For the first time ever, people living together don’t have much of a choice but to be together day in and day out. Our national lockdown has us in each other’s space like never before. And almost three weeks in, tensions are starting to rise and our patience could be wearing a little thin. We talked to an expert about how to diffuse difficult situations so that you can maintain a level of peace in your home, lockdown and beyond.
Handling conflict is often a thorny ordeal. Now more than ever, we need to be equipped for speedy and effective conflict resolution. We spoke with Pretoria-based psychologist and relationship therapist, Staats Van Rooyen, to find out all you need to know about diffusing difficult situations.
Decide on constructive communication
Staats stresses the fact that in a family unit or relationship, it’s important that you decide to communicate constructively. “It is an active, deliberate decision everyone must make. As a unit, you have to decide to be open and honest.”
This can be tough, especially when trying to side-step relationship minefields. But Staats recommends having an open, grown-up discussion in which each party can outline their expectations. “Sit together and set boundaries and clarify acceptable speech and behaviour. It’s important to make expectations clear and realistic.”
“Once you’ve had this talk, take time to write these negotiations down. That way, if conflict does erupt and a boundary is crossed, you can refer your loved ones to your mutually agreed upon guidelines,” he says. These guiding principles will also help you moderate your own speech and behaviour.
Focus on the “I” message
When we are frustrated, it can be so easy to point fingers and assign blame to others. Staats suggests switching to an “I” message, as opposed to a “you” message. So instead of saying, “You never help me with dishes”, rather try “I would really appreciate some help with the dishes”. Do you see how the tone shifts from one of blame to one of non-confrontational communication?
Staats says it’s important to remember that no one likes being put on the spot. So avoid this blame game by communicating your feelings instead of pointing out someone else’s shortcomings. You can more easily diffuse a difficult situation if neither party feels attacked.
React rationally to emotionally-charged situations
While we all know that this is easier said than done, it’s important to give it a shot anyway. “When tensions are high, it can be easy to scream and shout. It’s our instinct to protect ourselves when we feel in any way threatened or uncomfortable,” says Staats.
Staats recommends taking some time out to consider your reactions to things that upset you. Spending so much time with your loved ones can sometimes put the things that irritate you about them under a microscope.
He also says, “Our anger often comes out of a deep care for that person. Instead of lashing out as soon as you feel upset, take a few deep breaths and word your qualms in a calm manner. Ultimately, you are upset because you care about them – communicate that instead of blaming them for something they may not know they’re doing wrong.”
Don’t let your feelings fester
While it is important to consider your reactions carefully, you must also steer clear of marinating on something for too long.
Staats says that issues should be addressed as they arise. Letting something slide will ensure that it keeps happening. But by communicating openly and addressing issues honestly, they can more easily be dealt with. Stewing in your own juices serves only to upset you further and it’s not constructive.
“Anger is only the tip of the iceberg,” says Staats. “At the base of the iceberg is ultimately love. This lockdown will give many couples and families the opportunity to strip away at that anger to reveal the love that lies beneath.”
Staats’ key takeaways on how to diffuse difficult situations
- Decide as a unit to communicate openly and honestly.
- Establish guiding principles for how you’ll speak and behave towards one another.
- Avoid blaming by addressing issues with “I” message.
- Consider your reactions instead of lashing out.
- Deal with issues as they arise.
- Acknowledge that in-home tension arises out of feelings of care and concern.
By Features Writer Ashton Kirsten