This special post was authored by Sunshine Woodyard by request of Path Made Clear
My name is Sunshine Woodyard, and yes, that is my real name. How many reading this would admit that you avoid conflict? I'm with you, and I probably have more reason than most to fear and avoid conflict. I was raised by wonderful parents in Washington D.C., was a National Merit Scholar at a prestigious school, and everyone had high hopes for my future.
I got married at the early age of 18, and my first husband was bipolar. Over the course of our 17-year marriage, our arguments were terrifying, ending once with me in the hospital, and another time I jumped out of a moving car to escape an intense rage session.
Living in Fear
My first husband constantly berated me and mocked everything I said and did. Any social occasion, like a work party, would end with a play-by-play recap, telling me how everything I said was inappropriate and wrong. From the outside I looked happy, but I was constantly trying to minimize conflict and keep the peace to avoid his wrath.
I secretly tried to figure out ways to escape the marriage with my life. One night, I heard my husband tell our two children that something was going to happen to daddy and mommy, but that they had plenty of nice friends and relatives that would take care of them.
Fast forward. My first husband's bipolar disease ended up destroying him when he suddenly took his own life. On the day he died, I vowed that violent conflict would never again enter my home. Now thrust into the world alone at 36, I became passionately interested in learning how to have healthy, peaceful relationships.
My Personal Turn Around
I began studying Interpersonal Communication at UCF, and my first class was Conflict Management. Since conflict for me had been basically household terrorism, I initially thought that meant my life should be completely free of conflict. On the first day of class, Professor Sandoval showed us the Chinese symbol for conflict. The symbol combines the words for challenge and opportunity. She explained that conflict is not a thing to be feared or avoided, but instead, in every conflict, we have a chance to build better relationships.
I immediately began a quest to learn how to have conflicts that build instead of destroy. I worked on several graduate research studies about conflict management. One of the most important things I learned was that it’s not bad to argue. Problems arise when people become physically or verbally aggressive during conflict, but this is not the only way to resolve differences. I became intensely interested in the work of Dr. John Gottman, and how it applies to interpersonal conflict.
Gottman is a psychologist who has spent over 30 years observing couples in conflict. He has identified the behaviors during conflict that go along with lasting marriages. This knowledge allows him to predict divorce with over 90 percent accuracy after spending just five minutes with a couple!
4 Essential Skills for Healthy Conflict
I'd like to share with you some of the skills I’ve learned that have enabled me to approach conflict head-on, without the panic and fear I used to feel.
Skill #1: Communicate Like Soccer Players, Not Combatants
When discussing a topic, my new partner and I think of the issue as a soccer ball that we toss back and forth between the two of us. The problem is a separate thing, outside of us, that we kick around until we figure out how to fix it.
Let’s say we’re discussing the perennial marital issue, household chores. If I call my partner names, saying things like, “Well you’re just a lazy, selfish slob,” it’s like opening up a hole in the chest of my partner and throwing the problem into it. Instead, we keep the problem outside of us, and tackle it together until we get it fixed, without attacking one another.
Skill #2: Avoid the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Personal attacks like the ones mentioned above are a sign of contempt, one of four tactics that Gottman calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. These are the four things that typically and inevitably lead to divorce. Beyond avoiding the Four Horsemen, there are some positive things we can do to grow happy relationships.
Skill #3: Turn Towards
My favorite of Gottman’s practices is Turning Towards. For example, let’s say we’re looking out at a harbor and my partner points and says: “That’s a beautiful boat!” Well, I could offer no response, I could make a minimal response, like saying, "Huh." Or, the best thing I could do is to turn toward my partner enthusiastically and say, “Yes, that is a pretty boat. I love how we can appreciate these types of things together. Maybe someday we can get a boat like that. If we did, where would you want to go?”
Now, I admit, that’s a little much, and you don’t have to respond like this every time, but when you do, you’ll establish a valuable connection. Once you’ve built up a number of good experiences together, Gottman calls this Positive Sentiment Override. In that state, your attempts to resolve conflict will be more effective because, basically, you’ve established a strong friendship. So, next time the opportunity arises, consider putting down your phone or other distractions, and seize the opportunity when your loved one is making a bid for your attention.
Skill #4: Walk and Talk
Whenever my kids and I need to have a serious talk, sometimes we take a walk and just breathe. Walking reduces flooding, which is the physical overload - turning red, sweating, racing pulse, and feelings of tension - that comes with intense conflict. One of the important benefits of walking is the reduced eye contact. It just feels less confrontational. In fact, studies show that men prefer side by side conversation when doing things together. So, the next time you need to have a heavy discussion, consider taking a walk!
While I would never characterize those early years as positive or choose to revisit them in any way, I am living proof that you can overcome a traumatic past and learn ways to handle conflict well. In my darkest times, I held on to scripture verses that I had learned as a child, and they gave me hope. Jeremiah 29:11 was especially meaningful to me: "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." So today, instead of avoiding conflict in my relationships, I’ve embraced healthy and constructive conflict as a means of strengthening my relationships and maintaining a deeper sense of peace and harmony.
About Sunshine Woodyard
A native of Islamorada, Florida, Sunshine has over 15 years of experience in marketing, human resources, and event management. She taught Communication and Social Media at the University of Central Florida, where she earned her MA in Mass Communication. When it comes to connecting online, Sunshine believes that the greatest skill you can bring to social media is the ability to be human. Today, Sunshine serves both, travel and hospitality clients through her company, Marketing Sunshine, a consulting firm specializing in social media and content marketing.