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Communicating Safely in the Midst of Disagreement

July 23rd, 2014

Working in corrections takes a toll on staff’s personal relationships. Relationships with significant others are difficult enough under the best circumstances, let alone when people repeatedly come home after work seriously stressed. This article examines ways to communicate and problem-solve when tension builds due to a disagreement.

In healthy relationships, the purpose of communicating regarding a disagreement has several facets: (1) to understand each other’s perspective, needs and wants about the subject of concern; (2) to brainstorm for possible solutions to deal with the current differences; and (3) to agree to a mutually acceptable and viable solution to the problem at hand.

Ideally, before any such major disagreement emerges, a couple needs to spell out and agree to certain ground rules for managing their differences. Effective ways to communicate safely and constructively on such occasions need to be identified and agreed upon ahead of time. No one would think of playing sports or any other game before first presenting and agreeing upon how the players are to conduct themselves throughout the event. If we do that for a game, how much more should we do something similar for activities that may affect the safety and future of what may well be our most important relationship? (I remember in the 1990’s hearing John Bradshaw say that we get more training for driving a car than we do for being married and for raising a child.) Often-times, however, we do not know what safe and effective communication looks like. We may have not seen it take place or experienced it directly. That is where a few premarital counseling sessions (or even a good book on the subject) may prove to be a very wise investment.

Here are some thoughts on the matter, in a nutshell, to help you communicate safely and sanely with your partner when you have to discuss an area of disagreement:

  1. Agree to limit your discussion to one issue at a time– and exercise the self-control required to honor that.

  2. Listen attentively to what your partner is saying.
  3. Repeat back what you hear them saying so they know that you are listening and they have the opportunity to correct you if you misunderstood them.
  4. Ask for clarification when not sure about the meaning of something your partner said.
  5. Ask open-ended questions to try to gather more information that will help you improve your understanding of your partner’s perspective. Open ended questions do not have Yes or No answers. They start with How, What, When, Where.
  6. Do not interrupt while your partner is talking.
  7. Maintain an open and respectful body posture and facial expression. That is, monitor your body language. No glaring, frowning, rolling of the eyes. No folded arms. No torso or face turned away from your partner. Maintain eye contact while keeping your arms at your sides or resting in front of you. Remember to smile every once in a while in a friendly way.
  8. When it is your turn to speak, talk about your own perspective and your own experience using “I” messages (“I feel __,” “I think __,” “I want __,” “I need __”).
  9. Avoid mind-reading— that is, assuming that you know what your partner thinks, feels or intends to do, or what their motives are.
  10. Avoid verbally attacking your partner through “You” messages (such as through expressions of contempt, disrespect, sarcasm, ridicule, accusation, criticism or blame).
  11. Avoid “I” messages that are in reality critical “You” messages, such as, “I feel that you are being unfair” or “I think that you are all wrong.”
  12. Avoid all-inclusive critical or accusatory generalizations (e.g., “You always __,” “You never __.”)
  13. Let your partner know when you think that they have made a good point, or when you agree with what they said.
  14. Avoid power-plays (blackmail, intimidation or manipulation) through threats of escalation or revenge.
  15. If your partner begins to violate the ground rules, point that out to them and ask them to regroup and respect the rules.
  16. Absolutely avoid aggressive physical contact with your partner when angry.
  17. Remind each other periodically that you are on the same team, that you are not each other’s enemy, that you love, cherish and appreciate one another.
  18. Dialogue until both parties have said all they want to say about the issue.

Stop the discussion and agree to revisit the matter at a future time if:

  1. At least one party is consistently violating the communication ground rules and tempers are escalating, that is, when at least one party has become too emotional to be capable of calm and logical. Aim to agree to meet again at a later time when “cooler” minds prevail.

  2. Either party fears they may lose control physically or verbally— doing or saying something destructive.
  3. Either party needs more time to think things through.
  4. There is a significant number of interruptions and you cannot stay focused on the topic.
  5. The timing for the discussion turns out to be inappropriate for any other reason.
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