Quick question: how much of the interpersonal conflict you experience in the average day is based entirely (or almost entirely) on misunderstanding? If you answered “about 99%” then join the club.
It seems to me, thinking about a typical day, that I seldom get into real conflict over what I would call issues of substance. Oh, sure, now and then we’ll find ourselves in an honest, substantive argument about “real issues”…but the kind of conflict that drives us nuts, especially between co-workers, friends, even spouses, is the kind that is generated and perpetuated by one misunderstanding after another. He says something she misunderstands, which prompts her to say something he misunderstands, which causes him to react, which causes her to react, which quickly escalates into (a) a full-blown screaming match, or (b) the chilly fog of the silent treatment.
Nowhere is this more evident than in marriage, that closest of interpersonal relationships. My wife and I teach a marriage course, and without going into too much detail, one of the fundamental starting points for couples to understand is that men and women hear things differently. If I say something to my wife that she perceives as somehow unloving, she will react, sometimes with angry words, glaring eyes and confrontational gestures and body language. She’s reacting because I’ve hurt her feelings and she’s trying to connect with me in order to resolve things; but instead of realizing that, I get offended because her response seems controlling and disrespectful to me. I feel like she’s mothering me, scolding me, and trying to control me. That’s not her intention at all! But in the heat of the moment, do I stop and consider the source of her hurt and her anger? Nope — I get defensive and react to her reaction, and the cycle starts to escalate. My (unintentionally) unloving behavior triggers her (unintentionally) disrespectful reaction, which causes me to behave (unintentionally) even more unlovingly, which triggers an even more (unintentionally) disrespectful reaction, and so on in a spiral of angry conflict.
In his classic Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey says, “Seek first to understand — then to be understood.” Nowhere does this apply more urgently than during conflict. In order to break the cycle of misunderstanding, I need to stop reacting and start thinking, “Where is this anger coming from? How much of it is due to my insensitivity? Can I defuse the anger by owning up to my share of the responsibility?” Asking these questions is the first step toward breaking the cycle of misunderstanding.
My opinion based on years in the workplace is that some of these male-female differences apply outside of marriage as well as inside. Men, in my experience the women with whom you interact will tend to value face-to-face communication, and they will often want to talk through arguments in detail and bring things full circle. Women, sometimes the men you work with will go silent on you, not because they are trying to be difficult but because they may be angry and need time to collect their thoughts and cool down. Give them some space! Men may also be the ones to say “Drop it! Forget it!” during conflict, because, for them, the issue is resolved. It’s over — let’s move on! This can be highly frustrating if you’re the one who wants to talk it out, until you realize that he doesn’t need to talk it out. When he says, “Forget it,” he means it!
This is a topic that we could discuss endlessly, of course, but the point is clear: if you’re in the middle of a conflict, will you be the one to break the cycle? Remember the old-fashioned signs at the railroad crossings, the ones that used to say “Stop! Look! Listen!” That’s a great recipe for defusing conflict. If you can learn to stop reacting, start looking and begin really listening, you can figure out the root cause of the misunderstanding and steer the relationship back onto firm ground.