Photo by George Eastman House
Most of us can think about how conflict is different from disagreement. We have folks we can peacefully disagree with on certain issues and it doesn’t affect our relationship. But what is it that turns a difference of opinion in to an outright argument or nasty fight?
When we’re in a philosophical discussion with someone else about a particular issue, if we don’t let our emotions take over, we are generally able to have a conversation that allows for different ideas. But as soon as we start to feel personally attacked or fear that the other party is going to try and force us to act in a way we don’t want to, things get ugly. There are two things at play here. The first is the way our brains work.
When the emotion centers of our brains begin to really activate, the part of our brain that reasons goes quiet. In addition, when we are strongly emotional, we are literally unable to process auditory input (listen) as well. We stop being able to listen when our emotions take over. That’s a problem when we are having a discussion with someone whose ideas are very different from our own because in order to have a productive exchange, everyone needs to feel heard. At this point, it’s pretty hard to learn from the other person and generally, we let things devolve to a point where the objective becomes winning instead of learning. when we let adrenaline take over, we are afraid to lose. That leads us to the second issue of power.
If the goal is winning, you’ve opened the door to a power struggle and whichever person is louder or more tenacious or had more power in the first place is likely to prevail. This is a particular problem when it comes to difficult discussions between parents and teens or teachers and teens because the adult in the situation almost always starts out in a position of power, whether they acknowledge it or not. And when you’re faced with a power differential, it’s a safe bet that there will be conflict instead of disagreement. The person who is at a disadvantage will always have that niggling fear in the back of their mind that what they say doesn’t ultimately matter because they don’t have enough influence. They may also be afraid to be completely honest because of the repercussions that might come. Will they be grounded? Have their phone or car privileges taken away? Be put on academic probation or suspension?
So, what now? Here are some tips for either de-escalating from conflict back to disagreement or for preventing conflict in the first place when you know there’s a difference of opinion with a teen:
- If you’re the person in power, call it out and do your best to set an intention for the conversation that is about learning, not about consequences or winning. I’m genuinely curious about your thoughts on this. I will do my best not to judge or tell you you’re wrong. I just need to understand.
- Try to keep emotion out of it. Remember, the angrier/more frustrated you get, the harder it will be for your brain to actually process what the other person is saying. If you get triggered, name it and let it go. Wow, that made me feel really sad/angry. I’m going to try not take that personally and ask you more questions about it instead. Remember that the goal is to learn, not to make the other person feel bad or stupid or change their behavior, necessarily.
- Agree to table the conversation if the other person is really emotional. Sometimes, we need to walk away for a bit in order to let the feelings subside and then circle back around. Emotions are contagious, so if one of you is really ramped up, the likelihood that the other person will match that emotional intensity is pretty high. Can we talk about this later? I really want to get where you’re coming from but it seems like it’s too raw right now.
Adolescents need their relationships with adults to evolve over time to give them more power and to listen more. Not only does this help them become more independent, but it models for them how to have adult conversations about difficult topics, and it empowers them to honor their own perspectives and ideas. By the time they get to college and/or the workforce, they will need to have the skills to have disagreements without turning them into conflict.