice, it can start to feel more natural.
In conclusion, when disagreements arise, it can feel counterintuitive to assert our position and stay connected at the same time. However, practicing can help us to improve. The more diverse our world becomes, the more important it is to learn how to manage difference and be ourselves at the same time. This applies to all relationships: our marriages, our families, and workplace relationships.
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