The small daily decisions we make determine our direction in life. Life organizes itself around what and who we put into it. How we navigate conflict in all our relationships is critical to where we end up.
Things happen that need to be talked about. Employees are consistently late for work or don’t meet expectations. Intimate partners hurt and betray each other. Mistakes happen. Despite what you might see in quick posts or soundbites from social media influencers, every negative thought or feeling isn’t just a trigger from the past. Real events in the present require feelings to be expressed and worked through.
However, HOW we choose to speak is critical. Our nervous systems are wired to react to threats and often do so without conscious intent. If our words, facial expressions or tone of voice are hostile, we might trigger a ‘fight/flight’ or ‘freeze/please’ response. This could look like hostility and defensiveness or avoidance and shutting down. It could also look like acquiescence, a quick agreement and apology but no follow-through. We relax and feel safe when we feel connected. When we feel connected, our nervous system enters a ‘ventral’ state, which lets us think deeply and clearly, and access our best selves. Starting with connection, then, is the foundation for resolving conflict.
That’s not how we typically think about it! We usually believe that connection is a RESULT of moving through the conflict. Even more commonly, we withhold our love and care when we’re upset and don’t put it back into the mix until the issue is resolved.
We have to put care into the mix FIRST, explicitly. “I love you” should be the start of the conversation, not the end. This can also be communicated non-verbally, for example, by holding your partner’s hand. “I really want to have a good working relationship with you.” “You’re important to me as a friend”. These kinds of declarations give the other person a reason to keep listening. Personal accountability is essential. Focus on your contribution to the issue or dynamic you want to address, and own that. “I have been thinking about what happened the other day and realized I was being defensive. I’m sorry, and I want to try and listen to what you say because you’re important to me.”
And on that note, listen with an open heart and mind. The pre-requisite for any courageous conversation is that you must be willing to be wrong. This doesn’t mean you are wrong, but you must be WILLING to be. If you can maintain a position of being willing to be wrong, you will stay open to learning more because there is always more to learn. Our beliefs are kept alive in our relationship network. Courageous conversations allow us to challenge entrenched beliefs about ourselves, others and the world. Others can bring vital awareness to our blind spots. Bringing care and compassion into the conversation allows us to take in this crucial new information, triggering personal and systemic evolution.
Life organizes itself around what we put into it. Individuals and systems can evolve into a new, healthier dynamic through courageous, emotionally responsible conversations. Opening ourselves up in this way can open up a new beautiful world we all deserve to live in.
Catherine O’Kane is a Registered Clinical Counsellor, teacher, workshop facilitator and a gifted and entertaining public speaker with Clearmind International. She has a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology, and has been a practicing therapist since 1992, helping people evolve out of personal pain into purpose. She firmly believes that what we put out in all our relationships has the power to ripple out and effect positive change in our families, communities and beyond.