3 Keys to Solving Relationship Problems
Win-win problem-solving is a matter of mastering 3 basic skills.
Posted March 3, 2019
Disagreements, arguments are part and parcel of close relationships with partners, family, friends. While what you disagree about in a relationship is always a moving target, where most people get stuck is in 3 key areas. Here’s how to navigate them to make effective problem-solving happen:
1. Creating safety
If you feel safe in a relationship you can be honest, speak your mind, and express your thoughts and feelings and concerns without fear of the other person’s response. That doesn’t mean that the conversations at times don’t feel awkward and uncomfortable, but that from your side of it you’re not stopped by fear.
Safety is the bedrock of any close relationship. If it isn’t there what is there instead is a walking on eggshells, a shutting down, a giving in, a holding back that leads to depression or resentment or flares of anger or acting out. The lack of safety and the resulting caution can obviously come from within the relationship — that your partner has a wicked temper or is critical, that your brother is sensitive and easily feels hurt, that your friend is apt to blame you or heap on guilt. So, you don’t bring up problems with your partner for fear of the blast back, you bite your tongue with your brother because he’s not only going to feel wounded, but is likely to misunderstand your point, you water down your comment to your friend to avoid that well-known reaction.
Though your anxiety is going to tell you that safety comes only by being increasingly cautious around these folks, the path to creating a sense of safety actually comes from being bolder. You want to have a conversation about conversations, about what trigger your fears - I feel you don't really listen and dismiss what I'm saying; you get this angry edge in your voice that makes me shut down. You do your best to be clear, and if the other person pushes back, isn't willing to make an effort, decide what you need to do next to not feel like a victim. Don't just take what you get.
But often the lack of safety is less a product of a current relationship but more one from childhood. You’re afraid because…you learned to be afraid — of other’s strong reactions, of simply getting others upset, of disappointing others and burdening them with your problems. If these childhood wounds seem to most be driving your unsafe feelings, you can repair these wounds by using the same step-up strategy — letting those close to you know what you are sensitive to, what you need and how to respond. Essentially you need to say now what you couldn't say to your parents; you need to speak up in spite of these old fears in order to nullify them.
2. Regulating emotions
With safety as the foundation you now have ability to have open and honest problem-solving conversations, but now a new challenge can derail you — keeping emotions from overriding the conversation and having it spin out of control.
This is emotional regulation, being able to calm your anger or frustration or anxiety when they get triggered in a conversation. Once the conversation gets too heated or overwhelming, the topic and your rational brain are no longer on the table, the emotions are in charge. If they can’t get reined in, hurtful things are said, the conversation can go physical, damage all around on one and usually both sides.
Calming yourself down is a two-step process. Step one is realizing when your emotions are ramping up. You want to catch this as soon as possible — the higher they go, the more difficult they are to rein in. The next step is obviously calming yourself down. Here you may simply stop the conversation and walk out of the room to get away from the stimulation and triggers so you can put your emotional fire out, or by grounding yourself in the moment — taking some deep breaths, saying to yourself this is the time to focus on you and not on the other guy, being quiet and simply listening.
Yes, this can be difficult to do, but it is a skill-set that you can practice in less emotional situations — when you feel impatient waiting in a long line at the grocery store, or irritated in traffic, or when your kids are starting to ramp up in the back seat of the car. Focus on what you’re feeling and take those deep breaths, tell yourself that the grocery line or traffic are first-world problems, that the kids are probably hungry and tired. It’s not about the line, the traffic, the kids but about you calming you. Without these self-regulation skills those important conversations can all too easily go off the rails.
3. Circling back
Circling back is…circling back. Even if the conversation becomes too heated and stalled, it's important to circle back and start the conversation again after you’ve both finally calmed down. But this is where many couples get stuck because they simply don't want to do it because they fear starting another argument. Instead they make-up, mumble apologies, or do the long stretch of silence until someone breaks the ice. But the unsolved problems don't go away; they either continue to be a source of frustration and struggle, or they are perpetually walked around, leading to ever-increasing emotional distance.
Like creating safety, the key here is having the courage to step up and tackle the topic. But to make it a different experience, it requires a commitment to stay calm and stay focused on the goal of solving the problem, of coming up with a win-win plan. You likely are able to do this in other situations in your life — at work, with acquaintances — so it’s a matter of applying the same mindset here.
To set the stage for a saner, productive conversation, give the other guy a heads up: "I’d like talk about the budget again this week and suggest some times when you both are not tired or preoccupied." This avoids the other person feeling sidewinded and forced to think on his feet or when he is in a bad mood; he has time to think about what he wants to say. If it helps to send an email with some thoughts in advance to help set the agenda, do so. This mental prep will help you both go into the conversation with that problem-solving, rational-brain, win-win attitude.
There you have it: 3 key areas, 3 skill-sets that can help you have successful conversations. Once you’ve nailed these, you’ll be able to handle most things that life may throw at you.