Communication and Conflict Resolution

Additional Information for Chapter 2, page 21

When college football coach Knut Rockne said “Winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing,”2-6 he parallels the importance of communication in a relationship. To rephrase: Communication isn’t important in a relationship, it is the relationship. Have you ever experienced explaining yourself to a loved one, and, even though they put forth serious effort, you know they didn’t have a clue what you’re talking about? A good marriage can handle only so much of this type of non-comprehension. A couple must be on the same “wavelength” most of the time for their relationship to work well.

The topic of communication in general is so large that it extends beyond our resources to cover any aspect of it in detail. What we do here is identify three books on the topic of communication that we think are exceptional and include a brief description. Then we identify 10 of the most important principles of communication. As we receive and respond to your questions, this (and other sections) may expand as we become more aware of the frequent concerns of our readers.

Perhaps the best book I have encountered is John Gottman’s The Relationship Cure. This entire book deals with the issue of communication, but in many contexts. Only a portion addresses communication in intimate relationships. The basic tenet of the book is that people make “bids” and their partner responds to these bids. Explored in fascinating detail is that bids on the surface may appear to mean something quite different than the intended communication. For instance: If a woman says “you make me sick” to her husband it is unlikely to be a statement of reality. If the statement is taken at face value it means: “I become physically ill when I interact with or think about you.” If the husband were to respond to the actual statement and the apparent meaning, he might say “fortunately not always, cause you look pretty healthy to me right now.” The perceptive husband might think instead “she needs a break from kids, clatter, and chaos. Probably a nice quiet romantic dinner would do the trick.” A perceptive person becomes skilled in reading accurately the bids of his or her partner. It is quite interesting to note the extraordinary diversity of possible statements and meanings. Gottman is nothing short of brilliant in his exploration of this issue.

Another outstanding Gottman book is his earlier The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work. The book is subtitled “A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert.” The title is fitting. Gottman, a former professor at the University of Washington, is one of the few academic psychologists who can talk with equal authority to an academic or popular audience. He is respected in academia for his exhaustive and innovative research and has published hundreds of times in professional journals and scholarly books. But he has also produced books for the general public-easy, practical guides-that I consider the best on the market. This book extends well beyond the topic of “communication,” but interactive skills are described and explored throughout the book. The best chapter with a primary focus on communication is Chapter 10, titled “Overcoming Gridlock.” In this chapter Gottman presents essential principles of successful communication centering on how to ask effective questions and how to listen without defensiveness.

The third book is Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate.2-8 One of the great challenges when counseling couples is to help partners realize that they ‘speak’ different languages; that they think, feel, and perceive differently. Chapman addresses communication within intimate relationships with a particular focus on how to communicate love to your partner. When you finish the book you will have discovered by example the importance of speaking the same language far more effectively than if you had taken a class on communication skills. The only possible caveat is that Chapman writes from an openly Christian perspective and quotes the Bible from time to time in many of his chapters. If you are Christian, this will enhance your pleasure. If you are not, ignore the scriptural references and drop any feelings of irritation. The book is of great practical value with or without the religious tilt. The Five Love Languages has sold over 3 million copies and receives a perfect 5-star rating by readers who expressed their opinions on

Now we overview some of the most important skills associated with positive forms of communication. What follows is a Letterman-style top 10 principles of effective communication-in no particular order.

Top Ten Principles Of Effective Communication

(subject to revision as we process your questions and comments)

1. Discover whether your problems are associated with communication difficulties or compatibility challenges: If you find that you have difficulty communicating with each other, but that your partner in many other settings seems to communicate fluently and effectively, the issue may be incompatibility. A person who has spent his or her life playing Nintendo, shopping, partying, and watching TV may simply have little in common with a philosophy major or someone who has a passion for achievement.

2. Nurture your “love maps”; learn your mate’s frequency: The phrase “nurture your love maps” is taken directly from John Gottman’s work. The idea stems from his finding that successful marriages maintain a 5 to 1 ratio (or better) of positive interactions to negative. Thus, the primary objective in communication enhancement needs to be a focus on nurturing enjoyable interactions rather than resolving difficult ones. For those who are not skilled at this, Gottman provides a number of exercises to assist in the process (in the book Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work). While Gary Chapman’s work on love languages allows you to learn your mate’s language, understand his or her frequencies, and respond to them in ways that maximize the positive interactions.

3. It costs nothing to listen; develop the skill: Steven Covey (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) provides the central principle: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Let your focus be on learning to listen to your partner and learning to ask perceptive questions that encourage him or her to express more completely-to express yourself in a way that lets them know they have been heard. How do you develop these skills? Like most other acquired proficiencies-by reading and practicing. The Gottman and Chapman books (referred to earlier) and Chapter 5 from Covey’s 7-Habits book will assist you in this process. These books will teach you how to listen without defensiveness, without anxiety, and without trying to figure out a quick response.

