Reflect back on the last time you needed to have a difficult conversation with a partner or coworker or whomever. Let me guess… you busied yourself with everything but that conversation for a couple days, though it kept taking up space in your head. Then you sent the person on the other end of all of these thoughts an email or text about it. This went back and forth for awhile, possibly leaving you steps behind where you started. Then you began talking to friends about how annoying it was that this other person wouldn’t just talk to you about it. The Avoid Dance aka avoidance. Yeah, I’ve been there too. Plenty.
In my experience, a lot of folks will say something about themselves like “I don’t have trouble talking to someone direct if I need to,” or “Yeah they can talk to me straight if they got something to say,” yet the reality is that most of us are scared pantyless of either of these scenarios and will scale the Great Wall of China to avoid them.
Talking to someone directly about a point of contention is so difficult because we have not learned how to fight fair, remain vulnerable during confrontation, or depersonalize the situation as it is happening.
Evolutionarily it makes sense. We think we are being attacked so we begin using the most primordial part of our brain—the brain stem and sympathetic nervous system, which helps manage our fight or flight response—instead of the rational frontal lobe. When this perceived attack is happening, our heart rate goes up, adrenaline floods our system, and numerous other functions of the autonomic nervous system go into hyperdrive. Our body is preparing for the caveman or animal in question to either take our dinner or make us dinner. But in case you haven’t pulled out a calendar in a while, this is not the time we live in anymore. Trouble is our biological development has not caught up with this fact, and we do not learn basic conflict resolution skills alongside our algebraic equations even though the former is a far more essential life skill.
Disagreeing and fighting about something is perfectly normal and healthy given the myriad of perspectives and experiences each of us come from, the key is doing so in a way that preserves the relationship in question and helps us get what we want. More conflict, misunderstandings, tension, and battle wounds are not what we want, yet almost always the product of the Avoid Dance. “Can I just take a pill or get a special iDevice that will fix this?” Not exactly. Stepping out of the Avoid Dance and into effective conflict resolution is a muscle that is severely underdeveloped in our society, so beefing it up will take practice. The good news is there are several places you can begin your workout.
When there is an issue with someone practice the following three steps, first by yourself then with this other person:
1. Name the problem in a sentence. Resist the urge to accuse them of anything here.
2. Say “I feel…” then put a feeling after it.
3. Say “I need…” then let the person know what you need from them.
For example, let’s say that someone in your life offended you recently. Typically our brain stem kicks into gear when we see them and we say something like, “That was a real jerk thing to say when we were talking the other day.” They feel attacked and defensive and start using their brain stem to begin hurling accusations and maybe even insults back your way. (Sound like fun? Hell no. So it’s no wonder we don’t want to work out this muscle very often.)
Try this instead:
1. “I was offended the other day by the conversation we had.”
2. “I feel hurt and sad.”
3. “I need to understand where you were coming from and if you meant to be offensive.”
If you can maintain a sense of vulnerability in this conversation instead of being aggressive, I would guess you will be surprised at how much different the person’s response is than it was in the “You’re a jerk” from Scenario 1. Using these three steps is an incredibly challenging practice that takes exactly that—practice—so don’t be surprise if it feels difficult or weird the first several times.
You might do some practice runs of pretend scenarios with someone you trust or consider joining a group like the Better Relationships Group that I facilitate, that helps members learn among other things, effective conflict resolution skills. One final bee in your bonnet is to see if you can depersonalize the conversation. For example, imagine that the person you are talking with did not actually mean to be a jerk, they were just having a rough day and you caught a stray bullet. Thoughts? Leave them in the comment section below or share your thoughts with me. Good luck.
Jeremi McManus, founder of SF Relationship Coaching & Psychotherapy, is a Relationship Coach and Psychotherapist who works with people who want more fulfilling and satisfying relationships. His own challenges in dating and relating were instrumental in leading him into this field, so if you feel like you could use some perspective, he’d love to hear from you. Jeremi is a licensed MFT and delighted to call San Francisco home.