Tag Archives: conflict

Contempt:
“You’re always scowling at me!”

"Forlorn Heart" Julia Louis-Dreyfus, by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Contempt breaks the heart, because it implies that one person considers the other as undeserving of respect. Studies have shown that people who make sour facial expressions when their spouses talk are likely to be separated within four years. The dissolution of the relationship may take longer, but contempt will steadily and painfully eat away at a relationship, even when there are a few good times in between. In an atmosphere of contempt, partners find it difficult to remember any positive qualities about each other. So the vicious cycle of disdain and hurt gets worse and more irreversible with time.

It is crucial to break this cycle before it gets a stranglehold on the relationship. If your partner talks down to you, express your desire and need to be treated with love and respect. Be firm, but compassionate enough to be listened to. Try saying something like, “You may not be aware of this or mean anything by it, but you look as though you dislike me. Your facial expression makes me feel defensive and bad. I would love it if you could look at me with love and kindness.”

If your partner doesn’t get it, show him or her the research on relationships and contempt. Get any of John Gottman’s books, such as “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” that show the mathematical research on the effects of contempt on a relationship. Tell your partner that life is too short to spend time together if both of you are not willing to try to bring the best of yourselves to the relationship.

While you can’t control another person, you do have control over what kind of behavior you are willing to accept, and whom you spend time with. If your partner knows that you have the desire and courage to leave an unsatisfactory relationship you will retain power over your own life. If you’re determined not to let contemptuous behavior slide, your partner will be hard pressed to continue to treat you poorly. If the behavior continues despite your ongoing efforts, the only solution may be to limit or end the relationship before heartache and misery overwhelm you.

A loving relationship based on respect requires a sense of self-respect on your part. People who exude self-respect by stopping or withdrawing from others who talk down to them are more attractive than those who accept contempt. Expecting respect can be a more powerful aphrodisiac than unconditional acceptance. But it has to be backed up by the courage to remove yourself from an unhealthy relationship.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

John Gottman’s website.

Read “Criticism and Contempt.”

“How can you be so naïve! Don’t get mad at me when I’m just pointing out how he takes advantage of you!”

"Syncopation" by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Syncopation” by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

John Gottman’s research shows that the first three minutes of a discussion determines the tone and direction of the remainder of the discussion in 96% of cases. Criticisms, such as “You’re so naïve,” or “Why are you so selfish?” do the most harm at the beginning of a discussion. So be careful how you start a conversation.

Gottman found that happy couples express near zero contempt toward their partner even in times of conflict. They usually discuss their problems in a neutral way. Moreover, when they do experience conflict, they have fewer emotional exchanges during the conflict than unhappy couples.

Thus, it is critical to avoid expressing negative emotions during a conflict or an argument. This includes thinly-veiled contempt or an air of superiority.

The following behaviors are very predictive of a doomed relationship:

1. escalation of conflict

2. negative interpretation of comments

3. invalidation of the partner

4. withdrawal from the partner

How to approach your partner to talk about a problem

It’s best to startup the conversation in a positive way, particularly if you’re dealing with someone who tends to become defensive.

1. Be positive. “Honey, I love you and care about you very much. I’d like to talk to you about a concern I have. Is this a good time?”

2. Neutrally and briefly mention the facts, your feelings and your wishes without being critical, superior, or controlling. “In the past, I’ve seen your friend not follow through on his end of the deal. I appreciate that you want to see the best in people. Yet it makes me sad and frustrated to see you disappointed and aggravated when he disappoints you. I don’t want to tell you what to do. I am just reminding you that he has taken advantage of you in the past, and I hope that you can avoid letting a similar situation happen again.”

3. Stop and listen carefully to the other person’s response without jumping in to clarify or defend yourself.

4. When the person’s finished, try to be understanding. Repeat his concerns back to him so he knows you are listening. End the conversation with humor and/or appreciation. “Thanks for listening to my concern.”

5. If the time comes when your partner complains about being used, simply use humor or compassion, and say, “Yep, that’s too bad,” without being drawn into any drama.

6. If he continues to complain, say “I know. It’s disappointing. But let’s focus on something we can change. Hopefully you will not trust him in the future. ”

Finally, it’s important to avoid trying to control another person. You can give a warning to him and protect yourself as best you can. But remember that if you allow differences in personality to lead to an escalatiion in conflict, the resulting negativity is likely to become more damaging than the issue you are arguing about.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Reference: John Gottman’s “The Science of Trust.”

Read “I end up arguing with him because he’s usually too busy working to talk.”

Watch “How to Respond to Rudeness: ‘I TOLD you to get it for me!!!’”

Read “Dealing with conflict and volatility: ‘You’re being irrational!’”

Dealing with conflict and volatility: “You’re being irrational!”

