Handling Disagreements When Things get Volatile – a Lesson from the Weekend Race Riots

communication in marriage counseling

As a marriage counselor, I’m pretty much a professional hostile negotiator (ha ha). So when I see rioting going on in the streets like they did this weekend I’m saddened. I’m saddened because the solution is usually so easy. Most conflicts arise because one side (and there are usually many sides) doesn’t feel like their legitimate concerns are being heard or attended to. When this happens, the natural thing for people to do is to speak louder. It makes sense, right? If it wasn’t heard the first time maybe speaking louder will help. When that doesn’t work, people will speak louder and louder until eventually they do something more drastic to be heard. That’s when something volatile happens. In relationships this is when your spouse slams the door as they leave, throw something or even eventually divorce. In society, this is when people start protesting – peacefully at first and then non-peacefully.

Listening: They Key to De-Escalating Arguments

Think about what I said above. When people aren’t feeling heard, they speak louder. So if your spouse starts to get loud it usually means they’re not feeling heard. It makes sense, then, that the way to de-escalate the argument is to listen. Once they know you’re listening they usually calm down. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. In fact, just laying down in agreement every time someone gets loud would mean you’re allowing yourself to be bulldozed. You don’t want to do that. But you do want to listen. Let them know you’re hearing them and that you understand their point of view. Once this happens things usually calm down pretty quickly and solutions start to get made

When a fight starts happening the best cure for it in your relationship is to listen. Like this officer in the clip below He didn’t try to dispute anything. In fact, he joined their side. This is a beautiful example of how to de-escalate an argument. And the result was fantastic.

Don’t Use The Word ‘But’

Whenever you use the word ‘but’ it negates anything that was said before it. That may not be your intent, but that’s how it’s taken. This is understood by anyone with communications history (Human Resources, police tactics, counselors, etc). With the race riots, you see the word ‘but’ a lot. For example, you see a lot of social media posts talking about how they feel the reason behind the riots are just ‘but’ the the rioting is too far and the people should stop. The message is different, however, when the word but is taken out of it. Like this: “I understand why people are protesting. I wish the rioting would stop”.

In your marriage you hear ‘but’ a lot, too. For example, “I know you want to go to your parent’s house for Christmas again this year, but I just don’t see why we can’t go to mine instead”. Whenever you use the but word remember than anything before has just been negated and all the other person hears is “I just don’t see why we can’t go to mine instead”. Funnily enough, it may actually be what you mean. So it makes sense, then, that your spouse would only hear that part. So try taking the ‘but’ out of it. Make it two different sentences. It’s an easy trick. Like this “I know you want to go to your parent’s house this Christmas. I would like to go to mine as well”. All the sudden this is a different conversation. Your partner feels like they don’t have to defend their position anymore. It’s been heard. You’re also making your wants clear that you want to go to yours as well.

Be on Their Side

The example of the police officer above is great. He was on the protestors’ side. He showed them that he understands them and wants them to succeed in their cause. And both came out winners as a result.

In marriage, if one side “wins” that means the other side loses. And unless you’re happy being a bulldozer/being bulldozed this is no good for you or your relationship. That’s why in marriage you either both win or you both lose. The way to fix this is to be on your spouse’s side. Most people don’t want something that’s bad. So it’s usually okay to go to your spouse’s side and help them make sure they’re also getting what they want. It usually turns out okay for you, too.


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