Relationship Advice Part II: Conflict Management

This is the second article in a series of 3 articles about relationships written by Professor DeRose. The final article will deal with how to end relationships. We hope you enjoy this series. [Original text by Professor DeRose. Translated by Fabs]

Our advice for handling arguments in relationships has nothing to do with repressing emotion. Conflict management is all about the use of intelligence instead of frenzied emotion. In this case, to repress would be to block the flow of destructive emotions. Managing conflicts is not about blocking, rather, it is about re-directing and re-channelling so that emotions find a way out. So that they flow freely, but in a direction that's more beneficial.

I grew up by the beaches of Ipanema and Leblon in Brazil. From a young age we learned never to swim against the currents. If a current were to catch you, you weren't to fight against it and try to swim directly to shore. Swimming against the current would be impossible and eventually you would drown through exhaustion. All capable open ocean swimmers know that if you get caught in a current you should swim with it, toward its pull, swimming further out to sea then eventually turning around and making it to dry land further along the shore. This is how we should deal with conflicts in relationships.

We all want to be in control but the most rational and effective strategy is rarely the obvious one of swimming aggressively against the tide by playing hard ball or unleashing your emotions uncontrollably. Understand this and your words and actions quickly become much more intelligent.

Imagine a great round boulder resting at the top of a hill. This boulder represents our emotions. It's huge mass gives us the impression of stability and immovability. However, because it's balancing on the edge of a hill it's at risk of rolling down. All it would take is a light touch, maybe with the tip of a finger, for the boulder to lose all its superficial stability and begin rolling down destroying everything in its path. On the other hand, if the bounder begins to wobble just one finger in the opposite direction could prevent it from rolling away. This is how our emotions work.

Somethimes, all it takes is the lightest of touches to avoid a disaster so long as the effort is applied intelligently and at the right time. Namely, before the chain reaction starts.

Let me change tack once more then I will return to boulders and open ocean swimming. I have read much about the training and education of dogs. The secret to training a dog is to avoid shouting, screaming or getting involved in any kind of game of tug-of-war. Instead you must captivate the animal's attention. The important point to understand here is that people, like dogs only ever pay attention to one thing at a time.

I have learned from my Weimaraner dogs that they will always signal, a second before they do something, what they intend to do next. If I hesitate with my command, the dog will be off crossing a busy street or bounding into oncoming traffic! But if I notice, an instant before, and give the command “stay” or "heel" the dog obeys. If the dog has already started running it is pointless to shout “no”, “stay”, “stop”. If the action has been triggered, it is almost impossible to stop it.

If you manage to grab the dog's attention and re-direct it's actions you should reward it with a treat. If you don’t have a treat, pet it and play with it. This of course, is what's is known in the dog training world as positive re-enforcement.

When it comes to emotions, dogs and humans, react in the same way. If the first outburst is avoided, it becomes easy to avoid the conflict altogether. And the treat? It can be a word of encouragement, praise, friendship, a pat on the back, a hug, a look, a smile. This applies not only to conflicts with your partner, but rather to all relationships: at work, on the street, with friends — in all situations.

It is much cheaper to make this small effort than to get involved in a bitter and lengthy argument. My friend, Fabiano Gomes, used to be a successful lawyer and is now Director of one of our DeRose Method schools. When he was approached by a client who wanted to sue someone he would ask:

“Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?”

If the answer was “to be happy”, he would advise:

“Forget this lawsuit. Fighting won't make you happy.”

On the other hand, if the answer was “I want to be right” he would accept the case.

In my view, justice is merely an abstraction created by humans. In Nature there is no justice.

It is always cheaper to apologize. It is cheaper to circumvent a fight. It is cheaper to listen to what you do not deserve to hear, than to retaliate. If you can do that without repressing yourself you will have found the philosopher’s stone of good human relationships.