Doris and Stan fought over how warm the house should be. She wanted 72 degrees and he wanted 68. Doris called Stan a cheap bastard and Stan said, “You just love throwing money out the window!” By pointing fingers at each other, they succeeded merely in increasing their resentment. Conflicts are inevitable in human relations and are not necessarily bad. A conflict exists when people see the world differently and have incompatible goals. Given that people invariably differ, we need ways of resolving conflicts that are not destructive. Rule number one is to define and address the problem, not the person. The problem, once defined, was that Doris was uncomfortable at 68 and Stan wasn’t. Not who’s right or wrong. Once the problem was defined, it was easy for them to compromise—they kept the thermostat at 70 and Doris wore warmer clothes.
Intensity of feelings should be respected. Marilyn, my wife, was appalled at the bright yellow color that our basement wall turned out. I like it. Since Marilyn and I selected the color together, it would have been easy for me to blame her bad judgment in the selection process. I could have said, “You’re impossible to please! You never make up your mind!” And so on, but this would not have addressed the problem. The problem was that Marilyn was unhappy with the wall. I don’t want her to be unhappy and repainting the wall is relatively simple.
After defining the problem in a way that it could be addressed (as opposed to, “You never make up your mind!”), we have to put intensity of feelings in the formula. I am relatively indifferent to colors, while Marilyn is more sensitive. Therefore, her intensity is much greater about the bright yellow than mine. Given that, we’ll change the yellow. However, if she picks a color that I find noxious, I reserve the right to veto. There are a lot of colors that are acceptable to both of us but precious few that we both prefer. I won’t be bothered by the vast majority of colors that Marilyn wants. If Doris were still uncomfortable at 70 degrees, Stan should turn the heat up.
The examples demonstrate the principle of intensity even though the issues are not central. For example, in mixed religious marriages, there must be a discussion before marriage of how to handle this potential conflict. Here, where it is difficult to determine who is right, the principle of intensity is brought forward. If one party is tepid and the other is intense, then a compromise can be reached. The conflict must be discussed and addressed. If the partners cannot agree before getting married, this may turn out to be a festering sore. When people want to go in very different directions, it is frequently better they go in different directions before getting married. This applies to sex, money and child-rearing—areas that have great potential for conflict.
The biggest obstacle to resolving conflicts in a relationship is one of control. Stan and Doris were both bright, capable people. Once the problem of temperature was reframed, they could easily address it. However, they got locked into a control struggle. It was not about the temperature, it was about who’ll win. That made them point fingers.
There are other principles of conflict resolution that I’ll address in subsequent articles, but keep in mind that defining the problem in a manner that can be addressed is necessary, that pointing fingers doesn’t work and that we have to respect the intensity of people’s feeling as much as who’s correct when resolving conflicts.