Guest author post – ‘Handling conflict and misunderstandings in relationships’



Back when I started my eMental Health Project Officer role at Flinders, I was introduced to Kellie Cathcart from the University of Newcastle (UON). She had headed up the development of the online counselling service at UON and had broken new ground in using blogging as a tool for talking to students about health and wellbeing. It was her work that inspired me to start this blog.

Kellie no longer works at UON but I continue to strip her brain of good ideas through mentorship. One of those good ideas was for her to contribute to the blog [I suspect she misses posting to the UON Blog]. Below is her second post. Welcome her back 🙂


Handling conflict and misunderstandings in relationships by Kellie Cathcart

Every student at one time or another will have a relationship that hits the rocks. It might be an intimate relationship, a friendship or a working relationship with a colleague, supervisor or academic. It would be marvelous if all relationships worked all the time, but conflict and misunderstandings are a normal part of dealing with other people. (Gareth’s note: It is why I try to avoid dealing with people as much as possible :))

The good news is there are some methods, common to many types of relationship, that can help you handle conflict better, so it is more likely to resolve peacefully and positively. In this post I look at how to repair a relationship that is in conflict.

Essentially there are three phases to consider when starting a conversation to resolve a conflict or misunderstanding: the pre-conversation, during the conversation and the post-conversation phase.

In the first phase it is a good idea if you take some time to cool down before you have the conversation. Think back on all the times you have found yourself in a situation where talking about something while you are angry has led to a successful outcome. My guess is it is not many. Having the conversation while you are angry means your messages get lost and you don’t get what you need.

Whilst you are taking the time to cool off this is a good time to think about what is important to you in the situation. Instead of allowing your thoughts to be jumbled in your head, take the time to write them down and see them clearly, away from your emotional response to them. This will help you maintain your ‘cool calm collected’ approach when you are in the conversation later. This is also a good time to not make assumptions about what the other person might be thinking or feeling. Making a list of these assumptions and the questions you can ask to try and get clarity about the other person’s thoughts and feelings might help you refrain from making these assumptions and keeping an open mind for the conversation.

During the conversation
During the conversation, it is a good idea to set some ground rules if possible. For example, agree on the use of ‘time outs’ to cool down if the heat intensifies again, or agree on taking turns to share your concerns. Don’t start by being so focused on communicating your needs that you forget to listen to what the other person is saying. Make sure you paraphrase what they are saying so that they know you are listening. This doesn’t mean you are agreeing with them, just that you hear what they are saying. It also allows you to clarify what their message is so that you are not making incorrect assumptions. When listening to what the other person is saying make sure you maintain eye contact with them and use open body language (no crossed arms or turning away from them)

When it comes time to share what your thoughts and needs are be honest but be prepared to accept that the other person may not agree with you and that a different perspective is OK. Make sure you use “I” statements so that the focus is on you rather than blaming them for how you are feeling. Hold true to how you are feeling but also try and use empathy and understand how they are feeling as well. Doing this means that you can still negotiate for your needs while being sensitive to someone else feelings. When you are negotiating, make sure you are specific and not vague. Asking someone to make a change and be a better friend won’t work unless you tell them exactly what you’re asking for, for example, ‘I want you to make the effort to organise for us to go out and do something fun rather than me doing it all the time’.

After the dust settles on the conversation do some reflection and ask yourself how it went. Would you do anything differently? Has it worked? And finally make sure you do what you said you would. All the planning and assertive communication is wasted if you have no follow through. Don’t promise your supervisor chapter 1 of your thesis within a week if you haven’t even started the readings yet.

I can’t promise these strategies will work every time and that you will always get what you want. However they may make a difference to how you feel about yourself in your relationships and how confident you feel addressing conflicts and misunderstandings in relationships.

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