"Question"—Einstein by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Question”—Einstein by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

Be a skilled listener

“Talk to me” is the motto for the New York City hostage negotiations team. When dealing with extremely dangerous, volatile, and emotionally-laden situations, the most effective skill is active listening. The best negotiators interrupt less and listen more. They ask questions, generally simple ones. The same can be said for negotiating differences of opinion in any relationship.

There is a universal desire to be heard and understood. Often people become angry and irrational because they can find no other way to be heard. When people shout, repeat themselves, withdraw, or attack, you can surmise that they feel and resent not being heard.

Hold off responding to their actions or behavior. Do not argue. First you need to really listen and understand their underlying interests.

Skilled listening will satisfy their desire to be heard, build trust and connection, and buy time in a difficult situation. Skilled listening is more likely to win the other person’s consideration toward you and is one of the best ways to find out the other person’s interests so you can find creative solutions.

Ask simple questions

Rather than arguing, ask questions to uncover the other person’s underlying desires and needs. Often the most powerful question is the simplest question, and may even feel like an obvious one. Rather than objecting, arguing and responding, just truly listen in order to understand the other person’s perspective.

Minimal prompts are best, “Hmmm.” “Go on.” “I see.” But it’s critical that body language conveys that you are interested in what they have to say. Demonstrate curiosity and understanding, not skepticism or contempt. For example, lean forward, look at the person, and demonstrate a relaxed interested demeanor.

Check your understanding

Every now and then repeat back and paraphrase what the other person says to make sure you’re getting that perspective right. Mirroring the other person should be neither a linguistic trick nor compliance, but a true effort to reflect back the other person’s perspective.

Many high stakes professions involve active listening and mirroring. Think of pilots talking to the control tower and how each repeats what the other has said. Think of doctors and assistants during surgery, as well as lawyers and court reporters in court proceedings.

Showing that you understand and that you are addressing a person’s interests calms everyone down and makes problem solving possible. Mirroring the other person also builds rapport. The goal is to get the other person to say “Exactly!” when you paraphrase him or her.

Start with broad open-ended questions that don’t have a yes or no answer.

1. “Talk to me.”

2. “Would you explain to me your situation.”

3. “I would like to understand what your perspective is on the matter.”

4. “Tell me about your needs and desires and what you’re hoping for.”

Insights emerge from what the other person says and doesn’t say.

Then ask narrower questions, such as,

“You say you want to have more time together. Can you say more about that.”

Eventually you can ask more specific yes or no questions.

“Would you feel happy if we could a weekly date night and Saturday afternoons together?”

While hostage negotiations are much more explosive than typical day-to-day negotiations or relationship conflicts, the same principles hold. Research shows that the most successful sales people talk less and let the buyer talk more. Happy couples spend more time trying to understand and support their partner than trying to drive home their point and get their way. So, to become happier and more successful in your relationships, move away from the football metaphor of offense and defense to that of a scientist and focus on curiosity and understanding.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Reference: Professor Seth Freeman’s “The Art of Negotiating the Best Deal.” Thanks to Professor Freeman and his excellent Audio course from The Great Courses.

Read “Conversation and Active Listening: ‘It seems like I do all the talking.’”

Read “Didn’t you hear what I just said!”

Watch “Dealing with Angry People.”

Negotiating and resolving conflict: “I’m buying a new car and that’s that. ”

"Formula Farley" by Mimi Stuart©

“Formula Farley” by Mimi Stuart©

Some people face conflict by becoming overbearing while others become overly accommodating. The key to problem-solving is to get away from focusing on positions and move to focusing on underlying interests and concerns.

Interests vs. Positions

Interests rarely conflict, whereas positions often do. To avoid taking positions and getting nowhere, you need to take the time to figure out what the other person’s interests are. It’s best to start out by gaining rapport and being willing to truly understand the other person’s perspective.

Here are five key steps in successful communication when facing opposing positions

1. Show respect. Build trust by being respectful and honest. When people feel disrespected or mistreated, they will act irrationally even if they hurt everyone else as well as themselves.

2. Listen. Give the other person a chance to be heard. Allow the other person to fully express concerns without your interrupting or being dismissive of those concerns. Often people become more flexible and accommodating when someone takes the time to understand his or her point of view. Moreover, when you understand another person’s perspective, you will be able have a more productive discussion.

3. Find out the other person’s underlying interest or concern. Avoid focusing on the position, for instance, “I’m buying a new car,” and find out what the underlying desires and concerns are, for instance, “I don’t want a car that might break down on the highway,” or “It would look better to my clients if I drove a nice car,” or “I’ve had a rough year, I need to do something nice for myself.”

4. Figure out what your own underlying concern is and explain it to the other person. Your position might be, “I don’t want you to buy a new car,” but your interest might be “I want us to minimize spending money because I want some financial security,” or “I want to make sure we have enough money to go on vacation,” or “I don’t want to buy a new car that loses value the moment you drive it off the lot.”

