by JANIE PILLOW
Tonight I came in from work all ready to write this article. Last night I read Max Lucado’s little book, The Greatest Gift. It is a heartwarming little story of the first Christmas. I put a lot of CDs in my player and sat down ready to write a warm, fuzzy, and inspiring article on Christmas. I was listening to “Silent Night” and all the Christmas classics.
Then I reflected on the day I’d had in counseling. Many of the sessions were very painful for the clients—both individuals and couples. These poor people were anything but joyful, peaceful, and looking forward to a wonderful Christmas season. Their hearts were broken, angry, disillusioned, or anything other than what my music was expressing.
Thus, I decided I would write on how to turn conflict into happiness and try to give some insight on conflict. Realizing that I could write page after page on this, I started trying to come up with some salient points that might help.
People don’t get married hoping that in the years to come they can grow apart and be hurtful to their partner. They don’t wake up one morning and say, “I think I will make my life miserable.” They just don’t know better choices to make. So, they do the best they can, and when that doesn’t work, they try what didn’t work harder.
If I call conflict a struggle to connect, would you think I was nuts? But that is really what it is. Or more specifically, it’s a method people use to try and be heard and understood. Here is the trick. God put you with the one perfect person that will help you grow and mature. Proverbs 27:17 states that “as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”
Years ago, my husband and I had just graduated from college and moved back to a town close to where I grew up. I knew so many people there and was thrilled to see them. I flitted around from person to person hugging and doing brief catching up. My husband was from Greenwood, and there may have one or two people he knew there. When we got in the car to leave, he said, “Have you ever stopped to think people don’t want to know everything you know?” Well, as far as reputations went, his for verbosity far exceeded mine. Wow—did I have a thousand comebacks spinning around in my head as I was filled with dismay! I sat there and gathered myself, or should I say, God’s grace. I could easily have spoiled the evening with my comebacks (remember, the last person to speak determines the way the conversation goes). So, my thought process went like this: this man is supposed to love me more than anyone in the world. And when I could finally speak, I said, “No, to tell you the truth I have never wondered that. But obviously, you have. Tell me more about your thoughts and especially your feelings.” After doing a lot of inquiring to understand, I realized I had hurt his feelings by abandoning him in the midst of strangers. I probably would have felt the same way at a big gala in Greenwood. I learned something that night about both of us that I put to work in my practice.
When people fight or complain, usually there is a deeper issue under “the thing” or “the thing is not the thing.” It’s not all about the toothpaste. That is a symptom of primary feelings of something negative or discounted underneath the secondary reaction.
Now guys, I hate to tell you this, but you have probably already experienced the phenomena. It’s usually the women that bring the issue to the table. Most men take the “I’m fine” approach (i.e. Feeling Inside Not Expressed). They are more allergic to conflict than women. Reason being, women’s brains are different from men. Women’s brains can more easily get in touch with emotions and are more equipped (biologically) than men to express their feelings. So, men reason, why bother to get into a verbal debate when I’m probably going to lose.
Thus, women are usually the pursuer when there is an issue that is coming between them. What do men do? They take the approach that the best offense is a good defense. They flood, freeze, stonewall, or get defensive. What happens next? The woman thinks he is disinterested in her feelings. She chases him around the house saying the same thing a dozen different ways trying to get him to “understand how she feels.” You know the cycle—the more she pursues, the more he distances, until it’s late and he goes to bed. Man, now she is really furious. He can go in and sleep and she’s so upset. That proves he really doesn’t care. NOT SO. It has been scientifically proven that while she is seeing him as unaffected, his blood pressure is escalating; his heart rate goes up until he is just exhausted, and he hopes it will all be better in the morning.
Or he finally apologizes to shut her up. She accepts and forgives (word meaning not returning wrong for wrong). They recommit to work harder, but nothing has changed. Neither has learned anything about the other, and no one has grown in sanctification. It’s only buried until they have another conflict, which is usually harder because the original one has not yet been resolved.
I can only be very brief because of space (and hope to continue this line of thought in a series of articles). But for now, I’ll give a few pointers to not leave you hanging.
1. Sit down before you start. Ask the other person if this is a good time for you to bring an issue up.
2. Soften your blame. Speak softly and slowly. Use “I” statements, not “you” statements. In using the “I” statements, try and frame them something like this:
a. “When I notice” (Something)
b. “I think it means” (Give your perspective on the offense. It’s usually not what they meant at all. Remember the message sent is usually not the message heard).
c. “And I feel ________.”
3. Now that is what I call the “expresser.” And I call the listening person the “inquirer.” His role is to ask who, what, when, or how questions until the expresser feels truly understood. He should be able to say, “If I were you, and I saw it like that I would be hurt too.” (That’s always true. If you had her history, current circumstances, and biology, you would feel exactly like she does. (Remember you do not have to agree. Just get to a point that you truly understand her situation).
Now this is guaranteed NOT to work if you don’t try it! But I ask you—is that the way your conflict usually goes? And what you have magically done is work together to solve the misunderstanding or problem, and not declare the other person the enemy. Feeling understood is very connective, and it’s certain to help. So next time someone makes you mad, say to yourself: they really need to be understood or they are trying to connect with me.
Janie Pillow is in private practice at Janie Pillow Counseling (601- 853- 4788) She is also Co-founder of Third Millennium Ministries and has served since its inception as Chairman of the Board. See www.ThirdMill.Org. “Seminary Education for the World for Free.”