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Building Empathy & Connection Through Conflict

Are you tired of trying to communicate with your partner and it turning into a conflict? I know this story all too well. For many years in my relationship I was a hot head and didn't have the tools to communicate effectively in conflict with my partner. Eventually, after repeating the same patterns of unhealthy communication, I knew it was time to break these cycles by learning the communication tools I knew were necessary to thrive.

Two books were crucial to my growth in this department: Non-Violent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg, and Getting The Love You Want by Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt. I am going to break down the steps I have learned from these teachers to help you to communicate more effectively when you or your partner are trigged. Sound good?

Step 1 - Check in with yourself

If you are unable to be empathetic towards your partner's feelings and needs because you feel your own needs are not being met, acknowledge that your own distress is preventing you from responding in the way that you would like to. Let them know that you need to take some space before communicating any further and roughly how long you need to diffuse your trigger so that they're not left in the dust, wondering if or when you will work through this conflict.

For example: "I'm feeling triggered by our conflict and need an hour or so to calm down so that I can show up in our conversation with more integrity."

Step 2 - Listen Carefully Once you have diffused your trigger and are ready to communicate effectively, decide who is going to share first. Only one person should be sharing their experience at a time while the other partner is in listening mode. Listen to listen, not to respond. As your partner shares, listen for their underlying emotion. It's important to do your best not to take their words personally. Behind charged emotions and projections are merely people asking for their needs to be met. Here's an example... "You never help around the house and this place is a fucking mess, you're lazy!!"

If you are too triggered to respond empathetically, hold empathy for yourself and remove yourself from the situation to diffuse your trigger. Once you have neutralized, return when you are able to receive their words and respond with empathy.

Step 3 - Respond empathetically and focus on your partner's needs.

Take a deep breath.

Now it's time to reflect back the underlying need and emotion you heard from your partner. Be mindful of any projections, criticism, or sarcasm you might be carrying when you are reflecting back what you heard. The key here is for your partner to feel fully heard and understood.

Confirm they have expressed themselves fully. If you rush in to reflect too soon, they may feel that you are in a hurry to be free of their challenge or that you just want to fix their problems. Once you have confirmed that your partner's share is complete, reflect back what you heard as their underlying feelings and needs.

"Are you feeling upset because you would like me to help you keep the house more clean and do my share of the chores around the house?"

Keep the focus on their emotions and needs when doing the reflecting, and then the next step is making a clear request. Making a request gives a concrete action step to implement to prevent the same conflict from showing up again.

"I'm hearing that you are angry and exhausted and that you have a need for more balance in our relationship. Would you like me to help clean around the house more often?"

To begin with, both partners may not have the same experience using these tools, so practice patience as you integrate these new ways of communicating with one another and do your best to keep the conversation on track.

Step 4 - Switch roles

Once your partner is complete, ask if they are ready to hear you now and repeat the process with your partner being the listener and you sharing your feelings, needs, and request. At this point, you may feel complete with the conversation. However, if you're not feeling complete and there is something further you want to share, focus on naming your observations and feelings first, followed by your request.

If your partner agrees to your needs and request, you have successfully navigated conflict and built a better understanding of one another. If there is still tension or you aren't seeing eye to eye, then continue to listen empathetically and reflect back until you both have a better understanding of each other. If the trigger returns, acknowledge that you have fallen off track from your original intention to bridge connection, and you can take space and try again later.

The Summary

When you are listening to your partners experience, follow these steps:

1) Check in with yourself. 2) Listen carefully for their feelings and emotions.

3) Respond empathically.

4) Focus on their needs and their request.

When you're expressing your own experience, follow these steps: 1) Express your observation.

Being as clear and precise as you can be. Don't use absolute phrases, such as 'you always' and 'you never'. These are not clear examples to understand and often elicit defensiveness from your partner.

2) Express your feelings.

What is the core feeling you are experiencing? Upset is not clear enough. Are you angry, sad, or scared? Those are much more clear than 'upset' and create an opportunity for connection through vulnerability.

3) Express your needs.

The key to identifying and expressing your needs is to focus on words that describe your shared human experience. "I have a need for balance, I have a need for safety, I have a need for compassion." 4) Express your request.

Your aim is to identify and express a specific action that you believe will allow you to have your needs met. How you express yourself determines the sincerity of your partner's response to your request.

You may not always be able to meet each other's needs and requests. If this is true for you in any circumstance, it is your responsibility to claim that you are unable to meet their need and to explain why it is that you are unable to meet their needs at this time.

Communicating in this manner takes commitment to learn and integrate and can feel a little awkward to begin with. Stay focused on your WHY. Why is it important that you integrate these tools and change the way you navigate conflict? Maybe you've experienced conflict enough to know that the traditional way of blaming, projecting, and arguing doesn't get you the connection and understanding you are truly in search of.

Sending my love, Derek

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