closeup of hands clenched into fists

How do you effectively navigate a disagreement?

As a mediator, couples come to me when their avenues of communication have completely broken down. They feel they can no longer express ideas and be heard by the other side. Before you get to a place of impasse, practice these ground rules, especially during conflicts in your relationships:

DON’T interrupt.

Interrupting is one of the biggest causes of conflict. When people are constantly being interrupted, they don’t feel heard and the channels of communication begin to break down. Have a sheet of paper and a pen to write down your thoughts during emotional conversations. When it is your turn to talk, refer to your notes.

HOW: Employ the help of your loved ones. Let them know that you are working on not interrupting and that they should alert you whenever you are interrupting. When they let you know that you are interrupting, stop, apologize and allow them to continue speaking..

DON’T call names.

Sometimes people resort to name calling to make the other person feel inferior because of their own feelings of inadequacy. No one likes to be called names. It isn’t conducive to solving problems, so just refrain from doing this.

HOW: Make a list of names that you use when you get angry. Commit to not using them. Keep a swear jar and pay a fee every time you do this.

DON’T yell.

When in conflict, many people yell as an intimidation tactic or because they do not feel heard by the other side.. Unfortunately, yelling does not achieve the goal of being heard. It frequently results in escalating the situation.

HOW: Tell your significant other that you are working on not yelling. When they let you know that you are raising your voice, take a deep breath and consciously lower it. If you are too mad to do even that, take a time-out to calm down.

DON’T resolve things while you are mad.

If you are angry, you need to take a break at some point. It may take a few hours to a few days to calm down. Once you feel less angry, approach the subject and try to discuss it in a calm demeanor. You will be able to think through things more clearly if you’ve had some time to process and determine appropriate next steps.

HOW: Before an argument arises, aake an agreement with your partner to give each other space to calm down when the scenario arises. When you get angry, let them know you need your space to think.

DON’T be judgmental.

When couples have been together for some time, they develop filters through which they hear their partner. They begin to expect a certain viewpoint from the other side and don’t necessarily hear what is being said. Couples also develop judgment against their partner. As a relationship deteriorates, judgment grows, and defensiveness does as well.

HOW: Try to approach each disagreement with a fresh mind. Recognize that the less judgmental you can remain, the more your partner will feel safe being vulnerable, kind and open to your side of the story.

DO actively listen to your partner..

Active listening means you are fully listening to your partner, understanding what they’re saying and remembering it. You’re not simply waiting for your turn to speak. Interpret their body language to get a more complete understanding of their message.

HOW: Allow your partner to talk without interruption for two minutes straight. Then you get to talk uninterrupted for two minutes. Then spend a minute each summarizing what the other person just said.

DO mirror your partner.

Reflective listening is another great tactic. When your partner speaks, make sure you understand exactly what was said by restating what you heard them say.

HOW: Use phrases such as, "It sounds like you’re feeling...", "I hear you saying..." or "If I understand you correctly, you’re saying..."

DO approach issues from an interest-based stance instead of a position-based stance.

A position-based stance refers to each person’s non-value-based desires, such as "I want to go to Hawaii for vacation." An interest-based stance refers to the underlying values and needs behind that type of statement. If you start from there, you often will come to a win-win agreement. Instead of arguing about where exactly you will go for vacation, consider what’s important to each...perhaps for you it’s somewhere warm, not too far away and where there are beaches. Maybe San Diego fits the bill and provides an even better result that you didn’t realize. Once you uncover what both sides’ interests are, you are better able to solve the problem for everyone.

HOW: Put this into practice with as many joint decisions as possible. An another example, think about a parent who wants their child to go to private school. We should ask questions like, "What do you like about the school? What are important factors that you consider when choosing a school? What does this school have that other schools do not offer?" If you get to the values that a person is using, you will have an easier time problem-solving.

DO ask questions...MANY questions.

Asking thought-provoking questions not only keeps things interesting, but it also shows continued interest so your partner continues to feel respected and loved. Allow them to explore their thoughts and values through questions like "What are the things you like about...?" and "What concerns do you have about...?" When you partner shares something and stops, and you don’t have a thought-provoking question on hand, a great phrase is "Tell me more about that." In conflict, don’t just ask questions that lead your partner to agree with your side. Ask genuinely curious questions about why they feel a certain way or what about your opinion makes them uncomfortable.

HOW: Ask what, why or how questions to avoid simple yes or no answers and lead to more stimulating conversation. Instead of asking, "Are you excited about your new job?", ask, "How are you feeling about your new job?"

DO keep issues separate.

Don’t start an argument about one thing and then add another issue into the conversation. Get through one topic at a time. If the argument is about who washes the dishes more, do not add the issue of who walks the dog more to this same argument. Discuss them separately.

HOW: If your partner brings in a second issue, respectfully acknowledge that you have heard the concern and you will gladly address the issue in a separate conversation. Make sure you keep your word and go back to discuss the issue that was tabled.

DO be willing to compromise.

Relationships take compromise and if you are not open to both parties making concessions, you won’t get very far. Be creative when it comes to what you can offer to the other side to get to a joint solution both people are content with. Recognize that you might not always meet halfway - sometimes they’ll get more of their way and you’ll get more of yours.

HOW: See compromise as a win-win instead of you losing. When your partner does compromise, show your appreciation to encourage similar collaboration in the future.

Now, just reading these tips isn’t a solution. Communication is an acquired skill and one that needs regular mindful practice. As you practice these communication skills, you will notice how much easier it is to navigate your challenges. For those of you who commit to improving your communication skills, you will notice your relationship becoming more loving, engaging and fun. What are you waiting for?

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