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Why Conflicts Go Unresolved

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The Harvard Negotiation Project spent years studying hundreds of conversations in great detail. They discovered that there is an underlying structure to every conversation. It turns out that no matter what the subject is, each conversation has three levels to it:

What Happened

The reason conflicts go unresolved is that the vast majority of couples argue about things at the first two levels (e.g., “You make me so mad when you do that,” “You’re so cold,” “You are all about yourself”). They never get to the real underlying issue: how does this affect your identity?

Take a moment to think about your fights. While you may be very hurt or disappointed by your partner’s actions and are looking for an apology or some sense of understanding, I’d wager that your main goal in a fight is to prove your point, give your partner a piece of your mind, or to try to hurt him or her the way you feel you have been hurt.

And I’ll also bet that these approaches rarely work for you. Instead of feeling better, you end up feeling more angry, hurt and alienated than you did at the start. I guarantee that if you approach your problems by talking about how they impact your identity, your odds of feeling understood and of having a resolution to the conflict will greatly increase.

So, what exactly do I mean by the difference between a “What Happened” level conversation and an “Identity” level conversation? Let’s take a moment to look at each of these levels in some detail. After that, I’ll take you though a step-by-step method to improve your communication

1. The “What Happened”Conversation

On the surface, most conversations involve a disagreement about what has happened, what should happen or what should have happened: Who said what and who did what, and who’s right, who meant what, and who’s to blame?

Not surprisingly, The Harvard Group found that “What Happened” conversations lead to fights when one person thinks the other person is the problem. It’s almost impossible to be in a long-term relationship without thinking that your partner is selfish, naïve, controlling or irrational at one point or another. And as hard as it might be to believe, while you are thinking these things about them, they are usually thinking the same things about you.

One reason we have this tendency goes back to the way our old friend the brain processes things. Remember that our previous experiences cause each of us to notice different things. The reason that ten people can see a car accident and come up with ten different versions of what happened is that our personal experiences cause our brains to focus in on different aspects of an event. The same thing holds true for conversations – some of us pay more attention to feelings and relationships, some focus on status and power, while others hew to fact and logic.

A second reason this bias occurs also goes back to stinking thinking: we all have implicit rules for the way we think things should work or what is right or wrong, and these affect the details we note about what happened or the person we are talking to. As we saw before, these biases influence our way of thinking and reacting to just about everything that happens in our lives.

The point is this: difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right. Conversations about things that really matter to you never get resolved if they stay at the “What Happened” level, because they are about really about conflicting perceptions, interpretations, and values. They are not about what a contract states, they are about what a contract means. They are not about which childrearing book is most popular; they are about which child-rearing book we should follow.

Effective communication is not about finding out what is true, it’s about understanding and agreeing on what is important.  To do so you need to have a deeper sense of things than simply what happened; you need to understand your feelings and the feelings of your partner, and each of you needs to understand how it affects the other’s and his or her own identity.

2. The Feelings Conversation

Every difficult conversation involves feelings. Are my feelings valid? Are they appropriate? Should I acknowledge or deny them? What do I do about my partner’s feelings? What if my partner is angry or hurt?

In the presence of strong feelings, many of us work hard to stay rational. Getting too deep into feelings is messy – it just clouds good judgment, and in some contexts, e.g., at work – can seem just plain inappropriate.

In relationships, bringing up feelings can also be scary or uncomfortable, and can make you feel vulnerable. After all, what if my partner dismisses your feelings or uses them against you? Or takes your feelings to heart in a way that wounds him or her or irrevocably damages the relationship? And once you’ve gotten your feelings off your chest, it’s your partner’s turn. Do you really want to deal with h is or her anger and pain?

Risky, risky, risky. Much better to stay out of this feelings stuff altogether and stick to “business.” Or is it?

The problem with this reasoning yet again goes back to our brains: We like to think that the rational guy up in the frontal lobes is in charge, but more often than not it’s the other guy shoveling coal in our emotional brain who is really powering the engine. Difficult conversations do not just involve feelings: they are at their very core about feelings.

Think back on some of your own difficult conversations. What feelings were involved? Hurt or anger? Disappointment, shame, confusion? Did you feel treated unfairly or without respect? For some of us, even saying ‘I love you” or “I’m proud of you” can feel risky.

Understanding feelings, talking about feelings, managing feelings – these are among the greatest challenges of being human. There is nothing that will make dealing with feelings easy and risk free. On the other hand, not dealing with them in a skilled fashion doesn’t seem to have served you very well either, or you probably wouldn’t be reading this book.  Maybe feelings are worth revisiting after all.

Of course, it doesn’t always make sense to discuss feelings. As the saying goes, sometimes you should let sleeping dogs lie. But not being aware of the impact your feelings are having on a conversation or the impact someone else’s feelings may be having on your feelings can cause you to react in ways that will come back to haunt you in the end.

