Very few people enjoy conflict, and many people aren’t really sure how to handle it appropriately. Often, we have a hard time standing up for ourselves and saying what we really feel because we don’t want other people to be angry with us, and some of us may have a hard time trusting that we can control our own anger. For those of us on the spectrum, conflict resolution is sometimes challenging because we aren’t sure what is and isn’t an appropriate thing to say or feel or don’t know how to balance our need to be honest with our need to be accepted by the people we are talking to.
As scary as conflict often is, however, it’s unavoidable sometimes. Most people–not just Aspies–have things that are very important to them, feelings that overwhelm them and beliefs they are passionate about. People are all different, and sometimes your needs and wants are going to clash with somebody else’s. If you are unable to speak up, other people may never be aware that their needs conflict with yours or that their behavior is bothering you. For this reason, it’s important to learn how to handle conflicts.
Read on for some tips about handling conflict.
Tip #1: Remember that all feelings are okay to have.
People with Aspergers and autism often get caught up in wondering if their feelings are “okay.” You may worry that you’re getting angry over something that doesn’t bother neurotypical people or that your emotional response is inappropriate. While it’s often helpful to look at the thoughts behind your emotions, all emotional states are legitimate. It doesn’t matter whether anyone else would feel angry about a situation–the fact that you do is important, and you need to honour that.
Emotions are not mandates to act in any particular manner, however. This is where it’s easy to get tripped up. Many people think that if they’re angry and feel like yelling, screaming, or shoving someone, that somehow makes it okay to do these things. It doesn’t. Allow yourself to feel angry or sad about someone else’s behavior and then decide how you want to handle it.
Tip #2: Separate your feelings about what someone is doing from your feelings about the person.
The Aspie brain often sees things in black and white. This can make it difficult to judge situations or to navigate relationships. Many people with Aspergers or autism think that if they’re angry or disappointed with someone, they can no longer love that person. They seek to suppress feelings of anger because they think that if they become angry at someone, they can no longer have a relationship with them. Similarly, they may be afraid that if someone is angry with them, the relationship is over.
It does not have to be this way. Instead of idolizing some people and demonizing others, try your best to look at people just as people. Everybody has some qualities you like and some you don’t. If, on balance, you like more of someone’s qualities than you don’t, that person is someone you want to keep in your life.
Tip #3: Stretch your empathy muscles before you begin to approach a conflict.
It’s easy to take everything personally, especially because looking at things from other people’s perspectives may not be natural for you. Once you’ve acknowledged your feelings to yourself and processed them a little, the next step is to try to see the situation from the other person’s point of view. This is important for a couple of reasons.
- Sometimes empathy helps turn down the intensity of your feelings. You may be furious at someone’s behavior and not be able to think clearly, but if you can see it from the other person’s perspective, it may help tone down your anger. For example, if you are furious that someone didn’t return your phone call, using your empathy muscles may help you see that the other person is especially busy or stressed right now. You still may be angry, but you won’t be so angry that you can’t deal with the problem.
- Empathy can help the other person hear you once you address the conflict. Nobody likes to hear that they are all wrong or that they need to change. Those kinds of attitudes put people on the defensive. If you can come from a place of understanding the other person’s point of view, it makes it easier for him or her to hear what you have to say.
- Empathy can stop you from making assumptions. Very often, we assume that people are doing things to us or to bother us when in reality the other person wasn’t thinking about us at all! If we can look empathetically at someone else’s behavior, we can see that the behavior might not be about us at all and are less likely to accuse the person of something or act as if he or she is attacking us personally.
Tip #4: Walk away if you need to calm down.
For many of us on the spectrum, the uncertainty of an unresolved conflict provokes extreme anxiety and even panic. We want to work through conflicts immediately so that we know where we stand with people. However, this approach often doesn’t work. If your emotions are too high or too intense, you won’t be able to take all the steps you need to take in order to successfully resolve the conflict.
Don’t be afraid to walk away. Walking away doesn’t mean that you are giving up on the relationship with the person or giving in. It means you are taking the time necessary to come to a successful resolution. If you are worried that someone else’s feelings may be hurt by your desire to walk away, you can let him or her know that you’re doing this to help the relationship. For example, you might say, “I’m getting really wound up. I don’t want to attack you with my words. I’m going to go calm down and we can talk about this later.”
Tip #5: Remember to listen, not just talk.
Listening fully to the other person is important to all types of communication. It’s especially important in conflict resolution because emotions run high and both people have a need to be heard in order to be able to resolve the conflict. So when the other person is talking about his or her emotions, it’s important to:
- Make eye contact for 2-3 seconds at a time so that the other person knows you are interested and listening.
- Nod or say “okay” or “mm hmm” after the person makes a point to show you have heard.
- Summarize what the other person has said when he or she finishes speaking.
Doing these things shows you are listening. In addition, you should pay attention to what the other person says. Do not focus on what you are going to say next while the other person is talking. When the other person is finished and you have summarized what he or she said, then wait a second to see if the person is going to say something else. If the other person is finished speaking, then you can begin to say what you want to say.
Tip #6: Try to see the other person as on the same “side.”
Many people–both those with Aspergers/autism and those without–see conflict as a competition where one person wins. This attitude is counter-productive because it keeps you and the other person fighting. Instead, look at the conflict as a challenge to overcome. You and the other person have needs, feelings or desires that conflict. The challenge is to find a solution that benefits both of you.
Using your listening skills helps dissipate this competitive attitude because when you listen to the other person, you give up being “right” in favour of understanding what the other person’s needs are.
Once you both have communicated your side of the conflict, it’s time to work on finding a solution. It’s helpful to use a dry erase board or a pad of paper and brainstorm solutions. During the brainstorming process, don’t reject any idea as “wrong.” Write down all ideas and the use your listening skills as well as your speaking skills to determine what solution might work best for both of you.
Conflict is hard for everybody. There’s no exact formula for resolving conflicts like there might be for math or science problems. However, if you follow the advice above, you have a much better chance of resolving conflicts in a way that boosts everybody’s self-esteem. Don’t expect yourself to be perfect at this, especially when you’re first beginning; just do the best you can to approach conflicts in a mature, open-minded manner and you will find that you get more of what you want and have less stress when conflicts occur.
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