That Thing We Just Always Do in a Fight
What do you think of when you hear the word “habit?” For many of us, the first examples that come to mind are the obvious ones: either the “bad habits” that we would like to change, or the “good habits” that we wish we could develop. Maybe you want to quit smoking, or you want to develop a new habit of cooking dinner every night. It’s easy to name these habits and to assess whether or not we are breaking the habits we don’t like and developing the ones we want.
It’s harder to notice the interpersonal habits we have, and particularly how those habits come up when we are emotionally activated, for example in conflict. We all have habits in conflict. These are our patterns of thought, feeling, attitude, and behaviour that come up frequently, and usually without reflection. In fact, not only is it often hard to see our habitual reactions when they are happening, but it’s often hard to identify them as habits, to know how the pattern started, and to understand what might need to happen to step out of it.
In a conflict, a habit can be anything that we do quickly and reactively. It might feel like a natural thought, feeling, action, or belief - just that thing we do, or a pattern we find ourselves in. It’s usually our gut response, or what feels the most comfortable or familiar to us when we are upset with someone. Maybe you find yourself quickly yelling or feeling defensive when someone gives you feedback. Maybe you don’t even notice that you have shut down, or that you are avoiding a conversation when it would be helpful to be upfront about what is going on for you. Maybe you have a tendency to minimize or deflect responsibility when someone is upset with you. All of these responses to conflict can be helpful in certain situations. However, we all tend to have one or two responses that we rely on as a default – that become our habits – even when it might be more effective to try something new.
Here are some examples of common habits in conflict:
Making critical comments, or being unable to acknowledge positive things about the other person;
Jumping straight to yelling;
Expecting the other person to be able to hear a “rational” argument;
Avoiding the person or conversation in the hopes it will go away;
Minimizing or deflecting responsibility;
Not saying what we need and then getting resentful when our needs aren’t met;
Shutting down emotionally; and
Needing the conflict to be resolved right away.
You might wonder why it is that we develop our conflict habits in the first place. The reason is that they have worked for us! At some point in our lives, usually when we were very young, we reacted to conflict in a particular way, and it made us feel safer or less out of control. Maybe it got us out of an uncomfortable situation, or succeeded in getting us what we needed. And because we learn from experience, we tried it again. And again. Over time, our brains strengthen the pathways we use the most, which creates a feedback loop. The more we use the same strategy, the easier it becomes to use that same strategy again, even in situations where it might not be helpful (for more information on how our strategies become reinforced, check out this article about how neurons that “fire together wire together,” based on the theory by Donald Hebb). On the upside, the same is true when we make a conscious effort to change a pattern. The more we can be aware of the habit, practice a different reaction, and celebrate the small successes, the more likely we are to be able to develop new pathways and responses.
So how do we shift those habits?
1) Understand your habitual response.
The first step to changing a habit is to develop awareness of the patterns you tend to fall into. The tricky thing about conflict habits is that they are not usually obvious to us, so it takes some personal reflection to identify what frequently relied on behaviours, reactions, and thought patterns might not be serving you well. That being said, if you have read this far, you probably have an inkling that there is something about how you react to conflict that might not be helping you develop the kinds of relationships you would like to have. If you have a vague sense that you are repeating patterns, but you aren’t sure what they are, I would strongly suggest you get some help from a therapist or coach to explore your patterns on a deeper level.
It might also be helpful to reflect on the following sentences (You can replace “someone” with a name if you want to reflect on conflict with a specific person in your life):
When someone I’m upset with does/says ______________, I tend to ______________, at which point they tend to _________________ and then I ____________________.
I experience this pattern in situations such as __________________, but not in situations such as ____________________.
When I experience this habit pattern, the emotions I feel are: ________________________________________________________________________; the thoughts I think are: __________________________________________________, I say things like: __________________________________________________________, and I do things such as: ___________________________________________________.
And finally, the best ways to develop your awareness of conflict patterns is to develop your capacity for self-awareness more generally. There are so many ways people do this, including setting aside time to just be with and experience emotions, meditation, therapy, getting feedback from trusted loved ones, journaling, and developing body awareness through yoga, focusing, or other methods.
2) Try something new, and see how it works.
How do we let go of something that is tried and true and take a leap into the unknown? The best strategy is to experiment with lots of different responses and see what happens. The more flexible your responses can be, the greater comfort you will develop with different ways of being in conflict.
Start easy. Do a roleplay. Practice active listening when you’re not in a real conflict. Practice different ways to raise a concern and ask for feedback afterward to see what worked. Download a list of emotions and circle the ones you have felt most recently in a conflict situation. We are talking about life-long habits, so give yourself a break if it feels awkward or too difficult to try in the heat of the moment. It's about building the skill when it's easy so that eventually it comes more naturally under pressure.
Be creative. Imagine other perspectives. Pretend you are an actor in a play, and you have been assigned to play the part of the person who makes you furious. What is their perspective? What is their motivation? Imagine someone you deeply respect - a mentor, teacher, or wise friend - is giving you advice. What would they say about your situation and how you might respond? Think of a few different people who you respect who might disagree with each other, and imagine them all having a conversation about how you could respond. They don’t have to be people you know. It works just as well with fictional or famous people, as long as you can imagine their perspective. Of course, if you know the person you respect, it may also be helpful to ask them how they might respond in your situation.
Try things out when the stakes are low. Find low-conflict situations in which your habit shows up, and try out something new. If you have a hard time asserting yourself, try suggesting a restaurant you want to go to, rather than going along with someone else’s suggestion. If you tend to be critical, try offering a compliment or acknowledgment to someone you feel slightly annoyed with. It’s all just research. If something doesn’t work, you can try it again in a different context. If you try a new response a number of times and it still doesn’t work, then maybe try something else.
3) Notice and celebrate small successes.
Because our conflict patterns are often at least partly unconscious, it can sometimes feel overwhelming or even impossible to change them. That is why it is essential to notice the moments in which we do something different and get a better response than we might have if we used the same old strategy. They might be few and far between at first, but if you keep at it, you will begin to notice subtle shifts in your interactions with other people.
That being said, especially at the beginning, it can be very hard to notice the small successes, because the habitual reaction is still so strong. If you’re trying your best to shift things and feel like it’s not going anywhere, it can be very helpful to ask someone to help you notice. Sometimes this could be a trusted friend or family member who is good at offering constructive and supportive feedback. Sometimes this might be a therapist or coach. Whoever it is, let them know you aren't looking for problem solving, evaluation, or advice. You are looking for help to notice and celebrate the small ways you are shifting your conflict patterns.
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