Conflict Resolution – Stay Curious!

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Curiosity was our default demeanor when we were children, at least at first. We approached the world with openness and a sense of wonder, wanting to learn about everything with a positive attitude about the possibilities. As we grew older, negativity bias, a natural survival mechanism, caused us to remember and give greater weight to negative experiences than positive ones. We began making more negative assumptions about situations and people around us, especially in the face of traumatic events or abuse.

This continuous negativity bias process can adversely affect our relationships as we become more cynical about our what’s behind our partner’s behaviors, from how they feel about us to what they are trying to accomplish. We can begin to make common mistakes called “cognitive errors”, assuming the worst rather than keeping an open mind. Unfortunately, this can start a negative feedback loop where we grow to view our loved ones through a darker lens, rather than understanding that they, like us, are trying to meet their needs and cannot read our minds or anticipate how they may be affecting us.

One of the major ways we can counter the corrosive effects of negativity bias on our relationships is to re-ignite our sense of curiosity. If we can stay curious, not only are we more able to avoid making automatic negative attributions about our partner’s motivations and intent, but also prevent a cascade of adverse consequences such as harsh words with our partners that contribute to the negativity bias feedback loop. Curiosity allows us to stop and ask them questions that clarify their actual needs and motivations. Instead of assumptions that blame our partners, we can learn to have a more open mind about why they may be behaving the way they are. Once we are able to stop making our partners the villains of our stories, we can finally act like we are on the same team.

But how do we get and stay curious in the face of conflict? Like any skill, it requires learning and practicing the steps until it becomes an automatic response. An attitude of curiosity can allow us to respond more appropriately instead of with problematic behaviors that many of us learned as conditioned responses from our families of origin or past partners. It’s okay and expected to not be perfect in your responses, but it’s worthwhile to keep at it until curiosity is what you use to approach your partner the majority of the time when differences arise.

One key practice that will start to train a new groove in your brain toward curiosity rather than negativity is journaling about issues in your relationship that are bothering you. Take time each day or week writing about conflicts that arise. Try to state the problem in an unbiased, non-accusatory manner. Make a list of possible intentions for your partner’s actions while trying to be as creative as possible and keeping an open mind. Be sure to include neutral and positive motivations that your partner may have. Think about how you would feel if those more positive assumptions were true, and try to feel a softening toward your partner. Really soak up those more loving, empathetic feelings and hold them in your heart. Finding yourself feeling better, calmer, and more positive about your partner and about solving problems that may arise between you can be very rewarding and motivating. Over time you may find it increasingly easier to approach issues a more open-minded and less reactive manner.

The next two steps are mini-skills that lead up to the ability to maintain an attitude of curiosity in the face of immediate conflict:

1) Identifying the moment before your nervous system becomes too activated and you are in danger of escalating the conflict.

2) Taking a pause before responding.

Begin by paying attention to what’s happening in your body when you feel you are starting to get too upset to talk without making accusations or negative attributions. Notice if there is a tightness in your throat, a heaviness in your chest, flushing cheeks, or whatever you perceive occurring as you begin to get upset.

Once you are able to pay attention and start identifying physical manifestations of an emotional surge, you can practice the next step. Whenever you feel these warning signs of impending overwhelm from your senses, try taking deep breaths to calm your nervous system. This can help you keep from reacting quickly in a way that you may regret, lashing out or getting overly upset before you can employ your curiosity.

If you find your feelings have already become overwhelming, find a way to take a longer pause away from a possible conflict to allow your nervous system to deactivate. Tell your partner need to take a break from your discussion. Negotiate a set amount of time that feels okay for both of you. Most people calm down physically within a half-hour or so, but if you need a little more time, that’s okay. Ideally, this would be within an hour or two. At most, try to agree on a time less than 24 hours, because more than that may feel like avoidance to your partner and may provoke too much anxiety for their nervous system to stay in a more calm state as well. Then do whatever you find soothing, such as a walk, a cup of tea, playing a game by yourself or reading a book. If your partner is sympathetic in the situation, you could ask for a hug, or get one from another loved one.

The key during your cool-down period is to avoid talking or ruminating about the issues at hand or focusing on feelings of anger or hurt. Instead, take the time and space away from negative thoughts that you need for your feelings to return to baseline.

When you resume your discussion, there are a number of communication techniques that allow you to express curiosity about your partner’s perspective as well as how to work together to find resolution without putting anyone on the defensive. Use “I Statements” to state how you feel when something occurs without assigning blame. For instance, “I feel worried that something is wrong when you don’t kiss me goodbye in the morning when I go to work.” Then create an opening for them to share what their feelings and experiences are about the situation at hand. “I’m curious, how did this morning go for you?” It’s important to avoid blame, accusations and threats that would likely keep your partner from listening to your perspective, opening up and working with you to repair the relationship.

When your partner does share their perspective, practice active listening and allow your curiosity to open your mind so that you can really hear your partner’s perspective with acceptance and empathy. Try to concentrate on their message, then paraphrase back to them the gist of what they are saying. Ask if you’ve understood them correctly. If not, ask them to clarify what you didn’t get right. Just feeling heard will go a long way for each of you toward fostering positive, connected feelings and move you toward working together on a solution.

When you both feel that each of you has fully understood one another, you now have a chance to brainstorm on what each of you can do to make the situation better for everyone. Take responsibility for what you can change to help your partner as well as yourself. Be creative, try to keep your partner’s perspective in mind, and open yourself to their ideas as possibilities, even if it’s something you normally wouldn’t have tried. This is an opportunity for growth and deeper connectedness.

For a more positive attitude toward your partner and relationship, and smoother and more satisfactory conflict resolution, try cultivating your curiosity every day!

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