Fight, disagreement, argument, dispute, quarrel, squabble… Whatever you want to call it, relationship conflict is an almost inevitable part of being human. Having different experiences, viewpoints, and opinions mean that things aren’t always going to be smooth-sailing with our friends, families and intimate partners, but knowing how to navigate the storms can make all the difference.
When something has upset you, it’s important to voice it, rather than let the problem and your feelings simmer. What’s most important is how you go about expressing it. Dr Rachel Low, who studies relationship conflict, says that the best way to address conflict is to use direct and open communication.
The first step is making sure you’re in a positive, calm and open headspace, and that you know what you want to say to the other person.
“Take a step back and see what the thing is that you’re unhappy with. Once you have a clear idea of what you want to change, sit down and have a direct, open conversation.”
Sending an email or a text can be tempting, especially if you struggle with confrontation and talking openly about your feelings. Still, it’s always better to find time to sit down face to face to ensure that the context and tone of voice are not misinterpreted.
In terms of different communication strategies during conflict, she outlines that there are two dimensions. Communication can either be direct or indirect, and it is either positive or negative. Direct-positive communication involves things like praise and problem-solving, while direct-negative involves criticism, interrogation and anger. Indirect positive behaviours are when people try to minimise the problem by brushing it off or using humour to make light of the situation. Indirectnegative behaviours are more passive-aggressive, sending negative signals to try and communicate unhappiness in a relationship or make the other person feel bad.
“A lot of research has looked at how each of these different types of behaviour predicts whether the conflict is resolved. I think people would assume that the direct-negative approach would be bad, but actually, the research shows that it can be beneficial in some situations,” says Rachel.
“It can be bad when it’s a minor problem, but if it’s a serious problem, communicating your anger can actually be good, because you’re signalling to the other party that something is not okay, that you’re committed in the relationship and that you want something to change. In a nutshell, direct communication is best, whether negative or positive.”
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