Let’s face it. The average person isn’t very good at handling conflict. It often seems like there are two types of people out there: the conflict-avoidant and the confrontational. And we don’t normally use those words to describe healthy, mature people.
I actually believe that conflict, when handled well, is a perfect opportunity to build trust, respect, and love for the other. (Click to share on Twitter)
The problem is that we have been taught, or maybe we just inherently believe, that conflict is always and only about the issue and not the people. Conflict is usually understood as a clashing of beliefs/opinions where there can only be one winner.
But what happens when we change our perspective to a more holistic understanding? What happens if we see conflict as a matter of people and not just “facts” to be argued?
To be clear, I’m referring specifically to situations where one person has been wounded (which often manifests as anger or frustration, not actual emotional “pain”) and decides to confront the offender. Usually these situations play out by a predictable script, although it can take many different specific forms.
First, the confronted individual gets defensive, trying to argue that what the victim heard is incorrect in a million different ways. Then, this causes the confronter to do one of two things: (1) back down and bury their resentment, or (2) get more aggressive and demanding. The first only ends in a false “resolution” that hasn’t really treated the issue at all, and the second either ends by eventually leading to the first or maybe ending the relationship entirely. Obviously, these are not ideal solutions.
Speech Act Theory: a concise, entirely non-technical introduction
Before I offer what I think is a better way, I’m going to take a brief detour and give a (very) brief and incomplete overview of an academic theory of language/communication called “speech acts.” There is a lot to be said on this topic, but this article is not a graduate paper. In fact, I shamelessly admit that I’m going to commandeer speech act theory for the point I want to make in this article, so a few of my definitions might slightly differ from the technical linguistic/philosophical ones, although I hope I’m not going too far astray.
In its most basic form, speech act theory says there are three levels or layers of spoken communication: the locution, the illocution, and the perlocution. Don’t let the big words scare you, though. They’re really just a short-hand for some ideas that are easy to understand. To give a short description:
The locution is the words actually said, with no interpretation or assumptions.
The illocution is what those words are intended to accomplish. Basically, what does the speaker want to do/achieve by saying them? More simply: what did the speaker mean?
The perlocution is how those words affect the listener. In other words, this is what they heard, which we all know (often by means of painful and embarrassing mistakes) is often not what was meant to be said.
A classic, simple, and silly example to explain the point takes place at a dinner party. A guest says to the hostess/cook, “Could you pass the salt?” Now, the locution is simply a question: Are you able to pass salt? But if she just said, “yes,” and went back to eating, we would either feel uncomfortable if we were there or laugh about it if someone was telling us the story. Why, though? Because we instinctively know that the illocution, the intended message, is that he wants her to pass him the salt. Where it gets tricky, though, is when we consider the perlocution. It’s possible that, when she heard this, the hostess may feel embarrassed and think, “My cooking isn’t very good or flavorful if he has to add more salt to it!”
That situation is kind of childish and far-fetched, but it gets the point across. One slightly more serious example is two new friends talking about books. One says to the other, “Oh, I just finished reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Have you ever read it?” In this case, the locution is a simple yes-or-no question. But let’s say that the speaker’s intent (illocution) was actually to ask if his new friend wanted to borrow the book. It’s a friendly thing to do, right? After all, they just met! Once again, though, things get tricky with the perlocution. She might hear any number of things from this question: “Oh he’s just trying to show off,” is an obvious one. Or maybe her insecurity might kick in so that she thinks, “He’s trying to embarrass or shame me, because to be honest the last time I opened a Shakespeare book was in my sophomore year of high school and I didn’t understand a damn word.”
A better way of doing conflict
So, how does all of this play into conflict management? Since conflict always results from human communication (unless you’re in a Hunger Games, kill or be killed kind of situation), I think we can learn a lot from speech act theory in how to handle being confronted more maturely.
Let’s consider these three layers of meaning: locution -> illocution -> perlocution. Normally, if someone comes to confront us about something we said that upset them, our instinctive reaction is to get defensive. And the easiest form of defense is to start on the locution side, “That’s not what I said!” It’s not a promising start if we’re hoping for a healthy resolution, but for many of us, it is our gut reaction.
