Conflict is a normal part of life; everyone has to deal with it. Have you noticed that when you are in a conflict, you naturally tend to focus on expressing why you are upset-your side of the story, which to you, often seems to be the right side. Your main objective becomes to make the other person understand you. In so doing, you tend to focus less on listening or trying to see the issue from the other person’s perspective. With both parties engaged in doing that, is it surprising that many conflicts go unresolved? In my life, both on a personal level, as a husband and father; and professionally, as a relationship coach, I have seen this dynamic frequently at play. Allow me to present you with an approach that has yielded far more positive results for me.
A few years ago, my wife and I attended a relationship-training course where we learned the difference between being vulnerable and being open. People often sing the praises of being “open”, that is, to share one’s feelings openly with little worry of how they are communicated. Many angry and hurtful words have been sprayed on a partner this way, and though regretted later, could not be taken back. The damage was done. Sharing vulnerably is different. Sharing vulnerably approaches the conflict from the perspective that disappointments and hurts must be expressed but not necessarily as an attack on the other person. The focus is simply to communicate how one feels in a speech that is honest and clear but not acrimonious. To do it successfully, two things must be expressed:
Most of us find it difficult to admit when we are wrong, even harder to share about our weaknesses. At times, when we are hurt by another person’s words or actions, the root is in our own fears and insecurities. It is not what the person did or said inasmuch as the fact that it resonates with us and thus reinforces what we deep down believe about ourselves that causes the hurt. Sharing vulnerably implies admitting to that weakness and letting the person know that how they have acted reinforces it and causes us pain. Admitting our weakness helps us see other people’s words and actions in a whole different light thus facilitates conflict resolution. A few years ago, I was attending a workshop in Beautiful Nassau (not Long Island, NY. The Bahamas.) The presenter ask a question and I stood up in a very confident air to answer. Surprised at my answer he did something I could not anticipate, he asked my wife who was sitting next to me, “how does he react when you correct him?” My wife answered, “Actually, he got defensive yesterday when I tried to correct him…” Everyone started laughing. They were laughing at me! I felt embarrassed, not supported, and angry. As we talked it over later that evening, as I tried to speak vulnerably, I realized that it was not what she said but my own insecurities that were triggered in the situation. As I shared about my weakness, we were able to resolve the conflict and enjoy the rest of our time in the Bahamas. Thank God!
Similarly, most people find it hard to express their needs. In today’s culture of entitlement, we prefer to think in terms of “rights” rather than “needs.” The former place us in a position of strength whereas the latter make us appear feeble. The undeniable truth is that we all have needs. At the risk of over-simplifying, I would venture to say that at the root of every conflict is unmet needs. If we can humbly express to the person with whom we are in conflict that we need something they are not giving us, then we will have allowed them “in” and shared vulnerably. They can, in turn, share their unmet needs and the tone and focus of the conflict can change from a power struggle to a collaborative effort to meet one another’s needs. As my wife and I discussed about the interaction at the conference, I was able to share with her that because of my own insecurities, I felt embarrassed by her comment. What I needed at the time was for her to praise me publicly and say that I am perfect in every way. Okay, maybe not exactly. But I did need her to say something positive about me to reaffirm me even as she pointed out that I can get defensive when corrected.
I have learned to face conflict rather than to shy away from it. When avoided they always tend to come back. When I am upset it is still easier to be “open.” It takes a great amount of self-control to resist that urge and choose rather to be vulnerable. I hope you will try this approach and that it will yield better results for you too.