4. Make “I” statements: When you make “you” statements (“You make me so angry,” “you don’t love me any more,” “you’re so obsessive about your things”) you place yourself in several types of jeopardy. 1) You negatively judge the other person. 2) You make statements about their thoughts, feelings, and reactions that are often wrong. 3) Such comments typically invoke feelings ranging from defensiveness to irritation to outrage in the listener. Making “I” statements avoids these pitfalls: Note alternative wording to the three statements in parentheses above. “I feel angry when you do that,” “I don’t feel loved when you come home late to dinner,” “I worry that perhaps you place too much importance on possessions, do you think my worry is valid?” None of these statements judges your partner, attempts to guess what he or she is thinking or feeling, is a true and accurate statement, and is far less likely to invoke irritation or wrath.

5. Avoid comments that arouse defensiveness or other negative emotions: Remember Gottman’s 5:1 ratio. You need five times as many positive interactions as negative for the relationship to thrive. It doesn’t take long for you to learn your partners “buttons.” You soon know which comments bring pleasure and which launch a wide array of destructive reactions. Criticism, sniping, harshness, and nagging are to be avoided; or better yet, eliminated altogether in the fabric of your daily living.

6. Eliminate the words “Never,” and “Always,” or other forms of character assassination:Character assassination is making comments about your partner that state or imply that there is something fundamentally flawed about his or her makeup. For instance the sentence “You never put your clothes away,” is not only untrue (surely once or twice in his life he has) but implies that it is a character defect that has always been and is likely to remain. Two words that saturate interactions in severely-challenged relationships are “always” and “never.” These two simple words carry with them an array of destructive negatives: 1) they are almost never true, 2) you typically judge your partner negatively when you use such words, 3) they invoke feelings of defensiveness, anger and rage, and 4) it is a form of character assassination. Use these words only if careful thought reveals they are accurate. Instead of “never” use valid alternatives: “rarely,” “infrequently,” or “almost never.” Instead of “always” use “frequently,” “habitually,” “characteristically,” or “often.” Criticism or sarcasm has a similar influence. Ten criticisms a day for a 50-year marriage totals 182,500. It is the rare human who can survive such a barrage.

7. Set a time to discuss sensitive topics; avoid general expressions of negativity: All close relationships contain irritants, frustrations, and sensitivities. Successful marriages maintain an attitude of friendliness and congeniality as the general fabric of their everyday interactions. They save the discussion of irritants which must be addressed for pre-determined times when both partners are prepared to deal with them, or they have learned their partner’s moods and times of receptiveness in such a way that they present these issues in a manner that is not irritating or threatening. A thoughtful gentle startup for sensitive concerns combined with a knowledge of the appropriate time to bring up such topics, is a landmark of good marriages. If you develop the skills before you marry, so much the better. A model of conflict resolution is also presented on this web site.

8. Don’t be afraid to get counseling: We live in a world in which psychologists are all fine and dandy but visiting one carries a certain stigma. If you have an unusual ache in your gizzard does anyone look down on you for seeing a doctor? If your taxes look like scrambled spaghetti does anyone criticize you for going to H&R Block? If your car develops a pain in the udder, are you ostracized for getting a mechanic to help? Why then, if we experience relational difficulties, should we feel stigmatized when we see an expert in that area? I would go one step further. See a counselor as a proactive step (to gain understanding and direction early in the process) rather than as a reactive step (when things are going so badly that resolution is unlikely). Prior to Elizabeth’s and my marriage, we planned to see a counselor on a regular basis during our first transitional year, and did. It gave our marriage a wonderful beginning.

9. Create a problem-solving focus rather than a blame focus: My major professor at UCLA, Seymour Feshbach, conducted a study in which he compared frequency of conflict and mode of resolution between happily married couples and unhappily married couples.2-9 Results found that while the number of conflicts did not differ significantly between the two groups, the couples differed dramatically on their methods of dealing with conflict. The unhappily-married couples tended to focus on each other, to blame each other for the problem, to make frequent use of the “a” word and the “n” word (always and never), to judge and to use character assassination. Defensiveness, irritation and anger marked their heated conversations. By contrast, the happily married couples, in the face of disagreement, tended to focus on the problem, ways to resolve it, and worked cooperatively toward resolution. Go and do thou likewise.

10. Never quit learning: Excellent marriages consider the marriage ceremony to be only the beginning of the learning-to-know-each-other process. This learning doesn’t need to specifically focus on the topic of communication. Focus rather on the broader issue of relationship enhancement. Communication skills will be integrated with other topics so frequently that with the passage of time you will gain excellent training in communication as well. Elizabeth and I spent a full year together reading through the Gottman book. Why so much time? We went slowly and did the exercises. Now we’ve moved on to another book on the topic of relationships.

Conflict Resolution

One does not need to be married to establish excellent conflict-resolution skills. In fact those who have learned to resolve conflict early in the relationship are likely to continue those healthy patterns on into their marriage. There are couples who fight like cats and dogs throughout the course of a relationship. One wonders why anyone would wish to live that way, and the couple who constantly fights often seems oblivious to the ridiculous expenditure of energy. We’re given one lifetime here on earth, why would anyone want to spend it fighting and arguing? In any marriage, conflict will occur and even the most peace-loving couples will have occasional discord but a good marriage can easily survive the occasional conflict. However a relationship characterized by ongoing conflict is difficult to comprehend.

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Additional Resources

Conflict resolution in marriage:

Tips for parents about children and conflict:

Conflict resolution in front of children:

Resolving relational conflict:

A five part series on conflict resolution in marriage:

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