You usually have the best of intentions when you say or do something. You have had education and training that teaches you how to be professional in your communication with your colleagues. Through the process of trial and error, you have found a way to communicate with family and friends and to maintain these relationships.
Far too often, however, our good intentions miss the mark. The other person takes offence and is openly angry, or the conflict simmers just below the surface only to erupt later creating tension in the work or family environment. Despite our best intentions, we end up with hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and the breaking down of important connections.
When this happens, we wonder why simple communication and everyday relationships are so complicated and charged with difficulty. We question if we are doing something wrong or if others are just too sensitive and take everything personally. The truth is that there are lots of reasons why our best of intentions go awry.
The first reason we end up in trouble in relationships is because of human nature. The world I see and hear and experience is not the same world that you see and hear and experience. We are all different and yet we assume that when we say something, the other person knows what we mean. Conflict is an expression of our different ways of interpreting the world. These differences are vital to our enjoyment of life as well as essential for progress. They provide variety, complexity, new information, and act as a stimulus for growth and learning.
Let your intention be to leave your assumptions at the door. We are not the same so to assume that others automatically know what you mean is arrogant. To assume that you know what another person is thinking or feeling is downright foolhardy. No one can truly know another’s personal history, what their experience is in the moment, what their values are, or what they will do in the future. Clarity in communication takes effort. Try to withhold your judgements and beliefs about others. Take the time to elaborate on your good intention and then work to understand the other person’s perspective.
Second, realize that conflict arises because we care about what we are talking about. If you didn’t care about the person or the issue, why would you get upset? Why would your differences matter at all? View conflict as an expression of passion, of well-intentioned investment in the issue rather than as a criticism. Consider that one or both of you may be taking the disagreement too personally because you are enthusiastic about your viewpoint. If you are in conflict it is because you both are committed to the issue and this is a good thing.
Third, the best of intentions lead to trouble when there is confusion about where you end and where the other person begins. This is an issue of respecting personal boundaries. With coworkers or with your partner, you can express your opinion but you cannot control what the other person does with it. If you are going to preserve the relationship you must not withdraw in silence. Make the effort to keep discussing the issue until all of the important information is on the table. Don’t forget to check out your assumptions. The difference between you may be one of values, beliefs, perspective, or knowledge and experience. Make it your intention to demonstrate respect for the differences by considering and appreciating the diverse opinions of others and then let them have their opinion while you keep yours.
Too often, we get caught up in needing to be “right” or “winning” the argument. While sometimes there is a definite right or wrong, most times it is just a matter of “my way” or “your way”. This is called a power struggle. You can recognize a power struggle when your emotion rises, you physically tense up, and you get that “stubborn” feeling. The trick to getting out of a power struggle is to stop making your argument and to truly listen to the other person. See the value in their position and draw attention to it. Seek areas of agreement and try to get on the same side. (Try this with your teenagers and you will see amazing results). Ask yourself how important it really is to get your way and if it will matter tomorrow or next week or next year.
If you dominate the other person with the force of your words or your personality, you may win the argument but you will lose the relationship. Make it your intention to demonstrate awareness and respect for personal boundaries by negotiating a solution, by asking someone with more authority to impose a solution, or by agreeing to disagree.
The issue of boundaries gets more complicated when there is a difference in power in the relationship. The judicious use of power is the essence of leadership. When conflict occurs between supervisor and employee or between parent and child, the critical factor is still one of preserving the relationship but power does come with responsibility. The onus is on the person with the most power to ensure that the other feels heard, respected, and fully informed.
The person in power also has a responsibility to make clear when he/she is invoking the power of their position. Just because you are the boss or the parent, it is not always advisable to use your power to dictate the outcome. When individuals are invited to share in the power, they take more responsibility for themselves, are more committed to the project, and are more invested in outcome. There are also times where giving the power to others to make decisions is a valuable learning tool that contributes to the skill and knowledge development of others. Make it your intention to intelligently use your power to bring out the best in yourself and those around you.
Finally, your good intentions will be realized if you are able to see the good in others. The trouble is that we often do see and think about the positive qualities in others but we don’t say anything. Make it your intention to express your praise and gratitude to others. Be specific when you say what you appreciate and why you are thankful. You will be immediately rewarded with the gift of a smile. Praise and gratitude are investments in the bank account of your relationship that you can draw upon when the going gets tough. Others will be far more likely to recognize your best intentions when conflict arises.
Shirley Vandersteen, Ph. D., R. Psych.