How to Approach Conflict: the Speaker

Approaching conflict in a way that works is important in the sexual relationship as well as the overall relationship. In fact, if you don't know how to do it in your marriage in general, it probably not going to go well when you discuss sexual issues. It is vital that we pay attention to how we approach someone when we are hurt by, upset with, or angry with them. Gottman calls it the "softened start up." The bible calls it "speaking the truth in love." It is important, in dealing with conflict, to be a good listener. It is also extremely important to be a good speaker. As Tripp says, in the Age of Opportunity, "If you fail to speak the truth in love, it will cease to be the truth because it's polluted or corrupted by your frustration, impatience, and anger."

The timing of when you choose to speak with someone is also very important. The term commonly used in psychology for expressing your inner most self is self-disclosure. Self-disclosure, to be helpful, must happen at appropriate times. If the context of disclosure is done in the middle of conflict, or with accusation, attacking, judgment, or criticism, the result will be counter-productive and will result in greater separation and distance rather than intimacy, closeness, connection, and resolution.

I recommend 4 pieces to effective sharing. Only speak of one moment or one issue at a time. Use "I" statements when sharing. Do not engage in blaming, accusing, or assuming when sharing what is bothering you. And when you share, keep it short.

How to Speak: Using OINK (yes, we are off to the pig races)

One Issue, One Moment

In other words, don't kitchen sink it. When you are sharing with someone how you feel about something they did, keep it to one moment in time, not the other ten times it has happened. Often, when we feel the need to explain (see below on Keep It Short), we will bring up examples. This will often cause the person listening to tune you out (think your teenager, or yourself as a teenager). Keep your sharing to "last Friday, when you came in, you said..... and I felt...." Don't use the example of the previous week when it happened as well, and don't give a litany of the number of times. Only "last Friday" and only that moment and that issue. Don't bring in other issues. This is where you actively choose to stay away from words like you always....

"I" statements

Sharing something using the active listening tool of "I" language can be surprisingly hard. Sticking to "I" when we want to say "you did this" "and "you made me feel" is quite difficult. When we are hurt or upset or angry, we will point the finger (see below). It is also hard to do this because, for some, it is difficult to figure out what we really feel. It is easy to say "I'm angry". Anger is a defensive emotion that keeps us safe and behind our walls. To say "I was hurt" or "I felt unappreciated" "judged" or "sad", these are much more vulnerable words; they are what are called the primary emotions. However, when you truly share how you feel, it is risky. You can't be sure how the other person will respond. They may use it against you in some way.

However, when it is safe, when you can have some assurance that someone can take in what you're about to share, it works much better to share it from the "I" perspective. I tell clients, you may still end up using "you" in your sharing, but keep it descriptive. "When you said....." and "when your voice got louder...." The challenge is not assuming what someone is feeling or thinking or what is happening inside of them; saying things like "I know you were angry...." or "I know you thought...." assumes you have the ability to get up inside their head and read their emotions and thoughts. But you can't, so it is just that, an assumption. Keep it to what you saw and experienced and what you felt.

It can be a challenge to identify just what you felt (especially if anger is clouding your thinking). However, even with stable, emotionally healthy adults, I will sometimes use a poster that I originally got for working with children, to help identify the emotion someone is feeling. The poster can be found at . It does a great job of showing how certain emotions might be expressed through anger, such as anxiety, embarrassment, hurt, and sadness. I may also suggest additional feelings using words such as feeling unheard, unappreciated, unimportant, judged, attacked, or accused.

It is important to remember that there is a difference between saying "I was attacked" and "I felt attacked." "I was attacked" has a clear finger pointing at the other, though the word "you" is not even used. "I felt attacked" says that this is what I experienced, even if that is not what was intended or even happened. It is important to remember at this point that sharing what we feel does not always have a connection to fact or accuracy. Someone can feel attacked, even when their perception of the situation is completely inaccurate. Trying to convince them they shouldn't feel that way or that they are way off base is usually quite counter-productive. However, validating that it is understandable that someone in that circumstance might feel that way goes a long way to making someone feel heard and cared for.

No blaming, accusing, or assuming

Often when people share, the person on the other side feels attacked and blamed, and their response may be shutting down or getting defensiveness. One of the important parts of learning how to have conflict that creates intimacy is learning how to share what we feel without attacking. I have mentioned Is 58:9-11 in an earlier post about getting rid of the pointing finger. When we do that, there are great results. We have all been somewhere beautiful and green, lush and gorgeous. I tell clients to picture that and to realize that is what God wants to create in their marriage. Finger pointing can keep us from experiencing this kind of richness in marriage, so God says get rid of it. When we do approach someone with how we feel without attacking, blaming, or assumptions, in general, things will go much better and the need we have to be understood has a much greater chance of happening. So say what you feel, but speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15), and keep it to "I" without any blaming, accusing, or assuming.

Keep it short

When we don't feel like someone is really understanding what we are saying, or if we feel defensive or guilty or uncomfortable about what we are sharing, we can tend to repeat ourselves, or extend what we are sharing by adding explanations. The bible states that "Where words are many, sin is not absent" (Prov 10:19). It may be that if you find yourself or you are in the habit of going into long explanations about why you feel something or about why something bothered you, this scripture may apply. Lengthy explanations about why we're bothered can end up flooding someone and may make people you're speaking to shut down or get defensive.

Have you ever been in a situation when someone is talking to you, possibly expressing something that bothers them, and they go on and on; it feels like a fire hydrant is going off in your face. It is not an enjoyable feeling and it's very hard to listen to. Learning how to express your self succinctly can go a long way in getting someone to truly understand where you are coming from. I tell people, keep your sharing to 2 to 3 sentences max. It would look something like this:

"Last Friday, when you came home, you came into the kitchen and you said...... When you said that, I felt hurt and judged, and I felt really small."

Note to Avoiders: The "I" statement, and even doing anything like this process, can be very difficult, especially if you have gotten negative results before, in childhood or with your spouse. For some, however, the more they avoid, the more their spouse pursues them, trying to work it out or get you to hear them. Not only does your spouse need you to listen and truly validate what they are saying, they really need to hear what you are feeling as well. So use your "I" statements, plumb what you're feeling and let them in so that they can validate you and will in turn feel better about coming to you when they need to express something.

Note to Pursuers: If you are married to an avoider, your anxiety may go through the roof when they tune you out or leave the room or disappear on you even while they remain standing right there. It is important to get a good hold on your anxiety, possibly by taking a time-out, before you respond to or approach your spouse with an issue, or when they don't respond in a way that helps. The challenge is that if you continue pursuing, your spouse may continue to withdraw. For you to learn how to speak the truth in love, without attacking or blaming, you may need to get someone's assistance, as it may be a new way of approaching your spouse. In order to have a better chance of getting your spouse to hear you, take a breath. Always breathe first before you approach. Then keep what you want to say short. If it doesn't go well, don't keep going at it. Either come back to it later or get someone to sit in with you to help with working it out.