Anna and Tom had a big fight―one of those fights that starts with something small and ends up going global with each person bringing up numerous, unrelated issues.
My first question to Anna when I next saw her was, “Are you still upset with each other or have you made peace?” Anna said they were fine with each other but wanted to make sure they never fight like that again. When I asked her how they made peace she seemed puzzled that I was more focused on the peace than on the issues and how the fight evolved into a global affair. So, I explained where I was coming from.
It’s not that I was uninterested in the content of the original problem or the dynamics that got away from them, it’s just that peace-making is a productive process and one I believe we can learn more from in the long run. They obviously did something right: What was it and how did they figure that one out?
With interpersonal conflict, I tend to focus on the re-visiting concept, which is outlined in my book, Do You Know What I Mean?—Discovering Your Personal Communication Style, in the “Basic and Necessary Communication Skills” section at the end of the book. Learning how to constructively revisit conflict automatically teaches us how to focus when emotions are running high, because face it, when emotions run high, it isn’t possible to have a constructive discussion. That’s a biological fact.
Here’s a summary of the revisiting format:
- Take time out and calm yourself.
- Find out if the other person is prepared to continue the discussion in a different frame of mind and emotion. It takes as long as it takes.
- State your intent. Say, for example, That didn’t go very well. I’d like to find a way for us each to better understand what’s important.
- Express regrets. For example, I wish I hadn’t said . . .
- Tell your stories. For example, This is what I went through . . . and highlight your beliefs. Give the other person time and space without interruption. This is not a fact-based discussion. It is meant to let you know what the other experienced so you can improve the interaction as you get back to the content.
- Return to the content with more patience and understanding in a give-and-take discussion.
- Repeat as many times as it takes. It’s worth it.
This is basically what Anna and Tom did, and with practice they can learn to incorporate this approach earlier in the process of conflict. So often we want to figure out what went wrong, so we will never do it again. A better approach is to focus on what is needed for things to go right.