By Gerry Crete, PhD
Most of us handle conflict in one of two ways: we become defensive or we avoid. The defensive posture allows us to feel strong and self-sufficient, but it may lead the other person to feel shame, humiliation, anger, or frustration. The avoidant response keeps us isolated and alone. Either way, relational disconnection occurs.
As Catholics, we’re called to be part of the mystical body of Christ. We’re called to be in relationship with God and one another. We want to understand how to transform conflicts, which will naturally occur in our fallen world, into opportunities to strengthen relationships–not to harm or destroy them.
Focus on Your Side of the Conflict
Although it’s hard to focus on your own side of the conflict, that’s the only side you can control, and therefore, the only one you can change. In the following example, we’ll examine one side of a conflict. In this situation, a husband arrives late to an event that was important to his wife. Although you can imagine the wife’s responses, focus on the husband’s side.
“Why are you so upset that I’m late?”
“Don’t you know I have to work to make money for this family and that my boss is a real jerk?”
“You always get upset over nothing. It’s not all about you. You don’t know what I went through today!”
“I can’t cope with your neediness. You’re impossible to please!”
“You think I’m unreliable? I can’t tell you how many times you haven’t been ready to go when I needed you!”
“I’m sick of always feeling bad in this relationship. I’m out of here!”
In this example, the husband’s responses are accusatory, defensive, blaming, reactive, self-focused, and eventually lead to withdrawal. So how do we cultivate greater relational competence and turn these disconnections into stronger relationships?
Here is the same situation with a relationally competent narrative voice guiding the husband’s side of the conversation. Again, hear one side of the conversation, but notice the differences.
Start by identifying the disconnection and naming the shift that has happened: “I see that you are upset because I came to the party late. I feel like there’s a wall between us.”
Figure out your part in the disconnection, take responsibility, and anticipate the other person’s emotions: “I apologize for being late, and I can see you are disappointed in me and you feel frustrated.”
Next, listen for what the other person experiences and reflect that back: “Ah, not only are you disappointed, you feel like you can’t depend on me when it matters.”
Then identify relational factors that contributed to the disconnection and acknowledge the history in context: “I didn’t call because I figured you’d be angry. I have a history of being late and I feel shame about that. Sometimes I avoid calling or reaching out because I’m afraid of disappointing you. I realize now that that only leaves you more frustrated and alone.”
Then it is important to commit to growth and express concern and appreciation for the relationship: “I don’t like disappointing you because you are the most important relationship in my life. I will work on being on time and on communicating with you when I can’t get away from work at the time I promised. I want our relationship to be based on trust and commitment. It is important to me that you know you can depend on me.”
Notice this husband is neither self-denigrated nor did he blame his wife. He acknowledged her feelings, took responsibility for his actions, empathized with her, and identified the unhealthy dynamic that was at play. Importantly, he put the relationship in context and expressed his goals for the relationship. Notice also that his unhealthy dynamic was fueled by a sense of unworthiness, shame, and fear of disconnection. When he became vulnerable and named these feelings, real change became possible. Real vulnerability means that we own our stuff and speak from our authentic self.
Learn to Be Relationally Competent
We can learn and improve several concrete skills to become more relationally competent, which will actually help us transform disconnections and conflict into deep, more meaningful relationships.
Anticipatory Empathy: This means we use our own understanding of the other person to predict the possible impact of our words. When we practice anticipatory empathy, we create goodwill and build mutual trust. Loved ones know that even if we don’t agree on a topic, we care about them and the relationship is important to us.
Relationally Curiosity: This refers to the ability to ask questions in order to better understand what the other person is feeling while withholding our own assumptions and judgments. We are open to learning about how the other person experiences us.
Being Influenced: Most of us spend a lot of time in conversations trying to win the other person to our way of thinking. We might even be formulating our responses before the other person has finished speaking. By being open to being influenced, we are communicating that other people are valuable, their ideas are worth considering, and they can have a positive impact on our lives.
Cultivate Vulnerability: Christ demonstrated radical vulnerability in His suffering and passion, which transformed all of humanity. Imitating Christ means letting down our mask and being real. We’re called to be honest, admit when we are wrong and open up about our feelings of shame, sadness, and loneliness. Instead of reacting in anger or running away, we’re called to face our problems.
See Others as an Image of Christ
Remember, good connections do not mean power over another human being. If every encounter with a friend or loved one is a power struggle, then we are using rather than loving our “loved” ones. Even when there is a natural power differential (boss and co-worker, for example), our Christian faith teaches us that we are precious in His eyes and we see in each other the image of Christ. Meaningful relationships, then, are about desiring the best for the other person.
Transformation and growth happen when we work through difficulties and come out stronger than before. We want our loved ones to grow fully into the likeness of Christ, and we want them to become the persons God made them to be. Christ shows us that this cannot be accomplished by coercion, oppression, or violence. The New Testament Jews wanted a Messiah who would defeat the Romans with a sword. Christ shows us that His way is different. Relationships grow when we become like Christ, when we are willing to sacrifice our own ego for love and willing to be honest, vulnerable and real.