Coming to grips with Bowen Family Systems Theory in a collaborative learning environment.

What makes for healthy disagreements?

Blog post by Jenny Brown

I asked a group of community group leaders at a church the other night what they think makes for healthy disagreements. This is a question I frequently ask couples in counselling with people usually a bit taken aback that I think this is a more useful exploration than what makes for harmony.

Responses at my talk the other evening included: being willing to listen well and creating trust. People found it much easier to answer the question: What things get in the way of constructive disagreements? Responses included: our pride, believing that we are right, a desire to not give in, pushing our point of view, anger and attack and talking over the other.

I suggested 3 guiding principles from Bowen family systems theory that I think are helpful to dealing with conflict well. Of course with generalities it is wise to appreciate that every specific conflict situation needs to be thoughtfully examined to determine ways to manage self within it. With this caveat aside here are the 3 principles:

1: Stay in good contact with the person with whom tension or disagreement has arisen. In the face of relationship tension, we humans are primed to use distance as a quick way of reducing discomfort. While avoiding conflict can feel like an attractive option, distance predictably increases negative projections. The less contact with the other the more we tend to exaggerate differences and imagine negative motives. When two people avoid each other after a tense interaction it is highly likely that they each begin to escalate a negative emotion circuit.

It isn’t easy to stay in good contact in the face of tension but tolerating this discomfort is a key way of being able to work things out in a thoughtful way. Even the act of demonstrating a warm greeting after a tense encounter can calm things between people and lay the groundwork for talking out differences.

2: Resist detouring tension to a third party. As well as distancing in the face of relationship discord it is predictable that people go to another person and vent about the person they have had tension with. This triangling process seems so natural and yet it can reduce the chance of being able to resolve the difficulty in the original relationship. When we find a person who validates our experience of the “difficult” other we immediately calm down and are less inclined to go back to the upset relationship to hear each side of the situation.

Triangles also provide a mechanism for spreading the original relationship tension as the person who has been vented to is now more cautious and tense around the person they have heard complaints about. I am always asked about the value of seeking counsel form a third party which on the surface sounds like a reasonable strategy in the face of conflict. The key question to ask is: Am I seeking someone to take my side and expecting them to validate me? or am I wanting someone to help me get my emotions in check and to think objectively about how I am managing the relationship upset?

Gaining a more factual view about how we contributed to the misunderstanding is valuable but conversations directed at describing, analysing and diagnosing/blaming the other person is actually adding fuel to the intensity of the discord.

At the church talk a comment was made that an appropriate triangle would be through prayer as opposed to venting to another person.

3: Stay responsible for representing yourself not changing the view of the other. When our energies go towards changing or blaming the other we are contributing to a defensive response that amplifies their own stance; However when we can express our own thinking and experience of the situation we are more likely to be heard by the other who will be equally listened to by us. Our listening is in order to learn about the other’s experience from where they sit in the relationship system that we share (family, workplace, community group etc.).

At the end of my recent presentation on managing conflict I was asked if the outcome of a constructive disagreement always involves compromise. It’s interesting that many people assume that resolution always requires a degree of compromise or giving up something. When disagreements are managed maturely with good contact, avoidance of triangles and people expressing their own experience and perspective, the outcome will be one of 3 possibilities:

  • Each person will maintain their own position with an appreciation and acceptance of the others different stance. This is not just agreeing to disagree but an informed choice to operate form different positions. Respect is maintained.
  • One person will discover and acknowledge that they did not have adequate information to make a judgement and that they were wrong in their position and will back down from it. And conversely one person will choose to maintain their position having explained it to the other and remaining convicted of their view.
  • One or both people will thoughtfully choose to adjust part of their position in light of what they learn from the discussion with the other. Compromise is not a kind of pretend harmony but something worked at through respectful dialogue.

All of this is quite easy to write about but in practice it is hard. It requires overriding the rush of strong emotions that are automatically activated in the face of relationship disruption. We can choose to move towards that tension and manage our selves maturely or to avoid it and potentially contribute to more layers in to the relationship tension. It’s hard to accept that being grown up means choosing to do what doesn’t come naturally!

1 Comment

  • Glen Barnes
    on September 10, 2014

    Hi Jenny, great to promote constructive ‘conflict’. My favourite quote comes from Scottish philosopher David Hume (18th century);

    Truth springs from argument between friends.”

    good to hear more of your beautiful work. cheers Glen

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