Now let’s say we eventually accept that we actually did say those words - from evidence like a text message or our own memory, or maybe just from giving up that part of the fight since it’s only going in circles. Our natural reaction is to take a step further down the path to the illocution, “Well that’s not what I meant!” Sure, maybe those are the actual words that came out of my mouth, but obviously you didn’t understand them, since this is what I meant by them. Therefore, your interpretation of what you heard is invalid. By the time we get to the perlocution, we’ve only been laying groundwork to disqualify it. Because most of us have never been taught that the perlocution is actually inherently valid. We have never considered that their perception is their reality, regardless of what we meant.
These kinds of arguments are difficult to reconcile, and even when they are mediated or compromised, they leave wounds behind. But what if we started at the other end of the chart? What if, when confronted by someone, we crossed over to their side and started with the perlocution? What if we listened to and validated what they heard, even if it isn’t what we meant or even what we actually believe we said? Because in step one of conflict resolution, what they heard is the only thing matters. I’m convinced this is a fundamental truth for building relationships and reconciling conflict.
When someone has been wounded by our words, our first responsibility is to see that wound and acknowledge the pain. (Click to share on Twitter)
No matter what we said or meant by it, the best way to start a mature and healthy confrontation is to own the fact that what we said and meant isn’t what they heard. (I’m assuming that’s the case. If this is a conflict where you were actually just a jerk and meant to be a jerk, that’s an entirely different issue.) If we can’t take ownership of the way our words impacted them, then we’ve got little chance of improving the relationship. Yes, I said improving. I actually believe that conflict, when handled well, is a perfect opportunity to build trust, respect, and love for the other. But this is only the case if we can take responsibility for what was heard and do our best to address it. Another name for this is empathy, which often eludes us even though it is actually quite simple.
The practical side
What does this look like? Well, the best thing is to start by apologizing. This can be a bit tricky, though, because we have to be mindful of the way even our apology will be heard. There’s a way in which we could say “I’m so sorry that’s what you heard from me. That was never my intention,” that is loving, empathetic, and open. But those same words or ones like them could easily be taken as condescending or insulting, depending on the context, our body language, and tone of voice. They might be interpreted as, “Clearly you’re too dense to figure out what I actually said, or you’re too fragile and insecure and immature to hear them correctly.”
Chances are that if they’ve already been wounded, they’re less likely to give us the benefit of the doubt, and they’re much more prone to taking our reaction as even more of an attack. We have to be mindful of this - so maybe before we even respond, we should stop to take a deep breath and really consider what they just told us.
When confronted by someone because of an injury we have caused, our first response might be to get defensive; but until we take responsibility, we’re fighting a win-lose battle that is only going to leave more woundedness behind. Obviously, both sweeping things under the rug and severing the relationship are less than ideal resolutions.
Now, I’m not saying we should never get to the point of talking about what we actually meant. I’m only saying we need to take our time getting there. You might not even be able to get there in the initial conversation. It might take some time for things to cool down, although I think that this method is the best way to start the cooling process. Without validating their perspective, we will not be able to explain our intention in a way that is truly heard.
Doctors have to assess the situation and have at least a preliminary diagnosis before they apply any real medical treatment. Medics have to address the immediate needs of a seriously injured person (stopping blood loss, for example) before they try to deal with the less immediately life-threatening dangers. It should be the same with us. When someone has been wounded by our words, our first responsibility is to see that wound and acknowledge the pain. Before we do that, any attempt to try to explain or justify all the details may end up only driving the thorn deeper under the skin.
Sadly, I could tell you stories of times where several prominent, “high ranking” Christian leaders in my life not only failed to follow this process, but completely reversed it. And one of them had a master’s degree in Biblical counseling! It’s sad that two of the most non-empathetic people I’ve encountered in the last five years were actually pastors. But this just illustrates how counterintuitive this idea is for our culture - and how desperately needed it is. If we aren’t willing to cross over to the “other side” and start with the message received by the other, then we have little hope of mature, healthy, relationship-strengthening conflict resolution.
On the other hand, if you are willing to fully embrace this model, I promise you that it will be life-changing. As someone with a natural tendency to speak my mind without much tact, I have unintentionally hurt and offended people too many times to count. But since I first had this paradigm shift, my ability to handle these situations maturely has exponentially increased. But not only that - I have seen growth in all of these areas, too:
My capacity for empathy
My understanding of how my words might come across
My ability to give people the benefit of the doubt when their words upset me
And my genuine love, care, and appreciation of the people around me.
So, if you're in a tense situation or low-grade conflict right now, why not consider crossing over to the other side today?