Three Things to Keep in Mind About Feelings:

  1. Accept that they are normal and natural – no way around it, God or Mother Nature just built us that way.
  2. Accept that your partner’s feelings are as important as yours – the more effort you make to understand how someone else is feeling, the more likely it is that they will do the same for you. Most of us approach conversations with the goal of making our feelings or point known. The paradox is that you are much more likely to be heard when you make it your first goal to understand the other person. Think back on a time when someone really seemed to be making an effort to understand you. Didn’t that calm you and make you more likely to listen to them? Contrast that with a time that someone didn’t care about what you had to say and only wanted to make a point. How did that leave you feeling? How much did you want to try to hear his or her point of view?
  3. Good people can have feelings that you might not like or agree with – Try not to label someone just because they feel differently about something than you do. Couples in particular seem to fall into this trap. This bears repeating because it is important – work towards understanding that people will feel differently about a situation based on their own history and background. Once you are able to take yourself out of the picture and try to see the world through their eyes, they won’t seem so crazy or threatening, and you will find yourself instantly and effortlessly calming down.

3. The Identity (Aka “What Does This Say About Me?”) Conversation

Here we’re getting to the real heart of things. At core, every important conversation is about your identity. It’s all about who you are, how you see yourself and how you want others to see you. How does what happened affect my self-esteem, my self-image, my sense of who I am in the world? What impact will it have on my future?

You get into a fight with your wife about making Monday night poker night, and you may think to yourself ‘’I’m just trying to play some poker, what does that have to do with my identity? She’s just trying to control me by saying no.”

In fact, any time a conversation feels difficult, it is in part precisely because it is about you. It’s like an iceberg, the 10% above the surface is about poker, but the 90% underneath the surface has to do with both parties’ senses of identity. That’s what seems like a simple issue can turn into a major fight.

On the surface you are talking about poker night, but underneath it may represent a sense of freedom from the responsibilities of everyday life. Or it may be a chance to feel like a man. To your wife it may be because she feels unimportant to you and this is just another night away from her.

Asking for a raise? What if you get turned down? In fact, what if your boss gives you good reasons for turning you down? On the surface it’s about money, but it feels so important because it is also about how valuable you are.

By definition, just being in a relationship is a challenge to your identity. To be with someone, you sometimes need to give up a portion of yourself. But how much do you have to give up and how much do you get to keep? This is constantly changing depending on the situation, and the big fights – the ones that never go away – are really about an issue in which both of your identities are threatened. Even though you may not be fully aware of it, you are literally fighting to keep your sense of self.

How to Recognizing if You Are Fighting Over an Identity Issue:

There are 4 signs on the “What Happened” and “Emotional” levels that are indications that you are fighting about an “Identity” issue:

1)    Here We Go Again
When you have the same fight over and over again almost to the point of it being like a scripted play in which both of you know your roles and your lines, the odds are that you are fight about an identity issue.  This never-ending spiral can leave you feeling both hopeless and increasingly disconnected from your partner. Why can’t she or he just agree with me on this? Its obvious that I’m right, why can he or she see that?

2)    “Small” Things Become Major Blowouts
Sometimes the hugest fights seem to come out of very small things like which way the toilet paper goes or who’s turn it is to walk the dog. On the surface it seems as if it’s about small stuff, but people never fight about small stuff, they fight about what the small stuff represents to them on an identity level. So, while it may seem like it’s about which way the toilet paper roll goes, it may actually be territorial: making your home feel like it’s your home.

3)    Scorekeeping
“I always do this,” “You never do what I ask,” “I can’t believe how many times I have to put up with this,” “This is just like the time you did this….and that…and this…and that” – these are all examples of scorekeeping and are usual reflective of an identity issue. It could be that you don’t feel valued, or you feel powerless, or any of a number of other identity issues. While scorekeeping can help you to feel like you are bolstering your argument, all you are really doing is going through a list in your mind of what a disappointment your relationship and your partner is to you. Has this tactic ever worked for you? Chances are all that happens is that your partner becomes even more adamant about his  or her position and doesn’t do what you are demanding, and you end up feeling far more angry and frustrated than you were to start with.

4)    Dodge Ball
Are there topics that you find yourselves dodging because they are just too hot to touch? Sex (or the lack thereof) is one of the most commonly avoided topics, but it can be about money, religion, exes, or pretty much anything. Dodge Ball often represents the most dangerous of identity issues defenses, because at core it’s often about acceptance of who you are as a person on a fundamental level. Sometimes you may feel ashamed about yourself, or maybe at some point in the past your partner made a disparaging comment about whatever the issue is. Dodge Ball is literally the lump under the rug that keeps you from feeling fully connected to someone.

If these patterns sound familiar to you and you find it difficult to break the pattern please contact me at 240-485-6053 or  My over 25 years of experience can help you find new and more constructive ways of communicating.

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