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Communication Skills and Conflict Resolution in Healthy Relationships

Healthy relationships between adults are the result of successful negotiation. Two persons who want to form a relationship bring their unique mix of needs, priorities, expectations, opinions, and values to the relationship. In some areas, their mixes coincide while in other areas they do not and, thus, need to be negotiated.

For example, suppose we decide to move in together. Our needs, priorities, expectations, opinions, and values are represented by the two circles - one for me and one for you.

Where the two circles overlap represents areas of agreement, but where they do not represents potential areas of conflict, which we'll have to negotiate as we bring our lives closer together. Many differences can just be accepted. You can like the Yankees and I can like the Orioles, and we can simply agree to differ. Other differences, however, must be resolved, such as how to parent, where to live, how to manage money and chores, etc. etc. etc.

Healthy relationships between adults are the result of successful negotiation.

So, conflict is not the problem. In fact, it's inevitable. The problem is when two people do not know how to resolve differences, because each unresolved conflict of significance becomes a brick, and too many bricks becomes a wall with the two people standing on opposite sides, each feeling frustrated, confused, misunderstood, and wondering if the love between them still exists.

So, in order to build a healthy relationship, both persons must possess skills for resolving conflicts because without these skills, negotiations will fail and the relationship will suffer. I will now describe four essential skills for healthy conflict resolution:

Skill #1: SKILLFUL EXPRESSION is the ability to express my needs, values, opinions, feelings, and priorities in a clear, direct, and respectful way. In other words, "say what you mean, mean what you say, but don't say it mean." The goal of skillful expression is to advocate for myself in a non-threatening manner that is least likely to trigger my partner’s defenses. This does not mean beating around the bush but rather expressing myself clearly with “I” statements while employing body language, voice tone, and word choices that convey respect. For example, “When you come home from work late, I feel worried and anxious. So, it would be helpful to me if you would call me and let me know you are running late.”

Skill #2: SKILLFUL LISTENING is the ability to listen with the sole goal of understanding what my partner is trying to express even when I don't like or agree with what I'm hearing. I actively listen to what my partner is expressing, so I avoid thinking about anything else, including formulating a rebuttal. Instead, I give my full attention to hearing what my partner is trying to communicate. In addition, I let my partner know that she has been heard. For example: “So, what you're saying is that if I don't call you when I'm running late, it worries you, so you'd like me to give you a heads up. Is that right?" 

Skill #3: CREATIVE PROBLEM SOLVING begins after we have skillfully expressed ourselves and skillfully listened to each other, so that our opinions and feelings about an issue are on the table, face up, for both to see. The goal of creative problem solving is to study ALL the data on the table in search of a creative solution that will meet both of our needs reasonably well, which most likely will involve negotiation, compromise, and thinking outside the box. It may take a few minutes or many days to find a workable solution depending upon the complexity of the problem, but the beauty of this process is that it eliminates the power struggle whereby if I win, you lose, and vice versa. Instead, creative problem solving allows us both to win.

Skill #4: RESPONSIBLE FOLLOW THROUGH means we each must do what we have agreed to do because no matter how well we negotiate a solution, it will be meaningless without follow through. Responsible follow through builds the trust that forms the foundation of all healthy relationships, and without it, trust erodes, and a healthy relationship becomes impossible.

Below is Carl's 5-minute YouTube video of this article:

So, if you and your partner are having the same old arguments repeatedly, then you must take an honest look at what the two of you are doing:

·       Are you able to skillfully express yourself?

·       Is your partner able to skillful express his or her self?

·       Are you able to skillfully listen to your partner?

·       Is your partner able to skillfully listen to you?

·       Are you both able to practice creative problem solving?

·       Do you follow through with what you have agreed to?

·       Does your partner follow through with what he or she has agreed to?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then you may have identified where your relationship's conflict resolution and communication skills have broken down. Discuss the “no” areas with your partner to see if he or she is willing to work on improving or learning the deficient skills. If you seem unable to learn these skills on your own as a couple, then you should seek professional help, which would represent a major investment in the health and future of your relationship.

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All Text and many photos by Carl Benedict

"Our very life depends on everything's recurring till we answer from within."  Robert Frost