People can fight over anything, even a handful of lemons.
Once upon a time, Gerry Friesen wanted to bake a cake, and his wife wanted to have lemonade.
“If I’m committed to the relationship, I say, ‘Go ahead, have them,’” he said. “Or I could compete, and tell her to ‘bug off,’ because I wanted the lemons.”
When faced with a conflict, a person has a number of choices, some good, some bad, depending on the situation, said Friesen, in the Farmer-to-Farmer series of workshops sponsored by the United Way recently.
In conflict management, there are two important aspects to keep in mind.
Commitment to achieving goals above all else tends to generate more conflict. On the other hand, an overwhelming emphasis on preserving relationships often requires that goals be abandoned.
A common response is for one party to simply avoid conflict. But finding the sweet spot in the middle via compromise or collaboration, he said, requires effective communication by both parties.
“If we actually take the time to talk about it, and communicate more effectively, we find out that we can actually both fulfil our goals,” said Friesen.
“She wants the inside of the lemon to make lemonade and I want the outside to bake a cake. If we had never talked about that, one of us would have lost out.”
Despite advances in communications technology in recent years, communication difficulties are the leading reason why North American couples and families end up in counselling.
“That’s above finances, or kids. When people are talking about divorce or coming into a therapist’s office, the No. 1 reason is communication difficulties,” said Greg Gibson, a Brandon-based clinical psychologist who cohosted the workshop.
“Pardon my language, but we’re really starting to suck at communicating, and it’s getting worse.”
Studies show that electronic communication methods have led to an increase in labelling, name calling, and derogatory, racist and vulgar remarks, possibly because the user interface creates a “shield” that emboldens perpetrators, much like the protective shell of a car contributes to inconsiderate driving.
For teenagers, who are just beginning to develop communication skills, this is a “huge” issue, he added.
In his experience as a relationship counsellor, he often finds that the first few sessions see couples spending huge amounts of energy trying to convince him, the therapist, that the problem is due to the fact that the other is “such a jackass.”
Gibson said that there are three main communication strategies: passive, aggressive, and assertive.
People who use the passive strategy tend to be wishy-washy, never say what they truly feel, and cave in to the demands of others because they seek to avoid conflict.
The upside to “people pleasers” is that they help to create peace, but the downside is that they tend to avoid responsibility, and eventually burn out due to stress, depression and never having their needs met.
“People do like passive people – at the beginning,” said Gibson. Eventually they become annoying to others because they can’t be counted on to tell the truth or shoulder responsibility when needed.
An aggressive strategy, typically bossy, demanding, loud and angry, peppered with abusive insults, profanity and name calling, may get short-term results, but at the expense of the feelings of others.
But taking that road too often may leave the person physically or emotionally burned out. In extreme cases, they may end up with heart or gastrointestinal ailments.
“You get isolated,” said Gibson. “Individuals who are habitually or characteristically aggressive and don’t consider other people, lose relationships with family or friends.”
Ironically, even though the passive and aggressive strategies appear to be diametrically opposed, they both lead to ruin, he added.
Sometimes, people adopt passive- aggressive strategies. These may include “the silent treatment” or procrastination to get their own way without risking direct conflict.
An assertive communications strategy is the most effective over the long term, and essential for maintaining healthy relationships.
“It’s the ability or desire to get your own needs met without harming or belittling others. It seems very simple, but it is a difficult strategy to employ,” said Gibson. “Even though it’s hard, and it takes practice, it does work.”
Assertive people take the best from the passive and aggressive strategies, and speak freely, openly, and effectively while being respectful to others in a clear, normal voice.
Instead of pointing fingers, laying blame, or prefacing all statements with “you,” a more effective approach is to start with, “I think,” “I feel,” or “I would appreciate it if,” he added.
When having an argument, assertive people remain focused on resolving issues by being specific and to the point. They don’t get distracted, defensive, or dredge up the past. They take pains to avoid the “back and forth” of accusations that leads to a self-perpetuating cycle of personal attacks.
“I see couples who say, ‘When we’re together, we fight. We kind of like it,’” said Gibson. “You kind of like fighting? How’s that working for you?”
– GREG GIBSON