Problem Interactions: Theory & Practice

By Faith Leather, M.A.

This article was adapted from a talk given in School District 68 as part of a Professional Development Day in May 2006.

Everyone has experienced situations of interpersonal conflict, whether this be at work, school, or in a relationship with friends, family, or a significant other. Sometimes these problem interactions are repetitive and both parties leave each interaction feeling frustrated, dissatisfied, and often angry at themselves and/or the other person.

Research in many areas of psychology can help explain why this might occur. For example, self-perception theory as applied to these kinds of situations can be stated basically as “I hear myself talk and so learn what I believe.” In other words, we often become more strongly attached to a position as we argue for it. One can see evidence for this in everyday parlance: we “talk ourselves into” (or out of) taking a particular course of action.

Also, psychological reactance theory shows that there is an increase in the attractiveness (or rate) of a behaviour when a person feels they are being challenged. You have likely noticed this principle in action in yourself and others, sometimes called being a “devil’s advocate”. Here one person suggests a certain course(s) of action, only to be rebutted at every turn “…yes, but…” which creates a cycle that is difficult to break out, making it nearly impossible to have a chance to resolve the issue at hand. The person making the suggestions is left frustrated at having tried so hard to offer solutions only to have them summarily pushed aside, while the other person is often left feeling misunderstood or attacked. When the latter happens they may try to attack in retaliation, resulting in an escalation of the conflict not to mention getting away from the original issue. This is common in romantic relationships in which the argument may begin about doing the dishes but spirals off into other areas of the relationship as the attack-retaliation cycle spins out of control.

Similar in some ways to psychological reactance, the ‘righting reflex’ is a tendency to try and regain balance in a discussion, thus when a person feels attacked, they will struggle even harder against suggestions, even if those suggestions might well be helpful solutions. A good example of the righting reflex is to think of a car sliding on ice. Our natural tendency is to wrench the wheel in the direction we want to go. This tends to result in a crash. Unnatural as it may feel, it is actually far more productive to first turn in the direction of the skid. Another term for this is ‘paradoxical intention’: basically, in some situations what feels like the right course of action actually ends up producing the opposite result of what was intended.

In these situations of problem interactions, a person is hearing themselves talk (bringing in self-perception theory), often they feel challenged (bringing in psychological reactance), suggestions on how to solve the issue are resisted in an effort to “win” the interaction (righting reflex), which has the opposite effect (paradoxical intention) and turns the situation into a wrestling match of confrontation.

What we would like to see in these situations is a way to turn the wrestling match into something more akin to a dance. Dancing is collaborative, wrestling is confrontational. Knowing some of the theory behind interpersonal interactions is like a wrestler reading a book about dance steps; it gives him or her the background to begin learning a new skill. However, to turn wrestling into dancing requires practice, and, as with most things in life, practicing certain skills can make you far better able to have a successful discussion. (Note: If the situation you are dealing with is particularly laden with emotion or has been re-enacted countless times, it will be more helpful to first practice in situations that are less problematic and advance to the more difficult situation).

Reading about theory is one thing, but it is much more helpful to experience it in action. Using role play can be very useful. Try out different strategies with a partner, paying special attention to how different responses FEEL. For example, imagine having a conversation in which the other person says to you, “I can’t believe you…” (run your classroom that way, raise our daughter like this…). I think most of us would agree that this feels ‘attacking’. This then provokes some or all of the psychological principles above and tends to generate one of two types of response (or both at various times in the discussion). One is to become defensive, “You don’t know what it’s like….” (to have 30 kids in a classroom, to have to deal with a 2 year olds’ tantrums all day…). The other is to ‘attack’ back, “Well you never…” (make any constructive suggestions, do the dishes…). Imagine responding to the initial perceived ‘attack’ with a different kind of response. For example, “I understand your concern. That’s important to me too. I think I’m doing a good job of juggling my responsibilities but it’s always good to hear your feedback as well….”. Watch how this response changes the other person’s next response. Switch roles and experience both sides. Notice how, in effect, certain ways of responding are like stepping on your dance partner’s foot (or wrenching the car steering wheel on ice), while others facilitate the discussion.

Getting back to the dancing/wrestling metaphor, interpersonal conflict is often thought to arise when the two people involved have different goals. However, there is almost always something that the two people in fact share. For example, a teacher and a parent both want a good educational experience for the child. A couple both want the best for their child. Focusing on the real issue and a solution(s) to it rather than getting caught up in the emotional content is a good strategy. This does not mean ignoring your own feelings and needs. Rather, it means accepting your own feelings of frustration or anger as natural responses but not letting these overwhelm your capacity to work out a solution.

As mentioned earlier, in these situations we want to avoid engaging the other person’s righting reflex. Therefore the first thing to do is to let the other person express themselves. Your “job” is to listen and make sure you understand so that the other person is truly heard. Try not to judge or lay the blame on them or you. This doesn’t mean that you agree or endorse their perspective or don’t have your own valid points, it is simply an attitude of respectful listening and a desire to understand that does not engage the righting reflex in the other person. This makes it more likely that the discussion will be a productive one.

After listening carefully you can use a statement followed by a question to check your understanding. “I hear you saying that you are concerned about….” (your son’s math homework, the amount of television Sarah watches…) “am I on the right track?” Throughout the discussion focus on using “I” language, “I’m feeling angry” rather than “You make me angry”. Using “I” is actually a more powerful position, as you are taking responsibility for your feelings. Using “you” suggests to the other person that they may be to blame, again engaging their defences such as the righting reflex.

Once you both agree on the problem you can begin the problem solving phase. Remember to emphasize points of agreement and go for solutions rather than blame, the discussion is not a win lose wrestling match, it’s a dance and the better you can dance together the better the result will be for both parties. Brainstorming can be particularly helpful. “I can see we need to work out a solution to this.” (Indicates awareness of the problem and a desire to do something about it). “How about we brainstorm some ideas for potential solutions?” (This involves both of you in coming up with solutions). Remember that brainstorming is simply a time to list ideas, using the creative parts of your brains, it is not a time to analyze the ideas that are put forward. Keeping in mind the psychological principles discussed earlier (psychological reactance, righting reflex, paradoxical intention), roll with any resistance rather than directly oppose it. “That’s a great idea. I was thinking that we could also…”. At the end of the interaction it is great to be able to end on a high note even if the problem isn’t solved yet. For example, “Thanks for taking the time to come to me with your concerns”.

Keep practicing these skills and you’ll soon find that dancing allows you to accomplish much more in your interactions than wrestling ever did!

While this is just a quick overview, if you wish to learn more about how to deal with problem interactions please see the list of books below.


Select References

Assertiveness at Work: How to Increase Your Personal Power on the Job.
Linda MacNeilage & Kathleen Adams

Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway,
Susan Jeffers

Giving In to Get Your Way.
T. Dobson & V. Miller

The Last Word on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense.
S. Elgin

Where I End and You Begin
A. Catherine

Your Perfect Right.
R. Alberti & M. Emmons