How to Talk with Our Families and Neighbors When We Don’t Agree

This is a workshop my husband and I are putting on for a little neighborhood/church group tomorrow.

1) Know my own objective in the communication process.  

Karla and John’s goal:  Discuss how to connect to family and neighbors while maintaining personal integrity.

What do I want from this meeting? (Write it down)

Who are my most important relationships?  What are the obstacles in those relationships?  Keep these important and possibly problematic relationships in mind as we talk. (Write)

What are the communities that I’m in that I value?  Who are the people in these communities? What is it that makes it a community – the positives and negatives?  For example, I could be in a very supportive community that is also based on complaining (women about their husbands). (Write)

Some communications and even some relationships are simply not important, for example, the anonymous person we’re arguing with in an online comments section.  We’re not talking about that type of superficial relationship here.  Although civility matters, even online.

2) Why should we have empathy and respect for people we don’t agree with?

Karla’s belief as a psychologist and John’s as a teacher: people are generally good and are doing the best they can given their basic assumptions and life experiences.

Everyone has unexamined assumptions. Their belief patterns, logic, and assertions arise from these assumptions.  Once we understand their assumptions, we can understand them (much easier said than done). Think about your assumptions about people you don’t agree with.  (Write)

3) When the relationship is most important, emotions take priority over logic or argument.  This is both descriptive and prescriptive.

Identify and understand my own feelings about a conflict. Understand their layered complexity.  “I’m feeling 25% irritated, 20% hurt, 20% threatened, 15% bored, 10% hungry, and 10% miscellaneous.”  (Write)

It is axiomatic in psychology that anger is a secondary emotion, arising defensively to underlying feelings of vulnerability.  Irritation, frustration, resentment, and so forth are reactions to feelings of disappointment, hurt, injustice, etc.  It is very important to identify what is beneath the self-protective layer of anger.

Accurately identifying and understanding what I feel is even more important than understanding why I feel that way.

4) Paradoxically, when in the grip of strong (negative) emotion, communication is impaired.

In other words, don’t try to talk to someone who matters about something that matters to me while I’m mad.  Let my autonomic nervous system calm down first – do deep breathing, do some stretches, go for a walk, get a drink of water.  Wait until my heart rate settles and my blood pressure goes down before I make that phone call or fire off that email.

5) How to understand the other person during a conflict when the relationship matters.

Listen both actively and passively.  Actively in that I am using my imagination and empathy to put myself in the other person’s shoes.  Passively in that I am not constructing counter-arguments and rebuttals all the time they’re talking.  Set my own position aside for the time being.

Use reflective statements like: “I hear that you’re feeling [specific emotion].”  “Your experience of [whatever it is] leads you to conclude [whatever their position is].”  Check to make sure.  “Is that right?”  “Am I understanding you correctly?”

Axiomatic:  The other person will not hear and understand my position until they feel heard and understood by me.  The opposite is also often (not always) true:  When the other person feels heard and understood, they will hear and understand me.

6) A process for working through conflict in an important relationship.

John Gottman worksheet – see below.

How does this apply to personal relationships? How does this apply to larger discourse communities?

Write 3-5 issues that I feel are important but contentious.



The Rules For Constructive Conflict

based on the Gottman-Rapoport Intervention

Goal of Conflict: heal emotional wounds and learn to process fights and regrettable incidents.

  1. Take turns as Speaker and Listener—10-20 minutes each.  Two subjective realities, and both are right.
  2. Eliminate the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:

Criticism: of personality, identity.  Antidote – a gentle start-up.

Defensiveness: counterattack or playing the innocent victim.  Antidote – accept responsibility.

Contempt: speaking from a superior place.  Antidote – build a culture of appreciation and respect.              

Stonewalling:  shutting down because of physiological overload.  Antidote – learn self-soothing and take breaks.

  1. Start as neutrally as possible.  Both must feel safe and open.  Both must down-regulate physiologically, and interrupt the discussion if heart-rate goes up, etc.  Empathy, rational thought, and ability to communicate vanish in the fight-or-flight mode.
  2. “What’s this?” attitude vs. “What the hell is this?” attitude.
  3. Speaker’s job – no blaming, use “I” statements, state feelings and positive needs.  State position thoroughly, with depth and background.  Use the following pattern:

“When ______________________ happens,

I feel _______________________________ (this is the most important section),

I think (perceive) _____________________,

I want ______________________________.”

  1. Listener’s job – take notes, summarize and validate Speaker’s position.  Ask questions about the history and deeper meaning in the partner’s position.  Validate emotions even if Listener disagree with position.
  2. Postpone persuasion and problem-solving until both people can state their partner’s position to the partner’s satisfaction.

Six Skills to Develop and Use During Conflict:

  1. Soften startup
  2. Accept influence
  3. Make effective repairs during conflict, and accept repair attempts from partner
  4. De-escalate conflict (take breaks)
  5. Compromise
  6. Physiological soothing
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