Imagine this. Shortly after the semester begins, you are having trouble getting along with some of the people at your school, a common experience among college students. Here’s some advice for resolving conflicts during your college career.
Some researchers say that how people handle the college transition indicates how they will handle future life transitions. Many factors make the transition to college tough, but the most significant is the necessity of getting along with people who hold different levels of influence and authority and have a variety of personality types.
Conflict usually starts with a single problem and snowballs. In the Psychology and Counseling Department, we teach students that clients entering counseling may mistakenly identify the problem they are experiencing. In a relationship, the problem could be muddled and complicated by the history of either party, including hurt feelings, hurt pride, or shame, resentment and jealousy. Only when you understand what the problem is can you begin to solve it. Here is an example of a five-step problem-solving model.
1) What is the problem?
2) What are each person’s goals?
3) What are the ways to get what each person wants?
4) Pick and try a solution, looking for fairness and appropriate compromise.
5) Evaluate how that worked out for both parties. What would make it better?
How People Respond to Conflict
If conflict resolution were that simple, we wouldn’t have four more things to talk about. Another complication to conflict is how people react to it. Conflict is usually riddled with feelings of anger and hurt. John Gottman, founder of the Gottman Relationship Institute, spent years studying how people reacted to conflict. He says that masters and disasters of relationships have distinct patterns of dealing with conflict. Gottman found that people who are ineffective in arguments use what he calls the four horsemen of the apocalypse:
1) Contempt. You show contempt when you are mean, irritated or disrespectful or when you use sarcasm such as rolling your eyes. Contempt is toxic to relationships, and people who use this are most at risk for having unsuccessful relationships—relationship disasters.
2) Criticism. This can easily become a bad habit. It’s especially harmful in an argument, for instance in responding to a person who is upset and mispronounces a word or uses flawed English.
3) Defensiveness. Feeling accused escalates the conflict.
4) Stonewalling. This involves avoiding conflict or anything else by shutting down. Examples are the silent treatment, looking away or not responding to questions.
Relationship Masters and Disasters
Gottman says one thing that separates the relationship masters from the disasters is repair attempts. Usually after people argue, one person may try to make up or be nice. This is an attempt to repair the relationship. Relationship masters are first to make the repair attempt or are quick to respond in a positive way to it. This requires the ability to forgive the other person. Relationship disasters neither make an attempt to repair or respond positively to attempts by another person mostly because they do not easily forgive others. The ability to forgive can reduce anger, resentment and negative thoughts about others.
Two additional traits that Gottman found in unsuccessful conflict participants are what he calls “harsh startups” and “the bombarder.” A person engages in a harsh startup by beginning a “discussion” in a negative, accusatory or harsh way. Doing so makes it just about 100 percent certain that the conversation won’t end well. Starting positively or evenly requires emotional self-control.
The bombarder overwhelms an opponent with whatever has been festering inside for hours, days, weeks or, in some instances, years. Females are more prone to this than are males. Women tend to keep a mental list of offenses by others, and when they reach a boiling point they can recite the list from memory. Successful conflict resolution requires a present state of mind and letting go of the past.
The next strategy comes from Oprah. She once had on her show an author who discussed how to have a breakthrough effect in relationships. It is based on the concept of intentionality—creating a breakthrough in a relationship by evaluating your thinking to improve the situation.
Think about the relationships in your life and contemplate the following questions.
1) Which relationship is most difficult for you?
2) How do you feel in this relationship?
3) How do you show up in this relationship?
4) What feelings do you experience in this relationship?
5) Have you felt these feelings before?
6) What behaviors would you like to stop displaying in this relationship?
7) What is one breakthrough action you can take this week, either with this person or with yourself, to improve the relationship or how you feel about it?
8) What is the best possible outcome for this relationship?
9) How would you show up in this relationship if this were happening?
When It Is Time to Get Help
The final area of this discussion is perhaps the most crucial. It is recognizing when you are in an abusive relationship and need help. Abusive relationships can pertain to dating, friendships, roommates and teammates.
You are in an abusive relationship when:
—Someone takes or breaks your belongings.
—A person tries to control you by being bossy or demanding or is jealous or possessive toward you. (Jealousy is the primary symptom of abusive relationships.)
—Someone tries to isolate you by demanding you cut off social contacts and friendships.
—Someone is violent and/or loses his or her temper quickly.
—A person claims you are responsible for his or her emotional state.
—A person blames you when he or she mistreats you.
—You frequently worry about how a person will react to things you say or do.
—Someone makes "jokes" that shame, humiliate, demean or embarrass you, whether privately or around family and friends.
—You have trouble ending the relationship, even though you know inside it's the right thing to do.
If you are concerned about an abusive relationship, you should reach out to someone who can help. Students can turn to the college counseling office. The link for Caldwell College’s counseling office is http://www.caldwell.edu/counseling/.
Dr. Stacey Solomon is chair of the Department of Psychology and Counseling & Coordinator of School Counseling Programs at Caldwell College.