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Dialogue in Families: How to Turn Conflict into Closeness in Family Relationships

by Andrew Roffman, LCSW

 article - dialogue in families - May 2014

Conflict arises in relationships when there is disagreement between two or more people over emotionally meaningful subject matter.  For many people, conflict - a perceived threat - involuntarily activates what psychologists call Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA), which in turn leads to intense emotional reactivity, defensiveness, polarization, and irrational simplification of complex issues, all of which can be physically and emotionally taxing to individuals and relationships.

Given its inevitability throughout life, it is essential to learn how to deal with conflict in a healthy way, and in order to best understand and approach conflict, it is important to address some common misconceptions about its nature.

The 5 Myths

1.    Conflict is bad for relationships
In fact, conflict is an integral component of relationships, and allows people to achieve greater understanding and intimacy when handled through appropriate dialogue.  Instead of handling a conflict through argument - which usually leads to frustration, stubbornness, intense negative emotion, and anger - it is better to approach conflict through dialogue.  Productive dialogue requires that everyone involved in the conflict listen and stay calm, maintain flexibility and an open mind, and establish a safe and respectful environment.  Furthermore, it is essential to tolerate complexity, ambiguity, and the potential lack of resolution in a conflict; dialogue demands and rewards patience and respect.

2.    Catharsis is necessary
Catharsis is the process of releasing strong emotion, which, during a conflict, often manifests as outwardly expressed anger.  While it may allow someone to feel better in the short-term, catharsis in the case of anger is not a successful method for dealing with conflict, changing behavior, or preventing future conflict.  Dialogue and reflection, on the other hand, provide ways to identify the source of anger and deal with it productively, versus simply express it.

3.    Other people can make us feel things
Our feelings are determined by internal structures and processes, and each individual must assume responsibility for his or her own emotions.  While other people can trigger strong emotions in others, it is up to each individual to learn how to regulate his or her response to those emotions.  It is never productive to blame another person for making you feel a certain way.

4.    Communication is “instructive interaction”
The meaning of any communication is always determined by the recipient, not the speaker or sender.  In the context of a conflict, it is important to recognize that, no matter how clear you think you have been, the person with whom you are communicating may receive a message different from that which you intended.  Effective communication, then, is separate from effective dialogue, which strives to achieve a mutual understanding of the conflict and resolution efforts.

5.    We can control our emotions
Emotions are involuntary and automatic.  Emotional reactivity is the tendency to react in a non-reflective, usually habitual way to an emotional trigger, and often excludes consideration of how a certain reaction will affect others or even ourselves.  Differentiation of self is an ethic that promotes responsibility for one’s own emotional well-being, emotional and behavioral reactions, and maintaining independence and connectedness simultaneously.  Achieving an awareness of your own emotional reactive responses in turn allows you to monitor and alter them to be more appropriate to the conflict or situation.

How Do We Foster Dialogue?
The necessary condition for dialogue is an emotional climate of safety and mutual respect.  Achieving this requires close attention to all the salient aspects of a conflict.  Methods of prevention, de-escalation, and repair are available to see one through the challenges of conflict in relationship.  Each of these steps requires active engagement with and awareness of one’s emotional experience, thought processes, and behaviors, as well as those of everyone involved.  Additionally, making conscious content shifts in the following areas can help promote dialogue:

1.    Move from criticism to complaint
Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements to express yourself.

2.    Move from blame to contribution
Acknowledge that a conflict arises between two or more people and cannot be blamed on one person alone.

3.    Move from concern over what really happened to achieving an understanding of each person’s perspective
Opposing views over what happened can lead to gridlock in a conflict; it is more useful to try to understand how each person feels and why.

4.    Move from concern with resolving the conflict to an understanding of what matters most to each person
Think of some conflicts not as problems to be solved, but rather as matters of life to which we must accommodate.
Dialogue is a process goal.  Its primary aim is increase intimacy, connectedness, and resilience in a relationship.  When individuals engage in constructive dialogue there is an overall increase in good will, trust, and mutual respect.