5. Creatively search for solutions together that satisfy both parties’ interests and be open to discussion. In the car-buying case, an effective discussion might involve considering concerns about long-term financial security, driving safety, and the pleasure of owning a nicer car.

Successful negotiations and dealing with conflict require patience and work. Yet the benefits of handling conflicts effectively are enormous. When you learn to collaborate with someone who has different interests than you and to handle impasses with wisdom and principles, you mitigate anger, resentment, and anxiety while enhancing your relationships and everyone’s contentment.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Read “Conversation and Active Listening: ‘It seems like I do all the talking.’”

Read “When she gets angry, I feel overwhelmed and have to withdraw.”

Reference: Professor Seth Freeman’s “The Art of Negotiating the Best Deal.”

“Oh you’re just going to walk away like you always do!”

"Genius Unleashed" -- Robin Williams by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Genius Unleashed” — Robin Williams by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

So… what I really meant was…

“I see your point. Please don’t withdraw. Should we take a break?”

Or

“I don’t want you to feel attacked. When I feel passionate about something, I might sound angry. But I’m not angry at you.”

Or

“My reaction was too extreme. Sorry. Let me start again and stay cool and collected.”

Or

As Robin Williams said, “I’m sorry. If you were right, I’d agree with you.”

People who withdraw suddenly often do so because they feel attacked and overwhelmed. They leave because they can’t handle any more what they feel as an assault. If you persist in passionately clarifying your position, that will probably be perceived by them as too much.

In order to have an effective discussion, it’s important to back off until both people can calm down. Nothing can be achieved when someone is on the defensive. There must be some compassion and openness to have a fruitful conversation.

One of the best ways to keep the spirit of humanity and compassion in a discussion is to keep a sense of perspective about your frustrations and your life. Keeping things in perspective allows us to laugh at ourselves while also having compassion for ourselves and others.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “I become emotionally volatile when I get close to someone. How can I develop a stronger sense of self?”

Read “My parent was controlling.” How we develop Defense Mechanisms (Part I)


“I end up arguing with him because he’s usually too busy working to talk.”

"First Encounter" by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“First Encounter” by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Arguing to get a person’s attention

It’s natural to want emotional contact with your partner or friend. If you find it difficult to get his attention, you might start feeling ignored. To break through his indifference, you might say something meant to get his attention. The easiest way to get someone’s attention is provoking him by saying something surprising or antagonistic.

If you say, “Hey, I just wanted to talk,” your partner will probably nonchalantly say, “I’m busy right now.” But if you say, “We haven’t done anything fun together in three years!” or “My old boyfriend invited me to have a drink,” you are more than likely to get your partner’s attention. The problem is this might not be the best way to get his attention.

Arguing does serve a purpose. Conflict is a painful way to balance two human drives—the desires for emotional contact and autonomy. Arguing compels someone to respond emotionally while promoting self assertion. Yet arguing is not the most satisfying or effective form of human discourse.

Balancing autonomy and connection

If you find yourself frequently wanting another person’s attention, here are some things to consider. There should be a balance between quality time spent together and the pursuit of separate activities, whether work, passions, friends or other interests. The ideal balance is different for every couple, and for each individual within a relationship. A balance is something that has to be negotiated between the partners, negotiated in an open, frank, and reasonable way. Sometimes two individuals have such difference needs that there can be no balance that makes both partners happy. In general, however, a loving relationship thrives when the individuals have separate thoughts, emotions, and interests, and there is a consistent effort to enjoy each others’ company on a regular basis.

So ask yourself whether you are being too needy. Make sure that you are not simply wanting an unreasonable amount of attention, in which case you should perhaps find some other activities to fill some of your time.

How to talk to your partner

If the two of you are truly spending very little time together, it may be time to have a reasonable talk with your partner and find a way for the relationship to be nurtured. It’s important that you are calm and emotionally separate when you speak. When you are emotionally separate from another person, you don’t need to become angry to get that person’s attention. You don’t need dramatic expressions of self-assertion to express your desire to spend more time together. You can do so with some gravity but without becoming manipulative, hostile or needy.

First you can tell your partner that it’s important for you to talk about your needs in the relationship and ask when he has 10 minutes to do so. Don’t engage in guilt trips, manipulate or whine. Show no resentment. Confidence and a positive attitude can be irresistible and show that you have the self-respect to engage on a mature level. Be confident, uplifting and matter of fact. Demonstrate that you support his passions, but emphasize that the relationship is important to you and that there is a necessity for balance and for nourishing that relationship. Ask if he is willing to spend more enjoyable time together on a regular basis. Then ask him what he’s willing to do to keep the relationship strong. If he cannot find the time, then you will know where you and the relationship stand.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Mind reading: ‘You just don’t like spending time with me!’”

Read “Spending Time Together as a Couple.”

Read “Pursuing passions or partnership? ‘You should spend time with me instead of going fishing!’”