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One Conversation is Seldom Enough


There are certain things that I find myself saying as a therapist over and over, and this is one of them: When it comes to resolving the more difficult, emotional and perennial issues in relationships, it’s important to keep in mind that one conversation on the matter is seldom enough. This is the case because no matter how logical we think we’re being, when it comes to discussing things we really care about, emotions will be involved.


And when emotions are involved, logic, listening and creative problem solving tend to get at least partially eclipsed. This means it can take a while to wade through the emotions that come up in the course of such conversations to get at what we really think, feel and want. It’s often the case that, when we have time to think after a difficult conversation, we start to realize some things that weren’t clear while we were talking. We may figure out a better, more accurate way to say something we were trying to say before. We may suddenly get that our partner or child or co-worker was right about something, or that they at least had a decent point. We may get a flash of insight into why we, or they, were acting that way, what was underneath it all in terms of history and issues. After some time off to reflect, we may be calm enough for some creative thinking and come up with a solution or compromise that we hadn’t thought of before.


I tend to think of conflict resolution as involving a series of conversations. Usually the first one is about getting it all out on the table. This can involve being emotional, reactive, critical, defensive, lacking in tact, basically all those things we know we’re not supposed to do but end up doing anyway when in the grip of emotions. Round two tends to be less emotional and reactive. Statements are more thought out, there’s more tact and diplomacy. There is, hopefully, some repair of anything that went poorly the first time around, things like, “I’m sorry I put it like that, that’s not really what I meant,” or “I know I got defensive and wasn’t doing that great at listening to you before.” Ideally this round involves greater clarity about not only what each person wants but also why they want it. Being able to explain why can lead the way to understanding and compromise. Round two may not end in full resolution, but is often less conflictual and resolution may be in sight. Round three includes all the thinking and emotional processing that have gone on since round one and two and can include greater insight, even less emotional reactivity, and an actual agreement, something that can be tried to see if it will bring peace and resolution. Of course, it may take a lot more than three tries, and it may sometimes only take one, but you get the picture. It’s a process.


Essentially what all this means is that we don’t have full access to all our wisdom, insight and skills when we’re having difficult conversations, and when we have breaks to think things over and work through our emotions, our wise mind can get in the game and help us out. Also, if you can learn to accept that it’s going to take more than one conversation, you won’t be as stressed about how each conversation goes. You’ll trust you’ll have time to do better, to make progress. You won’t have to worry so much about  communicating perfectly, won’t have to panic if the conversation starts to go south. Most things that are important don’t need to be resolved right this very minute. They’re usually things that are an ongoing struggle or source of tension. So if round one isn’t going that hot, take a breath, ask for a break, agree to come back to it later. And know that it’s a normal and necessary part of conflict resolution to go at it in stages.

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