Interpersonal conflict: It’s inevitable in human relationships. People are individuals, each with their own opinions, likes and dislikes. Our individual quirks are what make life interesting, but sometimes quirks rub up against each other and produce sparks. Of course, sparks can ignite, and before you know it you’re in the midst of a virtual fire, flamethrowers on high, and somebody — probably everybody — is going to get hurt.
Here is a simplified example: You get home from a long day at school and you find your roommate has left dirty dishes in the sink again. This bugs you. You like a tidy kitchen. You’re tired and hungry, and you don’t like having to move someone else’s dirty dishes so that you can use the sink. Your exchange with your roommate might go something like this:
You: “You are always leaving dirty dishes. You are such a slob! You need to clean this s*** up!”
Roomie: “Back off! You are just a neat freak! Don’t tell me what to do!”
Now you are both mad and the dirty dishes are still in the sink. Instead, I would like to propose an alternate approach, starting with a simple four-step conflict-busting exercise.
Step one: Press lips together. This will stop you from opening your mouth and inserting your foot, or letting something escape you will later wish you could recapture. A word released is a wild beast, a fanged fiend that can wreak eternal havoc. Once said, it cannot be unsaid and can hurt. A lot. Do you doubt me? Think back to something someone said that hurt you, or something hurtful you said. I will bet that was an easy recall. See what I mean? Those memories stick.
Step two: Inflate lungs. The proverbial deep breath. And yes, you can do this with your lips pressed together. In fact, inhaling through the nose will slow the airflow and prolong that nice, long breath. The deep breath has several helpful effects in a conflict setting. It creates a pause before your snappy — and likely regrettable — retort, allowing you to reconsider. It also lowers your pulse rate, which will make you feel calmer. It can help remind you to relax the muscles in your jaw, your shoulders and your clenched fists. And it gives you time and space for step three.
Step three: Take your own pulse. Not literally, unless you want to, but figuratively. Doing a self-assessment in the heat of conflict can give you a lot of information that can help you resolve the quarrel. Check in with yourself. What are you feeling? Try to express this, at least in your mind: ‘I feel angry;’ ‘I feel frustrated;’ ‘I feel hurt.’ Not only is this information useful for you, but employing it to make statements about your own feelings is useful to the situation as well.
Once you identify your feelings, you can put them into words. The other person can’t argue with what you are feeling, after all. Your feelings are your own. Also, by stating your feelings, you are taking responsibility for them and for your own contribution to the clash. Despite what you might like to think, this fight is not all the other person’s fault. It takes two to tango, which means somehow you have contributed, whether or not you want to admit it. So identify your feelings and also your needs. What do you want in this situation? What is the best way to get what you want? Probably not by berating another person.
Step four: Open mouth. Only now should you respond, after taking all the above steps, which, by the way, can be done in less than a minute. A minute to breathe and reflect, interposed in a conflict situation, can de-escalate the conflict by itself. When you do speak, try starting your sentence with the word “I.” State your feelings, your needs, your request. Then repeat step one and wait for the other person’s response.
To go back to my little example with the dirty dishes, here is how it could go. You come in and see the dirty dishes. You press your lips together, take a deep breath and check in with yourself. You realize you feel irritated. You want a clean kitchen. You like your roommate, but you are different people with different styles.
You open your mouth and say, “Hi, how’s it going? Hey, listen. I really have a thing about a clean kitchen. Would you please wash your dishes?” Roomie in turn does the lips, lungs and pulse thing, then says, “Sure, no problem. As soon as I finish reading the Daily Lobo.”
Conflict is inevitable, but it doesn’t always have to go down in flames. Press lips, inflate lungs, check pulse, open mouth. Good luck, and may you have many happy resolutions.
Peggy Spencer is a student-health physician. She is also the co-author of the book “50 ways to leave your 40s.” Email your questions directly to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. All questions will be considered anonymous, and all questioners will remain anonymous.