This week, we are continuing my latest series on how to diffuse conflict during crisis. In part 1, we talked about the first three steps suggested by clinical psychologists Chip Tafrate and Howard Kassinove:
- Be aware of your triggers.
- Know how to cool yourself down.
- Examine your beliefs and ask questions.
- Talk it out.
Recap of Beliefs that Feed Anger
In part 1 of this series, we talked about five distorted beliefs that commonly – but unnecessarily – feed our feelings of anger toward others or even ourselves. Here they are again, with five alternatives recommended by Tafrate and Kassinove:
Anger Inducing Belief
Anger Diffusing Belief
To Diffuse Anger, Ask Questions
Here’s a neat mental trick to help transition our thinking from anger-inducing beliefs to anger-diffusing beliefs. When you feel your emotions rising, ask yourself some questions, like:
- Why do I feel angry right now? Why do I feel hurt or insulted?
- What thoughts might I using to feed my anger right now?
- Are these thoughts realistic? Do I really know what’s going on, or am I making some assumptions here?
- Could they realistically be countered with other thoughts that would be more helpful to the situation?
- What do I really want in this situation (in the long term)?
- What’s the healthiest way to get what I want?
These questions can help move both our minds and hearts from the dark side, where our anger may destroy relationships and even our health, over to the light.
Please don’t misunderstand me here. This is not to say that we never have legitimate cause to feel angry. But we will be much healthier and happier if we learn to filter from our lives the times when there is not a legitimate cause, or when thoughts feed our anger so that it becomes way bigger than the offense.
For every minute you remain angry, you give up sixty seconds of peace of mind. Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Now, let’s move to the last step:
Step 4 to Diffuse Anger: Talk it Out (and How NOT to Talk it Out)
The fourth step of diffusing anger is to talk things out. But there’s definitely a right and wrong way to do this. First, let’s talk about what NOT to do.
Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy. Aristotle
Psychologist John Gottman has been studying relationship dynamics for over four decades. He and his wife Julie head the Gottman Institute, which has developed training programs for both personal and professional relationships.
In several research studies of couples, Gottman has used a variety of assessment tools to predict those who were headed for divorce. Nine times out of ten, he turned out to be right.
One of his tools analyzed how couples talked to each other during conflict. There were four communication styles that generally predicted the end of a relationship. And spoiler alert: one of the four turned out to be the worst of all.
Gottman borrowed a biblical metaphor: the four horsemen of the apocalypse. This alludes to the four horsemen in the book of Revelation that precede the end of the world: conquest, war, famine/hunger, and death. The four communication styles that precede the end of the relationship include:
Interestingly for us stress researchers, each communication style parallels a stress defense mechanism. You’ve probably heard that we react to stress by either fighting, fleeing, or freezing. The defense mechanism behind criticism and contempt is “fight;” that behind defensiveness is “flight;” and that behind stonewalling is “freezing.”
How NOT to talk out a conflict: Don’t CRITICIZE.
It’s one thing to voice a complaint or concern in a relationship. It’s quite another to attack someone else’s character or personality at his/her core.
Let’s not pretend not to know the difference. Expressing a concern like, “It upsets me when you leave your socks on the floor,” is not the same as throwing a verbal dart like, “Why do you always leave your socks on the floor? You’re such a slob!" The difference isn’t subtle, and it’s not meant to be.
There are at least three hallmarks of criticism to watch for. The first is using terms like “always” or “never.” The second is the ubiquitous “you” focus – “YOU” are the problem, “YOU” are the source of all my stress, I would be much better off if “YOU” would just clean up your act. The implicit message is, “I” am NOT the problem, “I” am innocent, “I” am better than you. The third is turning a behavior, like not throwing dirty socks in the hamper, into a global personality flaw, like being a slob.
Notice how all three interlock in an aggressive assault: “Why do YOU ALWAYS leave your socks on the floor? YOU’RE SUCH A SLOB!”
The alternative to criticism is to a gentle start. Specifically, this means to stay focused on the current situation and to ask the other to change their behavior in a gentle, respectful way. For example, “Hey, would you mind putting your socks in the hamper instead of leaving them on the floor? I would really appreciate it.”
For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” Galatians 5:14-15 NIV
How NOT to talk out a conflict: Don’t get DEFENSIVE.
Defensiveness is our attempt to duck and cover in a conflict. I’m not talking about expressing legitimate reasons to defend or at least explain our behavior. I’m talking about the slimy, often passive aggressive tactics we use to frame the other person as the bad guy.
This comes in at least two forms: whining (“Poor me for having to deal with big, bad you”) and counter-attacking (“Hey, get off my case! What about all the garbage YOU pull?”).
You look at the bit of sawdust in your friend’s eye. But you pay no attention to the piece of wood in your own eye. How can you say to your friend, ‘Let me take the bit of sawdust out of your eye’? How can you say this while there is a piece of wood in your own eye? You pretender! First take the piece of wood out of your own eye. Then you will be able to see clearly to take the bit of sawdust out of your friend’s eye.” Matthew 7:3-5 NIRV
You may believe you are blameless in the current conflict. And since I don’t know your specific situation, I can’t say one way or the other. But here’s what I do know, based on research and – unfortunately – personal experience. Usually, it takes two people to tango. Conflicts escalate because of blame-shifting, attacks and counter attacks, and defensiveness.
