Resolve conflict by recognizing its causes

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Editor's note: This column was originally published Aug. 11, 2005.

You and your spouse may agree on who to vote for, how you feel about facial hardware on teenagers, even how you feel about eating veal.

Yet you may not have a clue how your spouse's mind works. You can live, eat, sleep, pay bills and even raise children and/or dogs with the same person for decades, and yet find yourself looking across the room at your partner one night, wondering: Who is this strange old person living in my house? How does it happen?

Often, it is an unresolved and perpetually repeating conflict that causes the retreat from each other's side.

Understanding how the mind of your partner works is the first critical step to unlocking the conflict gridlock, according to Dr. Jack Hamilton, director of Palo Alto's Conflict Prevention and Resolution Services.

Gnarly states of conflict arise, according to Hamilton, because individuals have difficulty hearing what others have actually said.

"Instead, they have heard what they expected others to say. They have spent hours arguing on the basis of their fixed ideas, and have ended up polarized."

We quickly and unconsciously climb up a "ladder of assumptions," claims Hamilton. Once there, we act reactively.

Here is how it works:

First, we choose our facts. These are the portion of reality that we see. At best, it can only be a subset of the total facts of any situation. The first incorrect assumption we make is that we have seen the whole picture and that what we have seen is what the other person has seen.

For example, "The trash is sitting there once again. I am the only one who ever takes it out, he never notices it."

Second we make our interpretations. This is how we try to understand the sliver of facts that our mind has chosen to focus on. We will often interpret the present situation by applying it to the template of our past history.

"It's like I am Cinderella all over again, just like when I had to do all of the chores around my house while my brother got to be the little prince."

Third, we tend to make attributions of the other person's motives. We can't really know what is in the mind of our "conflict partner," but we often act as if we were able to do so.

"He thinks he's the prince of this house. He takes me for granted."

Fourth, we then indulge in generalizing.

"He always takes me for granted! He never does anything around the house!"

We generalize to make sense out of our complex world, but this can create a slippery slope to stereotyping and prejudice.

Becoming conscious of this process gives us the power to make changes.

"To maintain an open mind about others, we need to keep reminding ourselves that our views may be artificially narrow," Hamilton says.

When in a conflict situation, he suggests we remember that we may not understand the entire picture.

Living in the embrace of a good marriage is well known to promote longevity. But who is going to want to live a long time if your house is riddled with the shrapnel of conflict?

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh, a Cape Girardeau native, is a clinical psychologist who lives in Santa Barbara, Calif. Contact him at For more on the topics covered in Healthspan, visit his Web site:

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