All our lives are fraught with problems, but it isn’t the number of problems or the degree of discomfort they create that matters. In the long run, it is how we deal with the problems we encounter, whether small daily ones or major crises.
It is difficult to deal with conflict when one of those involved refuses to take it seriously, to talk about it or share feelings. These refusals can take the following forms:
The Placator says thing like: “Do what you want, just leave me alone” or “I don’t care, you decide.” Placators often have difficulty expressing anger, may tend to become depressed and need to be helped to express their feelings.
The Dismisser refuses to recognize there is a problem. The dismisser changes the subject or belittles the partner for showing emotions. Dismissers are afraid of a confrontation and need help in knowing that it’s safe to express feelings.
The Blamer finds fault with everything and everyone, never admitting to any possible weakness or mistake. Blamers say things like: “You never do anything right,” or “There you go again.” Their best defense is a good offense, and they go into attack mode out of fear of being attacked. Blamers need help in dealing with potential fear or hurt and in accepting responsibility.
The Joker makes fun of the problem, which in fact is an attempt to placate and dismiss the problem. It also makes the other person feel foolish for making a fuss over nothing. The jokers feel threatened by conflict and avoid it by being funny. Jokers need to be helped to not feel so vulnerable. Joking is a defense against taking matters seriously and therefore risking being hurt or hurting others.
The Shouter raises his or her voice to disallow any argument to continue. By shouting, conflict resolution is avoided and the shouter feels victorious in not having had to deal with the issue. Shouters need help in being able to look calmly at disagreements while not losing control of the situation, which, paradoxically, is what they fear most.
It is equally important to identify your own preferred way of dealing with or avoiding conflict. In times of stress, we tend to revert to familiar behaviors even when they are not the most effective choice. By becoming aware of these pitfalls and the reasons for them, we can become more successful problem solvers.
Whenever either you or your partner resort to any of the tactics mentioned, know that this is a response to pain, fear or anger — either about the feelings generated by the topic or a displacement to some other past event, which is triggered by the current one. The past often intrudes on the present. It is important to talk about past grievances in a non-blaming way, and then to let go of them.
We have all grown up with messages about life, love and trust, and these beliefs still impact us as adults. Examining these feelings with a partner will help in explaining some of our inappropriate behaviors stemming from earlier experiences. Having been made to feel worthless by a parent may result in an exaggerated need to be valued by a partner who does not see the need to comfort or praise.
In general, when dealing with conflict, examine all alternatives and identify the available resources and possible obstacles to a resolution. Share your feelings, not only about the results you are seeking but also about the way both of you are dealing with the task.
In other words, pay attention not only to the content, but to the way you go about the discussion. This will ensure better problem solving and better relationships so that you end up with: NO PROBLEM!
In my next column, I will suggest three different approaches to solving problems.
— Natasha Josefowitz taught the first course in the U.S. on women in management and is the author of 19 books. She lives at White Sands La Jolla.