A notable exception would be domestic or child abuse when a defensive posture becomes necessary. In that case, your responsibility is to protect yourself and get out as soon as possible. For more information and support, please contact the National Domestic Abuse hotline (website here).
How NOT to talk out a conflict: Don’t STONEWALL.
“Talk to the hand.”
Have you ever said that to someone else, or had it said to you?
When in conflict, we often give each other cues that we are no longer interested in engaging. Other examples include arm-folding, avoiding eye contact, going silent, or even walking out. To the other person, this feels like they are banging their head against a hard, stone-cold wall.
There is an old German fable about porcupines who need to huddle together for warmth, but are in danger of hurting each other with their spines. When they find the optimum distance to share each other's warmth without putting each other's eyes out, their state of contrived cooperation is called good manners…When you acknowledge other people politely, the signal goes out, ‘I'm here. You're there. I'm staying here. You're staying there. Aren't we both glad we sorted that out?’ When people don't acknowledge each other politely, the lesson from the porcupine fable is unmistakeable. ‘Freeze or get stabbed, mate. It's your choice.’" Lynne Truss
Relationship studies show that during conflict, both parties experience higher physiological arousal including a racing heartbeat, rapid and shallow breathing, high blood pressure, and clenched up muscles.
This Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA) has a serious side effect: It hampers our mental and emotional ability to solve conflict. Emotionally, we may feel overwhelmed and stretched to the breaking point. Parts of the brain involved in careful analysis and decision-making are drowned out by distress calls from other parts of the feeling brain. We develop tunnel vision and tunnel hearing, unable to process what the other person is saying.
This is why, when we fling an accusation like, “Have you even heard a word I’ve said?” at someone, the answer may very well be “No, I haven’t.”
The solution is to learn how to self-soothe our way back out. This is why we talked about how to cooldown techniques in part one of this series.
If a conflict is escalating and you start feeling hot under the collar, consider taking a time-out of at least 20 minutes, longer if needed. Use one of the self-soothing exercises to bring you back down from DPA, slowing your heart and breathing rate and increasing the amount of oxygen reaching the brain.
My dear brothers and sisters, pay attention to what I say. Everyone should be quick to listen. But they should be slow to speak. They should be slow to get angry. Human anger doesn’t produce the holy life God wants.” James 1:19,20 NIRV
VERY IMPORTANT: Please let the other person know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. I’m not talking about a message like, “You’re being so obnoxious right now that I just can’t take it,” or “I don’t have to take your garbage anymore; I’m going for a walk.”
Um, no. Take it from me – one who has made plenty of mistakes in conflict – this backfires bigtime.
What I mean is something like, “We are both obviously upset right now, and I have to confess that I’m starting to feel overwhelmed. Can we take a short break? This will help me think more clearly and focus on our problem better. I suggest we get back together at [give a specific time so the other person knows you are committed to resolving the conflict]. What do you think?”
How NOT to talk out a conflict: Don’t use CONTEMPT.
Remember when I told you that one of the horsemen was much nastier than the others? I’ve saved it for last.
Contempt – feeling and acting like one is better/smarter/kinder/generally superior to someone else – is the number one predictor of divorce.
It manifests in not-so-subtle ways: eye-rolling, heavy sighs, name-calling, sarcasm, patronizing explanations and put-downs. Not only will these escalate rather than resolve conflict; they will poison the relationship until it withers and dies. A contemptuous person may not necessarily be concerned with saving the relationship – rather, they are most often interested in domination and power.
The mindset behind contempt is often the global negativity we talked about in the first part of this series. Have you ever been around someone whom you felt was just waiting for you to trip up so they could call you on it.
Do you like being around people like that? Yeah…I don’t, either.
The way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people's pain. James Baldwin
Don’t kill your relationship with contempt. The healthy alternative involves both a short-term and long-term solution.
Over the short-term (say, in the middle of an argument), focus as much as possible on your own feelings and needs instead of the other person’s. A simple trick to doing this is to use “I” messages instead of “you” messages.
“I felt embarrassed and hurt when you pointed out my mistake in front of others today. It would mean a lot to me if you could do that in private from now on.”
Over the long-term, we need to create a culture of appreciation and respect in our relationships.
Gottman’s research has shown that, even during times of conflict, successful couples keep the tone of conversation positive. For every one negative thing they say or do, they say or do 5 positive things.
You know what that tells me? They had a lot of practice. They are so used to staying on the positive, that they keep it up even during a fight. And indeed, the successful couples’ ratio in everyday life was even higher, something like 15-20 positive interactions for every negative one.
Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not want what belongs to others. It does not brag. It is not proud. It does not dishonor other people. It does not look out for its own interests. It does not easily become angry. It does not keep track of other people’s wrongs. Love is not happy with evil. But it is full of joy when the truth is spoken. It always protects. It always trusts. It always hopes. It never gives up.” I Corinthians 13:4-7 NIRV
Recap of How NOT to talk things out (and what to do instead):
Okay, I think that about covers how NOT to talk things out when we are in conflict. And we've covered a lot of healthy alternatives here. In the next post, we will synthesize these into a simple model to put into practice when we are trying to talk out a conflict.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. Her latest book, Leaving the Shadowland of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, was published in 2020.
After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.