As lack of trust has increased in the world, many people have become more entrenched in their own viewpoints, and more unable to listen to any that might be different. That increasingly divisive outlook has sadly begun to infiltrate many intimate relationships, making it harder for couples to successfully negotiate when they disagree.
Reasonable and fair negotiations cannot succeed when partners are locked into an individual viewpoint that erases any other. Opinions can rapidly become threats. Flexible thoughts become hard-and-fast beliefs that are cast in stone. The other partner is no longer someone who simply thinks or believes differently but is a threat and their opinion invalidated.
I’ve been working with relationship partners now for more than four decades, helping them to communicate more effectively as they learn the skills of listening and accepting the realities of each other’s thoughts and feelings. Those skills required flexibility and the willingness to incorporate the other’s point of view.
Recall the early battles over role definition and the power struggles that ensued. Or when previously rigid walls began to crumble as people connected outside of their faiths, cultures, and ethnicities. Their commitment to being a team and getting past those challenges helped them through those hard times and often brought them closer together.
These relationship partners were working together to fight the biases they were taught. They would willingly do everything they could to stretch beyond their individual locked-in limitations and find new compromises and possibilities that neither had known before.
Effect of Division in the Outside World
Many of the couples I am working with today seem to be losing those capabilities. As they are exposed daily to divisions and disputes in the outside world that often escalate into violent eruptions, they often don't realize that they are treating each other in the same way.
If they have the same political, social, relationship, religious, and cultural beliefs, they bond more intensely and, even with families and friends, jointly end relationships where these disagreements have become more exaggerated.
But, if they disagree with each other, that same level of extreme emotional reactivity can easily backfire. That reactivity is affecting their ability to hear or negotiate with each other. Rather than working toward mutual conflict resolution as they were more easily able to in the past, they now rapidly harden their biases and fight more vehemently.
Long-effective techniques for negotiation, exploration, and new resolutions are not working in the same way anymore. If couples are determined that if one is right, the other is automatically wrong, they have no way to resolve their differences.
As I’ve witnessed this process occur, I have had to develop new ways of helping intimate partners get beyond bringing these rigid divides in their personal relationships. To help challenge this communication crisis, I’ve changed my way of working with couples, from teaching the well-worn skills of basic couple conflict resolution to the negotiation tactics that professionals use in the outside world to help opposing sides avoid worldwide disasters.
9 New Skills to Combat Communication Crises
The following nine steps clearly illustrate these now-required new skills. I believe that it is crucial to reverse the dangerous trajectory of you-and-me before once-intimate partners on the same team become irreversible enemies for all the wrong reasons.
Recognize what may be happening to you and your partner. Going from evaluating a situation to condemning it doesn’t happen overnight. Both partners must be willing to look at what is happening to them individually and together. How has each become fixated on only one truth? When and where did they lose the capability to listen and understand that there is often more than one reality that is valid?
Understand the potential destruction of your relationship if rigid ideas, thoughts, and feelings replace rational thinking. Vow to become more open to diversity again, even if you feel threatened in the process. Exploration does not require automatic agreement. You can always agree to disagree, but with caring, acceptance, and the willingness to think and feel what it is like to be in the other person’s shoes.
Listen deeply without judgment to the other person’s views and how he or she became attached to them and why. Were they always there and are just more exaggerated, or have they become exaggerated by influences from external biases?
Look for similarities in how each of you is defending your point of view and why. What is driving each of you to become so locked into seeing things in only one way? Look for what similar thoughts and feelings you both have that may be making you afraid to let go of what you believe in, and how that rigidity may be driving you apart.
Imagine your partner’s feelings and state of mind as they are experiencing your blind condemnations. Are you willing to risk losing the relationship by being unable to move off of your position? Is winning more important than connection?
Open your mind and heart to what makes sense in the other partner’s point of view and agree wherever you possibly can. Where you cannot, be direct and agree to disagree without erasing the validity of what the other believes.
Change your goals from power, control, dominance, rigidity, righteousness, and stubbornness to compassion, collaboration, mutually chosen solutions, and the desire to become a team again.
Create a new, mutually agreed-upon set of attitudes and beliefs that incorporates both of your thoughts and feelings as much as you can. Commit to challenging your limitations and embracing your partner’s orientation to seek your own more flexible transformation.
Check in regularly with each other to keep working on this new collaboration as more challenges arise. Watch for slipping back into reactive biases, prejudices, or condemnations if they are growing stronger again. Repeatedly go over the steps again as often as you need to maintain your resolve.