Show me a happy relationship, friendship or romantic, and I will show you two parties proficient at conflict resolution.
These days however, we live in societies that expect perfect relationships where we understand each other well enough that there is never any conflict; this utopian dream is at best a fantasy. As long as there is communication between parties, conflict is more or less an inescapable reality. What we then ask ourselves is what causes conflicts and how it can be managed.
Simply speaking, conflict is what happens when the flow of communication is met with resistance. This happens when both parties hold opposing ideas, or when they simply cannot understand each other. Sometimes they are blind to making the same point or don't realise certain meanings are lost in translation. All these lead to a breakdown in communication.
Regardless of the nature of the conflict, it all comes back to a problem of the parties involved feeling misunderstood. Alluding to the way we have been trained in arguments and rhetoric, the need to be right often eclipse the need to engage in open communication. Once this mindset is activated, rather than trying to understand where the other party is coming from, we focus on trying to show them the errors in their logic as we perceive it.
While this makes for good televised debate, it makes for terrible conflict resolution in real human relationships. The mindset that seeks only to validate the speaker’s truth automatically seeks to invalidate the listening party, and this only widens the gap in communication. If you have ever found yourself waiting for someone to finish a point just so you can counter it, then you can appreciate just how stifling this common attitude can be to resolving conflicts.
This brings the old quote to mind: seek first to understand before seeking to be understood.
Watch a succinct video from The School of Life on the difficulties with language and it's barriers in communication:
On a more visceral level, especially in romantic situations, we often fall prey of making the assumption that our lovers should possess some inherent ability to decipher what we mean— even when we have not communicated it expressly.
A typical example is when we are asked if we are okay and we answer in the affirmative but want to be prodded on before we express how we truly feel. Sometimes we require this prodding just because it communicates that our partner truly cares for us. We expect our partner to understand the meaning in our silence and end up getting even more upset when they don’t.
Other times, perhaps, one person believes in capital punishment and the other doesn’t. Conflict arise because we have certain standards of expectations for our partners and when they do not meet this, we cannot comprehend that such differences in opinions can exist between us.
Understanding firstly that friction in communication is a normal part of all human interaction helps us sit in a better position when confronted by this reality. As people, we hold both contradictory and paradoxical opinions that we aren’t even aware of, and language for all its usefulness still remains a limited tool in communication. Surprisingly, couples with language barriers argue less because when faced with conflict, they aren’t bogged down by schematics or the need to use language to corner each other.
Instead, they do what we should all be doing; they try to decipher what is meant and not what is said. In this position, both parties are welcome to truly express how they feel without the other making assumptions based on the use of language.
As a rule of thumb, in every situation of conflict, it is advisable to apportion some blame to yourself from the beginning. This allows lesser aggression as opposed to considering yourself completely in the right as we are often tempted to.
It also helps to understand that our partners are not experts at expressing themselves and we are not experts at interpreting them either.
For example, your partner may say “you’re always asking for money” but they really just mean that they are low on cash. It is shrouded in the uttered statement because they don’t know how best to say it without feeling ashamed.
In this instance, you might try to point out how you haven’t asked for a penny in three weeks and only needed a thousand naira for an Uber. While that will be logically consistent, it might do very little to resolve the conflict. By becoming more emphatic and training ourselves to listen better while also trying to communicate in clearer terms, we can begin to pave the way for better conflict resolution. Learning how not to take statements from our partners as direct attacks on us goes a long way in preventing arguments from spiraling into battles of perspectives.
It is also important to note that conflict resolution like any other skill requires time and practice to hone. So don't be in a rush to get it mastered. After every fight, there is victory in lessons learned.
Being generously emphatic with our partners isn't the easiest thing to do; here is an ode to a less practiced act of understanding: