Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al

Conflict styles

Tangentially to this Captain Awkward letter, where the answer mentions that the writer's half-sister may have a different conflict style from hers, I started thinking about classifying conflict styles. It feels something like the Ask / Offer distinction in styles of communication (sometimes called Ask / Guess). It's useful to know that there is more than one way of doing it, and people whose style is different from yours are not necessarily terrible awful people who can't communicate respectfully.

The problem is I'm not sure there are two distinct approaches to conflict, or even what elements should be considered in defining conflict style. Like, JenniferP distinguishes between people who stick to the point of what the argument is actually about from people who bring up every grievance and character flaw they have with the person they're arguing with. And put like that it just sounds foolish; why would any reasonable person bring up something they're resentful about from years ago instead of staying on topic? But sometimes it just isn't that obvious what the "topic" is. Take the stereotype of the married couple who argue about how to squeeze the toothpaste or the position of the toilet seat; most likely the core issue isn't that, it's people not feeling respected, and if you were to insist that the only correct way to argue is to keep to the initial subject of the toothpaste or the toilet, you would never be able to address that. Like Ask vs Offer, there are healthy and also dysfunctional ways of applying both the stick to the subject approach and the broader grievances approach.

There are other axes of difference brought up in the discussion, and that came into my mind thinking about it. I don't exactly have snappy names for the tendencies, but some examples might be: immediate and explosive conflict versus sulking and resentment; yelling and swearing versus trying to keep everything civil and non-emotional; arguing in person and when upset and angry, versus waiting until one is calmer and possibly preferring a less real-time medium such as writing. And all of those seem to line up roughly, I wouldn't be surprised if you could divide people into those who prefer to act out their emotions and those who want to minimize expressions of anger. I mean, in an ideal world there would never be any conflict, people would negotiate everything and always come to the most satisfactory solutions by consensus, but I think that's not a reasonable standard for most humans in most relationships, so I'm interested in how best to handle things when something has already gone wrong, when there is hurt and anger.

My family of origin tend to be quite shouty and quite open about expressing emotions, and also go back to being best of friends once the immediate fight has blown over. So I get really agitated when someone who is upset with me refuses to speak to me and doesn't directly tell me what's wrong. Though intellectually I can see that sometimes it really is better to put a discussion off until a better time, and hopefully skip the yelling at eachother part. Equally, when someone is angry at me, I'm often reasonably good, though not perfect, at not shouting back, and it's easy to pat myself on the back and feel like I'm a nice person who de-escalates conflicts, but many people feel like I'm not really taking their anger seriously if I remain relatively calm, and I may be denying them the catharsis of a proper argument. So in that sense I'm on the other side of the fence compared to when I feel rejected if someone cuts me off because they don't trust themselves to be kind while upset.

An extreme example is the whole non-violent communication thing. I generally find sense in the advice that it's more constructive to talk about people's behaviour rather than their personality, using I-statements like: when you do this thing that annoys me, I feel disrespected, instead of accusations like: you're so annoying and you don't respect me! But I've also seen serious arguments that NVC can hurt people, especially when power dynamics are taken into account. Just as yelling and verbal aggression can be used to intimidate and bully and even abuse, so can insisting that people must repress their emotions and refusing to listen to them unless they can demonstrate exactly the right words and the right affect.

So help me refine my ideas? What variations in conflict style have I not thought of? What approaches to conflict and argument do you find most productive? I mean, assuming that the arguers are already upset and you can't just magically all get along. Are there any ways of arguing that you think are just bad and should always be avoided?

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Tags: rfh

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