My office sits about 30 yards off of some very busy train tracks. I’ve yet to count out how many different trains pass by each day, but I’d guess it is 15-20. In the Spring and Fall seasons, I enjoy opening the windows in my office to let the fresh air and sounds of nature drift inside.
But there’s a problem with the open windows and trains. It gets really loud when a train comes chugging by (especially the ones with full loads). When I open my windows while I’m with a client, I listen for the train so that I can close the window before it get’s too loud.
Over the years, I have found that trains can be heard well before they become a disruption. Even if they aren’t blowing a horn, they can be felt in the ground and heard in the air.
All of us have trains that rumble through our lives and relationships. They can be incredibly disruptive if we’re not listening and prepared for them. The powerful aspect of listening is that we hear what we want to hear.
Try it sometime.
Go outside and focus only on hearing the birds singing and chirping. How many different birds can you hear?
It’s pretty amazing that our brains have the ability to tune out background noise and hear what is important. Attentive listening takes practice, and most of us are too well practiced in this skill. Is it difficult for you to hear criticisms, slights, or judgements? Especially in your most important relationships?
The more we hear something, the easier it becomes to hear it (and actively listen for it) again. What we hear has more to do with what we are listening for than it does with what’s happening externally.
If you want to be in relationships, you have to learn how to do conflict. One of my mentors, Dan Allender, says it well: “All good communication leads to conflict.” Most of us believe that good communication will lead to consensus, not conflict.
The word “communicate” comes from the Latin word communicatus. This word has two parts: Communi (to inform, impart, or share.” and Catus (which means “care”). The heart of the word (and act) communication is to give care.
Some experts estimate that over 70% of communication is non-verbal. This means that it’s nearly impossible to not communicate. We may not be communicating well, but we’re always communicating. Even if we’ve left the presence of a relationship, we are still communicating something in our leaving.
Conflict is the result of good “transmitting” (communication) of differing messages. The word “conflict” comes from the Latin word confligere which means “to strike together.” Notice this doesn’t say “to strike against each other.” The reason a lot of people, myself included, are afraid of conflict is because it usually feels like a “strike against” not a “strike together.” Unfortunately, avoiding conflict is only going to make it stronger the next time we face it.
Good communication that leads to conflict and then reconciliation is the foundation of a strong relationships. Communication that leads to unresolved conflict after unresolved conflict is what weakens relationships. This idea applies to all relationships: friends, spouse, family, work, professional, doctor, etc.
If you want better relationships, you have to become better at striking together, not against. Start with how you communicate. Instead of communicating to receive something, try communicating to give something of care to someone you love. That might be the conflict that turns things around.
Yesterday I wrote about why couples need to keep dating after they marry. Sometimes it’s been so long since a couple has had a meaningful conversation, they’ve forgotten how to do so.
When I say “forgotten” I don’t mean that they (or you, if this describes your relationship) don’t know how to talk together. It’s that they don’t have the memory together of a conversation going well. Perhaps conversations lead to the fights, and thus they avoid talking to keep from fighting.
Regardless of the need, The 15-minute date is a great solution to kick-start a quiet relationship, guide a difficult conflict, or promote healthy boundaries in conversation.
This short-and-sweet fifteen minutes is structured so that both husband and wife get a chance to talk and listen. (The biggest problem in most marriages is not about communicating, it’s about listening). Both need to talk, and both need to listen.
So here’s how the date works. It’s broken up into three 5-minute segments:
SPEAKING The person who asks for the date get’s to speak first. They get the floor to speak about whatever they need to for 5 minutes. Set a timer and hold to the boundary of this time. The listener is to listen only, no talking.
REFLECTING At the end of the 5 minutes, restart the clock and the listener is allowed to ask follow up questions, and reflect back what they heard (not the interpretation) the speaker say. This is space is still about the speaker, and their needs.
RESPONDING For the final 5 minutes, the listener gets a chance to respond to what has been said, what has not been said, and to offer any feedback or conciliatory ideas to the original speaker.
At the end of the fifteen minutes, stop the dialogue and let it rest. Take at least 15 minutes to let what has been said and what has been heard to metabolize. If you’re in a good place to revisit the topic, ask to see if the other is open to revisiting.
Guidelines for the date:
The best time and place for this date is when distractions are at a minimum.
No screens, kids, books, or music.
Try to do it in a private setting.
Use caution if either is Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired (Acronym for HALT).
Start with something positive about the other person, or the relationship.
The next time you find yourself in conflict with your spouse, take your shoes off. Seriously.
Conflict in your marriage is holy ground. It’s where our life story shows up at a primal, non-verbal level. Our bodies remember things our words can’t describe. We offer silence and respect when entering a place of reverence. Conflict is this place of reverence.
