We Indians never fail to applaud wit or encourage traditional learning, but somehow we have failed to teach our children the most important of life skills – the basic tenets of emotional intelligence such as that of communicating feelings and needs. Most of us are born in families where assertiveness is seen as disrespect, anger is unacceptable (especially for women and children) and the concept of “boundaries” or “personal space” is hardly recognised. It would be unfair however, to not acknowledge the shift of perspective the present times have brought us. Since the COVID-19 Pandemic struck us, we have come to recognise the frailty of our relationships and with that came the revelation that we are not equipped with many of the skills needed to maintain equilibrium in our relationships. Here are few tips to help you regulate your own emotions and navigate your relationship during a conflict:
1. Take responsibility for how you feel: Before expressing your grievances, you need to first know what you are truly feeling. Let us suppose you have a disagreement with someone, it may be your boss or spouse. Pertaining to the context , you might feel a range of emotions – ‘frustration’ because they don’t agree with you , ‘anger’ because they spoke with disrespect and maybe sadness or disappointment with self for not able to ‘win’ in the situation. Labelling emotions fosters self awareness, leading to better self – regulation. Repression of emotions, even anger which is often deemed undesirable can worsen the health of the person and the relationship too.
While you observe and label your emotions, you bring the acceptance of it. During conflicts and in our relationships, most of us hold the attitude that the solution lies in changing the behaviour or perspective of the other when in truth change lies within ourselves. However, changing or simply accepting how we feel can inculcate responsibility in us for our reactions and actions. Self- regulation further would help you reach a neutral or a calmer state of mind, thereby facilitating effective communication for expressing your true grievance.
Another effective way to self –regulate when you feel very anxious, upset or even angry is to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness in simple terms is the intentional effort to bring your attention to the present – a moment to moment awareness and ‘just being’ in the present without holding any judgement towards what you are feeling or experiencing. In situations that we perceive as stressful or threatening, we have a tendency to divulge in negative thinking and all the ‘wrongs’ that has occurred or might happen in the future. Mindfulness brought by small exercises such as grounding can help you remain in the present without spiralling down that cycle of negative thinking. To ‘ground’ yourself, you need only shift your focus from your internal world to the physical aspects of your environment. The simplest technique to do this is through the 5-4-3-2-1 technique that engages all your senses by – naming 5 things you see around you, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing that you can taste.
2. Be mindful of your language: The Gottman Institute, that has revolutionised research on relationships, has proposed a research based approach to managing conflicts. The first skill focuses on how you bring up a conflict or the “Start- Up” conversation. According to Gottman, the first three minutes of your conversation are critical for resolving the conflict, so raise your issue with a softened start.
Begin your conversation in a curious tone– “Could I ask you something? I felt hurt when you did that ..., could you please be aware of that in the future?” Be curious rather than being judgemental. Consider what drove a person to behave in a particular manner and be willing to understand their perspective. Another way to start is to simply describe the situation and how you felt. Instead of using “You” statements such as “you don’t understand / you make me angry”, make use of less critical, “I” statements like “I am angry / I need you to understand me”. This not only shifts the responsibility of how you feel from “them” to “self” but also does not accuse or blame the person which would only have made the person take a defensive stance.
This brings us to the next skill - complain without blame. Statements that blame, accuse or criticise would not help at all. Here’s an example – replace “You did not clean the dishes even after agreeing to do the chores” with “I see that the dishes are still unclean even after agreeing to share the household responsibilities . I feel really upset with this”. Lastly, always remember to be polite and appreciative of the other person. You can assert yourself while respecting the other. A simple rule to follow is to only speak what is Honest, Appropriate, Respectful and to be Direct (remember the acronym -HARD). We hold the responsibility for resolving conflict with care. As Dr. John Gottman says – “taking responsibility—even for a small part of the problem in communication—presents the opportunity for great repair.”