By Carrie Jones, LCSW
Director of Counseling, Community Center Shanghai
Being in quarantine or lockdown can be stressful and frustrating in many ways, leaving one feeling edgy. Sometimes this edginess, combined with simply being around someone for much longer periods of time than normal, may result in increased arguments and negative interactions. Although this is uncomfortable and can add to the overall unease of quarantine or lockdown, the truth is that conflict is inevitable in any significant relationship and actually can be a positive experience that strengthens and enhances the relationship…if handled healthily and intentionally.
Recognition that conflict is not necessarily an indicator that a relationship is in trouble and building the knowledge and skills to navigate through conflict in a healthy way can help reduce a significant amount of stress and result in more meaningful and fulfilling relationships. Before focusing on some of the strategies to help manage conflict positively, it can be helpful to first take a look at some of the unhealthy strategies that we often naturally resort to so that moving forward we can recognize and avoid these pitfalls and the damage they cause.
Unhealthy Ways of Dealing with Conflict
- Avoiding conflict altogether. For many of us, conflict is outside of our comfort zone and we are tempted to try to avoid it as much as possible. However, this tends to exacerbate situations as tensions rise, resentments fester, and eventually a big argument explodes.
- Being defensive and playing the blame-game. It can be easy to deny any wrongdoing and refuse to accept the possibility that we have contributed to a problem and rather try to place all the blame on the other party.
- Overgeneralizing. When we are upset, we sometimes blow things out of proportion by making broad-sweeping generalizations – starting statements with “You always,” or “You never.” (Examples: You never listen to me. You always just think of yourself.) On top of this, we also sometimes bring up past conflicts, which often only serves to throw the discussion off-topic and stir up more negativity.
- Mind-reading. Rather than asking how someone is thinking or feeling, we sometimes assume we already know. This creates misunderstandings and hostility.
- Making character attacks. When we are angry, we sometimes cross the line from pointing out a specific action we are unhappy about to attacking the other party’s character. For example, if a partner leaves dirty clothes lying around, the other partner might characterize it as a personality flaw and label him/her as “inconsiderate and lazy.”
- Stonewalling. This happens when one party wants to discuss the troubling issues, but the other party refuses to engage in the conversation.
- Trying to “win.” Our human nature often leads us to want to “win” the argument by convincing the other party to see things the same way we do or by feeling proved “right.” It is damaging to assume that there is a “right” and “wrong” way to look at that things and that your way of seeing them is the “right” way. It actually is possible for multiple points of view to be equally valid.
Healthy Strategies for Dealing With Conflict
Now that we are aware of ways of managing conflict we should avoid, let’s take a look at some healthy ways we can deal with conflict:
- Listen carefully and stay focused. Often times, we assume we know how the other party feels or are so focused on thinking about what we are going to say that we forget to really listen. Make sure you are staying focused on hearing what the other party is trying to express. Don’t interrupt, don’t get defensive, just listen and reflect back what you hear being said so you can ensure you have understood accurately and so they will feel heard. This will often lead the other party to be willing to really listen to you too.
- Try to understand their point of view. Genuinely try to really see the other party’s perspective or position. If you do not understand it, respectfully ask clarifying questions. Seeing where the other person is coming from does not necessarily mean you have to agree with their position, but that you do comprehend it.
- Take responsibility. Taking personal responsibility, admitting when you are wrong, and apologizing when appropriate are strengths, not weaknesses. Doing so helps diffuse the situation, shows maturity, and sets a good example which often inspires the other party to respond in kind, leading you closer to each other, to mutual understanding, and to a solution.
- Respond to criticism with empathy. It is not easy to listen to criticism with an open mind, especially when it is exaggerated by the other party’s emotions. However, if you can listen to their pain and respond with empathy to their feelings, this will go a long way in helping the conversation move forward.
- Look for common ground and compromise. Rather than trying to “win” the argument, look for solutions and options that meet the needs of all involved parties. Get creative and be willing to be flexible and compromise on non-core issues.
- Take a time-out. Often once we reach a certain level of emotional intensity, we cease to be able to have constructive dialogue and are likely to be irrational, illogical, and say or do things we later regret. When you recognize yourself or the other party reaching this point, take a break from the discussion. Agree you will both go engage in self-soothing activities and set a time to continue the conversation later after there has been adequate time to cool down. I have worked with couples who have effectively set a code word that either one of them can say when they reach this level, signaling that a break is needed. Choosing a funny code word can even bring a moment of laughter into a heated situation.
Finally, remember that the current circumstances are extremely stressful – we are all dealing with tremendous amounts of uncertainty, unpredictability, and constant change, none of which we have much control or say over. Be intentional about giving yourself and those around you extra grace, tolerance, and compassion. It is difficult for any of us to be at our best during times of turmoil. If you need extra support, CCS Counselors are offering a free online session to anyone in quarantine or lockdown. To schedule, email firstname.lastname@example.org or WeChat: CCS-counseling.