by Sean Szeles, LPC
“Conflict” is a loaded word. As a therapist, I’ve noticed that it sends some clients running for the door. While it’s easy to think that conflicts are themselves problematic, I’ve come to see them as inevitable. At work, school, and home (all places where there are groups of people sharing space) disagreement is part of the deal. So, if we see conflicts as simply negative, we may miss the opportunities they provide to develop mutual understanding and grow. Thus, the problem often isn’t conflict itself, but instead what researchers call high conflict.
High conflict is a self-perpetuating, all-consuming battle in which actual issues are lost to extreme emotions such as anger, judgment, and righteousness. The parties involved may use false binaries, such as labeling things good and evil or differentiating between us and them. When a conflict has devolved into an endless cycle of hostility and blame, it draws participants in like quick sand. Under these circumstances, the conflict takes on a power of its own.
Researchers have found that the brain operates differently in high conflict. “It’s impossible to feel curious while also feeling threatened,” says Amanda Ripley (2019), a journalist who has written extensively about high conflict. She adds, "In this hypervigilant state, we feel an involuntary need to defend our side and attack the other.” Whether it’s a family fight about chores or a custody battle, when a disagreement becomes a high conflict, both parties ultimately lose.
How do we avoid high conflict? Don’t avoid confrontation. Instead, create space for healthy conflict. These are the conflicts that involve uncomfortable feelings such as anger and stress, but also create space for a plethora of other emotional experiences including curiosity, understanding, and surprise. Healthy conflict involves actively listening, asking questions, and mutual understanding. Here are some tips to make a difficult conversation more productive:
· Ask open-ended questions. Closed-ended questions are those that result in a yes or no, often creating false binaries. Open-ended questions, on the other hand, create space for more complicated narratives. An example of a close-ended question is: Are you satisfied with this custody arrangement? An example of an open-ended question is: What are your thoughts on this custody arrangement?
· Externalize the problem. I often encourage couples to imagine the problem as something external that they are battling together. This provides both individuals with some emotional distance and depersonalizes the problem. This framework helps avoid a dynamic of you verses me, instead creating an alliance of you and me against the problem.
· Focus on the problem, not the person. Imagine a significant other or coworker pointing at some dishes in the sink and telling you, “You never do the dishes!” Most of us would get defensive! You statements lead to blame and difficult emotions. Instead, try using an I statement such as, “I feel frustrated when the dishes aren’t done.” The recipient may feel less attacked and more open to how the issue is impacting someone they care about.
· Complicate the narrative. A hallmark of high conflict is certainty and righteousness. Words like always or never are signposts that a conflict is devolving into simplicity. Chances are, the conflict is not an all or nothing, this or that issue. Avoid making it one. Healthy conflict requires space for gray areas. Complexity leads to a fuller, more accurate story and leads to curiosity and openness.
· Zoom out. If two ex-partners can’t agree about the date and time for a kid’s swap, I might encourage them to zoom out and have a larger conversation about what they value and want for their children. This embeds the details in the context of a larger conversation about shared values and helps both parties to see the “forest” from the “trees.”
· Double check. Nothing is more important to conflict than the willingness to actively listen to what the other person is staying. Double-checking involves listening and then providing the other party with a distillation of what you heard. It might sound something like, “I heard you say that when I shut down, it’s hard for you to know what to do. Is that right?” Statements like these show the other person you are hearing them, building trust. They also provide opportunities for the other person to clarify, often leading to a more nuanced understanding of the issue.
The take-away? Conflict might not be fun for all of us, but it is inevitable. Healthy conflict is a skill that can be learned and used for growth, and mutual understanding.
Ripley, Amanda. (2019). Complicating the Narratives.
The Four Horsemen & Their Antidotes. Therapist Aid: