Peopling is hard. I think this is because we all carry our own wounds, history and life lessons while having unique personalities and values. With all those differences, we are destined to run into conflict with our fellow humans. Add to that the fact that our memories are largely flawed (and the gaps are filled in with what makes sense according to what we have learned about the world), which can cause recurring patterns of conflict with those closest to us.
This post is designed to give you some quick tips to improve your communication skills, especially during a conflict. Keep in mind that if you are trying out something new with a person you've been communicating with for a long time, they might notice the difference (and might not like it. Sometimes change = threat). Additionally, you are only half the dynamic and if the other person isn't aware of these skills, communication may not necessarily improve. However, with practice, these communication skills can help us work towards more calm and respectful conflict where mutual understanding, and even solutions, can be reached.
Before we get into the tips, there is something really important to understand.
When we get into an argument/fight, our nervous systems are activated. Your body feels as though you are being threatened or attacked, and it will respond in fight, flight or freeze. (To learn more about this, please visit our post about how the nervous system works here). You can know, love, and trust the person standing in front of you, but if they are criticizing you or asking for something you can't give, your body may suddenly interpret this well-known person and their words as a threat. When this happens, our communication skills fly out the window and our nervous system takes over. This can throw us into old patterns, cause big emotions, flare tempers, or make us want to run away.
Keep that in mind as I explain the following tips, which are all intended to communicate in a way that reduces or prevents the nervous system from hijacking your communication.
Notice What is Happening in your Body
Is this new for you? It was for me too. I used to approach conflict with just my head. I would disregard the growing knot in my stomach, the prickling in my neck, and the urge to flee. This would cause me to respond from a place of activation, as my body tried to alert me with increasing urgency that the conflict felt threatening. Since learning to check in with my body, I am better able to notice the warning signals it is throwing me, which is helpful all by itself. "Oh hey, nervous system. I hear you loud and clear my friend. This is upsetting. And we love this person. And we are safe." Cue deep breath.
Did you know that arguing for lengthy periods of time is not a great idea? Your ability to remain calm, respond with empathy, problem solve and think clearly will diminish the longer you stay in a heightened state of emotion. If you notice yourself feeling very activated, it's better to take a break and reconvene (yes, reconvene) when everyone feels a little more settled. Rule of thumb? Try to stick to 20 minutes or less if the conversation is upsetting. If 20 minutes feels too long, adjust accordingly.
Try "I" Statements
The magical "I" statement! It goes something like this:
I feel __________
I need ___________________.
For example, "I feel unimportant because you are looking at your phone when I'm trying to ask you about your day. I need you to tune in with me."Or, "I feel scared when you raise your voice. I need you to keep your volume lower."
The magic of the "I" statement is it's ability to limit defensiveness. The above statement sounds a lot different than, "Are you kidding? You're on your phone right now when I'm trying to talk to you? Why do you have to be so disrespectful?" Guess which one is more likely to get a positive response from your fellow human? We're trying to connect and understand, not activate nervous systems and go to war. Bring the right tools, and the outcome will be different.
Avoid Extreme Language
Examples of extreme language are words like always, never, constantly, forever, immediately, etc. The problem with extreme language is it presents a clear opportunity to disagree. "What do you mean I never listen? I'm listening right now!" Our systems scan for threatening words like these in a conflict and will be more likely to jump into fight/flight/freeze. The same goes for name-calling and raised voices.
Listen and Reflect
Now we're getting into the advanced skills! This one is particularly tough when we are used to patterns of arguing and defending ourselves. Listening and reflecting uses an entirely different approach that usually defies our immediate urges. The idea is pretty simple: allow the other person to speak their mind without interrupting or defending, and when they have finished expressing themselves, reflect back what you heard. Example: "Okay, I think I'm understanding. You aren't actually mad at me, you are just overwhelmed with life right now. There's a lot on your plate and you need a break. Am I getting it?"
The magic of this skill is that it changes the aim of the conversation from proving our point to trying to understand each other. Same outcome, without the fight. Each person has an opportunity to speak without interruption, gets to hear the other person was listening and trying to understand, and can offer feedback and corrections until they really do feel heard and understood. It's my favorite communication skill, and the foundation of the work I do in couples therapy.
Be Mindful of Body Language
As a final note, try to be mindful of your body language when in conflict. Sometimes we are making aggressive or unfriendly facial expressions we are unaware of. This is yet another opportunity for the other person to interpret your communication as threatening and respond in fight/flight/freeze.
Are you aware of your own triggers when it comes to body language? For example, a raised voice, someone taller standing over you, finger pointing, eye rolling, the other person walking away, sighing, lack of eye contact, heavy footfalls, and closing doors, cabinets or drawers roughly are all common triggers that can shift us from calm communication to feeling threatened. If you are comfortable to do so, it can be helpful to explore triggers with those you are trying to improve your communication with. Once they are identified, we can work on limiting them in our communication and creating a more calm environment.
In a nutshell, communication tends to disintegrate when our nervous systems get involved. When we pick up on threatening cues (such as criticism, extreme language, not feeling heard or understood, or body language), we can unconsciously shift into fight/flight/freeze. Responding in this state typically impacts our ability to empathize, problem solve, and communicate calmly. The above tips are intended to help us learn to regulate our nervous systems during difficult conversations, and learn to be mindful of how our behaviour impacts the nervous system of those we communicate with. Calm conflict tends to be more productive!