Last updated on 27th November 2009
Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger. Franklin Jones
Conflict and disagreement aren't meant to be easy. Human beings are social animals that mostly need to get along with those around them in order to survive. As hunter-gatherers, our ability to get on in groups is one of our most precious assets. It has even been argued that a major reason for the development of our relatively large brains has been to help us to relate effectively (Goleman 2006). Given this background, conflict and disagreement are likely to be uncomfortable. If we don't find conflict at all aversive we're probably damaged in some way. For example, sufferers from antisocial personality disorder tend to have reduced autonomic nervous system reactions to social stressors. They have also been found to have structural brain deficits with reductions in prefrontal white cell volume (Raine, Lencz et al. 2000). I've talked as well about other types of aversive inability to contact feelings in blog postings on Depersonalisation Disorder.
But if not being emotionally affected by conflict is maladaptive, being too emotionally affected by conflict is maladaptive too. McCullough has written about the problems associated with "Affect Phobia" (see below). Humans will at times inevitably have differing needs and understandings. At times this will emerge as disagreement and conflict. To repeatedly run away from conflict too easily makes one an over-compliant doormat. There's a good chance that one will then store up resentment and anger till they spill over inappropriately or excessively at some later date. Being an over-aggressive sledge hammer isn't a good answer either (see diagram link below).
So whether in therapy, in a couple relationship, raising kids, being with friends, at work - occasional conflicts are inevitable. And these conflicts emerge in many different sizes. Probably most of the small blips of disagreement or mild hurt, one simply motors by. It feels inappropriate to raise them and, hopefully, they simply sort themselves out in a variety of ways. If the overall relationship with the other person is a good one, this is more likely to happen. Even in good relationships though, there will be times when it is appropriate and potentially constructive to look at conflict. What makes it more likely that exploring the disagreement will end up being helpful?
My hunch is that there are some basic assumptions that it's helpful to remember and, quite probably, to acknowledge to the other people involved. I've already mentioned two of these: 1.) That occasional disagreements between human beings (especially if they see quite a lot of each other) are pretty much inevitable. That being involved in a disagreement doesn't have to be seen as a failure or a disaster. In many ways, it's simply an intermittent aspect of nearly all human relationships 2.) The fact that occasional disagreements are fairly inevitable doesn't mean that one should find them easy to work through. It's to be expected that it will be uncomfortable. If one finds it too difficult (or too easy) to address conflicts, then it's probably worth taking time, at some stage, to understand and try to improve one's non-assertiveness (or over-aggression, or lack of empathy), or other relevant issues. 3.) Conflicts can be understood as red lights, signals, that some of the people involved (and perhaps all of the people involved) don't feel that their needs are being adequately met. As such, a conflict is a potentially helpful opportunity. It's a signal that a logjam needs to be freed up. 4.) In conflicts between therapist and client during psychotherapy, the Working Alliance model considers these difficulties under three general headings - Goals, Methods, and Relationship. As I'll explore in a future blog posting, this model can also be helpful in other relationships too beyond the psychotherapy one.
Assertiveness (neither doormat nor sledgehammer) diagram. [Powerpoint Handout]
Goleman, D. (2006). "Social intelligence: The new science of human relationships" London: Hutchinson. [AbeBooks] [Amazon UK]
Raine, A., T. Lencz, et al. (2000). "Reduced prefrontal gray matter volume and reduced autonomic activity in antisocial personality disorder." Arch Gen Psychiatry 57(2): 119-27. [Free Full Text]
McCullough, L., N. Kuhn, et al. (2003) "Treating affect phobia: A manual for short-term dynamic psychotherapy" New York: Guilford. [AbeBooks] [Amazon UK]