Many people often think of conflict as a bad thing. Actually, it doesn't have to be. Conflict is natural, normal, and important. It can strengthen a relationship by clearing the air of grievances, making space for a deeper understanding, and increased closeness. It allows us to express our own needs, and in this way, demonstrates concern and regard for the self.
Characteristics of conflict
Conflict isn't always a pleasant experience. This is not new information. For this reason, people often avoid it.
Behaviors during conflict
There are several behaviors during conflict that have been shown to be detrimental to the relationship. In fact, they have been identified as so damaging that they often lead to divorce. Researcher and psychologist John Gottman can use these behaviors to predict divorce with more than an 80 percent accuracy rate. He calls these behaviors the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These four behaviors are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
Criticism is complaining. It's not always bad, but becomes bad when the complaint focuses on a person's personality or character, rather than on a particular behavior. Criticisms tend to be general complaints about a person's value, rather than a focus on the topic. They often come across as personal attacks, and thus tend to inflame the situation.
Contempt is insulting and attacking another's self-worth. This can include name-calling, using sarcasm or mockery to make fun of the other person, and the use of nonverbal cues to signal a low opinion of the other person, such as eye rolling, sneering, or scoffing. They can also include public ridicule of others, and encouraging others to do the same, such as making someone the butt of the joke. Contempt functions to put down and degrade the other person.
Defensiveness is seeing yourself as a victim and denying responsibility for your behaviors. Instead of openly listening to concerns and acknowledging the need for change, defensive people whine ("It's not fair it's not fair"), make excuses ("It's not my fault"), and respond to complaints with complaints ("Maybe my writing's not so good, but yours isn't either"). People tend to be particularly prone to defensive behaviors about criticisms when they understand that the criticism has merit, but they don't want to accept responsibility for changing their behavior.
Stonewalling is withdrawing from the conversation. This is simply shutting down. These people stop looking at the other person, they stop speaking, and they stop responding to what the other person is saying. Sometimes they even leave the room to end the conversation. Stonewalling is generally the result of that person feeling "flooded," or incapable of engaging in the conversation further. When stonewalling is present, it's virtually impossible for the conflict to be resolved.
Successful conflict management strategies
There are five strategies for successfully managing conflict, each of which may be appropriate in different situations -- each of which reflects a different combination of concern for self and others.
Conflict can be destructive and devastating, or constructive and rewarding, depending on how it's approached, and how it's managed. Constructive conflict management demands that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse be avoided, and that an appropriate conflict management strategy is selected for the situation.
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