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Creative Conflict

by Caroline Williams

Conflict is one of those words most people have an instant recoil reaction to which often we avoid at all costs. Whether because of negative experiences of conflict or just being bewildered by the whole messy concept, we as a general rule really don’t like it. But what if i told you conflict wasn’t just useful it is absolutely vital to robust relationships and wellbeing?

Firstly lets clarify the concept. I'm not talking about the arguments that go no where and get bogged down in stonewalling or defensiveness. Or the passive aggressive round and round of blame with no resolution. I'm talking about creative conflict (no its not just a made up thing) it is an approach to relating which values differences and sees obstacles as a way to growth. This can be at work with friends, family or loved ones. It can even be about how you relate to yourself!
creative conflict in relationships
In this article I'm going to introduce you to a couple of tools that can help you get the most out of conflict..
  1. Agree to disagree. Creative conflict doesn’t mean you have to agree. Its not about who is right or trying to have only one view.You don’t have to agree and neither does the other party ,what is important is finding a solution which can work. Respecting each others unique perspective is key to working with creative conflict.
  2. The aim is to listen to understand not reply. Do you really get where the other person is coming from and even their motivation or intent? Can you communicate this back to them clearly and most of all CALMLY? By creating understanding we BOND  (our body releases calming and connecting hormones)and when this occurs we are more likely to be receptive to new or difficult conversations.
  3. Take the emotional punch out. Most problems arise when we feel attacked or we come from a critical/defensive place. Keeping the “start off” calm and open increases the chances of people being receptive and engaged. No one responds well to being yelled at or intimidated as all our fight flight and adrenaline responses tend to take over. Keeping our voice tone balanced, maintaining receptive eye contact (that's right no rolling your eyes) with non threatening body language helps create a safe space to voice difficult issues.
A warm approach of ”hey I have something important to talk with you about and I’d like us to be able to work out what might be a tough discussion. When would be a good time?”

Quick tips also include.
  • Only one issue at a time
  • No personal attacks instead  use ” I “statements
  • Take a breather to keep things calm
  • Take turns to talk, listen and recap.
  • Most of all look for options and ways forward.

Resources of interest

George Kohlrieser. 2006. Hostage at the Table.
Ellie Lisitsa. 2013. The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. Gottman Institute

Article posted 1 March 2018
Caroline Williams communications skills article
Caroline Williams is a counsellor and therapist in Auckland.
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