Disagreements can often lead to tension and conflict. But they don’t have to. Let’s explore another relationship skill in this new series.
ILLUSTRATION: ADAPTED FROM MINIWIDE
Disagreements are common, but they don’t have to be relationally disruptive. Are any of these familiar?
Foliage on the property line needs to be maintained, and neighbours can’t agree who should do it.
A newlywed has always put the garbage bin on the left side under the sink, while their new spouse is adamant it must go on the right.
Coworkers who got so used to working from home are now back in cubicle proximity – and getting under each other’s skin.
Helping people learn how to express disagreement in a healthy way is a big part of my work as a therapist. Here are three rules for navigating disagreements that can help us work through them without harming the relationship and help us move through de-escalation, thoughtful consideration and application.
1 The anger umbrella
Anger is a secondary emotion. It feels like our first emotional response, but it’s actually reacting to something that preceded it. Think of emotions as a rainstorm – anger is the umbrella that pops up to keep us dry. It’s much easier to accept that we’re frustrated or irritated with something than to sit in vulnerable emotions like inadequacy or embarrassment. Anger can be both entirely appropriate and easily misused (Ephesians 4:26–27). We need to figure out what is happening to cause that protective emotion to arise. Whatever is causing that is the issue we need to explore.
2 Perspective of preference
One key consideration of a disagreement is its level of significance. Is the disputed issue a moral one? Most of our disagreements are about preference. For example, I play Christmas music in my home early in November. My best friend will not engage in Christmas merriment until December first. We disagree about the timing of festivities, but morality, right and wrong, are not in question. Keeping this perspective is critical for remaining humble in disagreements.
3 Use your I
I often borrow my pastor-husband’s books. He has quite the collection, and I appreciate access to this shared library. However, I sometimes forget to return them in a timely manner to their shelf. When he’s working on a sermon series where that resource is needed, this can be anywhere from a nuisance or annoyance to a frustration for him. Let’s imagine two ways he could approach me about this.
I statements have the power to shift from accusation to invitation.
1. You forgot to bring my books back again? You always do this! You never put things back where they go!
First, notice the yous. These are accusations that immediately bring up my defences. The word again has a shaming element, like he wants me to feel guilty, small or stupid. Always and never are absolutes that are rarely helpful in these situations.
2. When my resources aren’t returned, I feel disrespected. I want you to have access to these things, but I also need to use them for work. We need to figure out a better system that works for both of us.
Do you notice the difference? In the first approach his words you did/didn’t were a quick way to get my back against the wall. You language feels like an accusation rather than a conversation. In comparison, this second approach is an invitation that articulates the offended person’s feelings without causing defensiveness. I encourage clients in conflict to remember their Is, because I statements have the power to shift from accusation to invitation.
We can disagree without being disagreeable. While disagreements are normal and should be expected, the way we navigate them reflects on us, our character and the King we Christians serve as ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:12–20).
ThroughTherapy.ca) and sees clients from across the country through virtual appointments.
, MAMFT, RCT, CCC, is an Alberta therapist at Through Therapy Counselling Collective (