Taking your shoes off puts your feet in bare contact with the physical ground, and terrain. You’re more sensitive to what you’re walking on without your shoes. You will walk slower, with more caution. If you are aware of it, this practice will help you to be more sensitive to what you’re wading into emotionally with yourself, and your spouse.
We tend to think about assets in terms of financial perspectives. How do we spend, invest, or save our money? Do we launder our money? How do I/we increase our financial assets?
These, among others, are financial questions that every marriage deals with. Even if you’re not asking those questions, you’re still dealing with those questions.
There’s a different kind of asset that needs just as much, if not more, attention: Emotional assets.
Every relationship has an emotional bank account. Couples make deposits and withdrawals from that account, often not knowing how much is in the account. As is the case with money, when you run a negative balance, life gets really stressful.
Some marriages live emotionally paycheck to paycheck. Every day there is a desperate need for some kind of positive experience in order to keep going. Others have invested well, and can go for a period of time through emotional debts and be ok.
It takes a radical change to get out of financial debt. The same is true for emotional debt.
Consider the emotional ledger of your relationship. Are you over spending your emotional deposits? What feels like a deposit for you, for your spouse? How about a withdrawal? Ask your spouse what their emotional bank account is with you.
One of my hobbies is woodworking. I love the smell of fresh wood and the tangible nature of seeing something created from start to finish. The golden rule of woodworking is measure twice, cut once (and also, as I’ve been told at conferences where I speak, don’t cut off your fingers — ha!).
You can always cut off more material if you need to, but you can never add more material if you make a mistake.
Communication is very similar. Once spoken, words cannot be taken back. “I didn’t really mean what I said,” is a terrible way to try and escape from a painful/hurtful statement. Regardless of intent, the truth came out and there’s no taking it back.
Listen twice, speak once. Listening is measuring, speaking is cutting. Be sure that you know what you’re speaking about before you open your mouth. And in most cases, listening and reflective feedback (this is what I heard you say — not what I interpreted you saying) is way better that speaking your mind.
The other day I talked about the different types of perspectives we have (some we choose, some that choose us). So much of what we see is based on our story, where we come from.
Wendell Berry says it well, how is it that we can know where we are going if we have not figured out where we have come from?
So much of conflict in our relationships comes from our own personal conflict DNA: The physiological makeup of our being combined with our emotional makeup. If you watch a newborn baby, they will respond to what they see in their mom as she looks at the baby. The mom smiles, the baby smiles back. The baby mirrors what they see, they don’t yet have an identity.
The same is true for our conflict styles. We are often mirroring what we have seen, and have yet to develop our own way of handling conflict.
What did you learn about conflict from your childhood home?
How are you continuing that legacy today?
What place (if any) did emotions have at home?
You can’t change what happened to you as a child, but you can change how you navigate your relationships today. They don’t have to be the same.
When possible take the time with the person you’re in conflict with to talk about these questions. If you do, you will gain important understanding about one another. Growth happens as a result of increased trust and constructive honesty.
1. What happened? (data)
There are three sides to every story: Your side, my side, and the truth. Spend time in talking about all 3 sides.
2. What feelings came up? (emotions)
Anger is almost always a secondary emotion or a catch-all bucket of other feelings. Unpack that bag. Bravely risk being honest.
3. What did I do about it? (actions)
We usually try to get in control when we’re in conflict. Our actions/reactions dictate if we’re more focused on being right, or if we’re willing to be in the process of repair. Process can be scary because it’s open ended.
4. What do I need help with?
Knowing you can’t fix or resolve everything is normal for all relationships. We all need help outside ourselves. Recognizing there is a God, (and it’s not me or you — acknowledging I’m human), I am not all powerful or all knowing, speaking the words I need help is a sign of health and hope for your relationship.
There is a direct correlation to the severity of a fight in regards to two factors.
1. How often does the offense reoccur.
If your conflicts are happening about the same issue over and over again, chances are the fights are going to be more difficult to overcome. The overwhelming majority of conflict in relationships is perpetual. It’s way more important to process the perpetual conflict together as a team than it is to find a solution or a fix to the problem.
2. How much damage is done in the escalation stage?
We all have a choice in how we’re going to respond to an offense (or in how our partner responds to an offense). Limit the damage (yelling, name calling, contempt, stone walling, etc) and the repairs will be far easier.
Lastly. Most fights become worse because of a 2nd offense. Our natural reaction to pain usually creates another offense. We hurt the other person (with words, yelling, etc) to show how badly we hurt. The challenge then becomes what offense do we focus on first?