The Art of Dealing with Conflict Without the Criticism

Conflict in a relationship can be scary because anger and criticism are typically at the root of conflict and most of us have not had formal training in how to resolve it. Our parents did not teach us to handle conflict appropriately. Instead, we were taught what not to do if we felt angry, e.g. don’t say bad words, don’t hit her, just ignore him, turn the other cheek, etc. Today, I am going to encourage you to think about adding a life skill to your repertoire that will benefit you in most of your interactions with others. The skill is to learn how not to take the criticism that accompanies conflict personally. This is very difficult to do, but once you learn the skill you will be forever changed in your interactions with others. Now, I know this may be confusing to you, but here’s how to stop taking criticism personally.

When people are in conflict with you there is usually an inherent criticism. Human beings oftentimes take things WAY too personally when this occurs. I am going to ask you to do two things when conflict occurs:

  • When criticized, look for the behavior that is offensive and ask yourself, “Would it be helpful to change it?” Most likely there is a behavioral change you can make to improve the situation.
  • The next thing to say to yourself—and certainly it is the most difficult challenge—is, “This is not about me, this is about __________.” (Put the person that is criticizing you in the blank.) In other words, you will be telling yourself that this is not about you, this is about the person sharing the message.

When human beings take things too personally they usually find themselves feeling lousy as a friend or a partner. It can move them into a place where they berate themselves for all their inadequacies. That’s the process that needs to stop. That immobilizes us in the process of conflict. When you repeat the key sentence, “This is not about me, this is about _______” you don’t take on that feeling of inadequacy and you move through the conflict with more focus and confidence.

Let’s look at some examples.

  • Your boss yells at you because the department isn’t producing. You glean from his conversation that you need to come up with a creative solution. Then, as he continues to berate you, you practice saying, “This isn’t about me, this is about Mr. Hill.” Most likely, Mr. Hill is reacting to previous feelings of frustration from an earlier occurrence or event.
  • Your husband yells at you for spending too much money on groceries. You “file” his concern so that you will be respectful of his worry, but as the liturgy continues and he starts faulting you for being late and not keeping up the house or scheduling the kids’ activities too tightly. You remind yourself that his criticism is about something that has to do with him. Again, you say to yourself, “This is not about me, this is about him.” You don’t react to his act of ranting and raving and you don’t feel like the “whipping post” that partners typically feel after a fight with their spouse.

Conflict is inevitable and it is important to respect the concerns, but most of the verbiage that occurs has nothing to do with you. It is really about the sender. Try to remember this so you can avoid personalizing it. You will be a healthier individual and the conflict will be more focused because you won’t be reacting to issues that weren’t even a part of the original concern.

So, again, I am going to remind you the key statement is, “This is not about me, this is about _____.” Write it down so you won’t forget it. Now, I know that you will have an opportunity to use it in the next couple of weeks, because conflict is a normal part of life. In later columns you will learn how conflict can actually bring you closer to your spouse or friend. Conflict is a good thing, and I will show you how to use it to get your needs met.

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