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Assertiveness? Listening? Which parts of you are speaking and listening in a conflict?

From Complaint to Completion – Five hints for creating change

Who Sinks Your Boat? A voice dialogue perspective on resolving conflict


When we are stuck in fight or flight mode in a conflict, we have no access to our genuine power to make positive change occur.

When we are stuck in fight or flight mode in a conflict, we have no access to our genuine power to make positive changes occur.

Assertiveness? Listening? Which parts of you are speaking and listening in a conflict?

We humans are still in the process of evolving from tribal ways of being that are run from the survival fight or flight part of the brain – the old brain. And this is the part that tends to get activated in a conflict – deep, old habits of survival. If this is running the show, then you have a win-lose battle on (even if it’s being carried out reasonably politely, or even silently!).

If fight brain is speaking, we tend to argue, talk over the other, interrupt, blame them, label them, call them names, diagnose the personal problems they should be fixing, nag, yell, slam doors and worse. They will of course either argue back or withdraw in some way. The fight brain wants to win, it wants control. Not great results really, for either party.

If fight brain is listening – well, it’s not really listening at all, except perhaps to gather ammunition for its next attack as soon as the other person has finished talking, or frequently before. So, more of the same. And pretty unpleasant.

If flight brain is speaking – well, it may not be speaking at all. It’s probably given up or can’t find the words and is either taking the path of least resistance and just giving in so as to get some peace, or is having a good whinge to whomever will listen about how impossible the other person is. And feeling sad or frustrated.

If flight brain is listening – it may well be feeling attacked, not respected, belittled, inadequate – and no small amount of resentment about not being heard (again). The person may well also feel angry and frustrated about not speaking up for themself. Disempowered is not a happy place to be, but what to do?

In all of these modes, the desire is to change the other person to the way we want them to be; to get them to do our will, or get them to listen. But real change will only happen in the relationship when one person realises what’s happening and finds a neutral, respectful and open place from which to really listen, and to speak without blaming. In other words, get a new brain! In voice dialogue this place is called the aware ego.

When we listen and speak from the aware ego, the creative, caring and more detached new brain can look at the bigger picture beyond the win-lose you vs me habit. It can begin to create new pathways of communication. It can look respectfully at your own needs and those of the other person and make conscious and workable decisions. New doors of possibility open.

Click here for more on the parts of us who may be speaking, listening and experiencing a conflict.

Click here for resources from the Conflict Resolution Network on assertiveness and listening skills.

Never underestimate your ability to be an agent of change for yourself and others.

Never underestimate your ability to be an agent of change for yourself and others.

From Complaint to Completion – Five hints for creating change

Complaining can be very satisfying – having a really good whinge when we’re upset can de-stress us, calm us down, and even help us re-think the situation.

However, sometimes the more upset we are, the longer we stay in a state of complaint and the more people we tell our story to.

There are two problems with this: it can really begin to entrench the conflict and skew our vision of the person (let’s call her Helen) and it can cause even more problems because it can impact those we tell who also know Helen and thus affect their relationship with her – so it creates fall-out.

Basically if you stay in complaint you are giving your happiness and well-being over to someone else, so it’s a genuine loss of personal power (welcome to the human race – we’re very good at this). If this sounds familiar and you’d like to get your power and happiness back try these ideas:

1. Have a close look at what feelings you have about ‘Helen’ and the situation.

2. Allow yourself to connect with those feelings (the actual feelings, not the story you repeat about her). Feel them in your body.

3.  Imagine there is a circle around you that contains those feelings. Own them as your feelings and yours alone – because they are. They are your reactions and you can’t change anything until you take responsibility for them.

Until you own them you are stuck with the feelings until Helen or the situation changes – and that may never happen. (By the way, I wish we didn’t have to do this part – blaming is much easier!).

4. Make a decision to manage these feelings in a harmless way e.g. write them down in a letter that no-one else gets to see (especially Helen), hit them out with rolled newspaper into a pillow, yell them out driving down the highway, blow raspberries loudly where no-one can hear you. Ask a good friend to simply listen while you blow off steam. If very painful things from your past are being triggered you may need to see a professional who works in a deep and sensitive way. So many strong reactions occur because of unresolved past issues, e.g. our experience of family as a young child.

Let the layers of feeling come through and release them (there is usually more than one feeling e.g. resentment, hurt, feeling belittled). Your perception of the situation may still be the same afterwards, but you will be much calmer and more able to think about the wisest way to deal with things.

5. Now is the time to do that thinking. What does the wisest part of you think will be a constructive response to the situation? If you know what to do, but don’t know how, get some coaching from someone you trust, use the resources of this site or go to other trustworthy resources. Be willing to try new things and don’t give up if they haven’t worked yet.

If you don’t know what to do, don’t act immediately but think creatively about options, win-win approaches that you haven’t been open to. Perhaps discuss it with someone supportive who does not have an investment in what happens and then wait until you own clarity comes.

Now you can become the change agent, taking it step by step to move from complaint to completion. You are in charge of yourself again and your genuine wisdom and personal power is now available.


Help is at hand: using a voice dialogue perspective on those painful or repetitive conflicts

Help is at hand: try using a voice dialogue perspective on those painful or repetitive conflicts

Who Sinks Your Boat? A voice dialogue perspective on resolving conflict

Click here to watch Kris speaking about this on youtube

Voice dialogue, from the psychology of selves developed by Drs Hal and Sidra Stone, sheds a powerful light on why much conflict occurs and offers the tools to work it through.

Voice dialogue is essentially an awareness tool  which looks beneath that stuff we call ‘self talk’ –  those thoughts that fly in and out, or, with a conflict, go round and round. These thoughts come from the automatic ways we have developed to deal with life, called primary selves .

Most of us have a few primary selves that run our lives and govern the way we behave, feel, think and react. They develop when we are young to try to help us feel safety, love and belonging e.g. the achiever/pusher or perfectionist parts that say ‘Have to get this done now, got to stay on top of things, it has to be done right!’ or the pleaser that says ‘Don’t say that, you’ll upset them.’ Or the responsible part who has to do it all, who can’t stop taking care of everything and everyone, or worrying about them. Add to this the inner critic who judges us when we don’t behave according to the rules of our primary selves. It’s noisy in there!

A lot of conflict occurs when we are with someone who carries the opposite primary self.

Here are some classic opposite primary selves that we typically marry, work with, are in relationship with, give birth to or have as a family member:

An achiever/pusher may find him/herself involved with a laidback creative dude – ‘ What’s the big rush? It’ll be fine…’ This drives the pusher crazy. They see the other as an irresponsible slob. Lazy, a pain. The laidback dude sees the pusher as finicky, stressed, controlling, obsessive, and is not impressed. And will probably resist being controlled. There may be a rebel self in there too, who doesn’t like being told what to do. Hence conflict, annoyance, resentment from both sides

A pleaser’s opposite may be a confident self-assertive/selfish type who has no problem going for what they want. To the pleaser self they are mean or uncaring, even intimidating. To the ‘selfish’ person, the pleaser is weak or annoying and although they may like them, they may not really respect them much.

There are many other common opposites like rational mind vs feeling/spontaneous free spirit or cool impersonal style vs warm, affectionate. It is amazing how often these opposites are drawn together.

There is an unconscious purpose behind all this: for us to become more whole and develop our missing opposite aspects, to free up, expand and express our wonderful potential. And to connect more fully, repectfully and genuinely with others. Both strong conflict and strong attraction point to this dance of opposite styles and energies.

These primary selves cannot help but judge and find fault with their opposites. Each primary self – the system behind the self talk – sees the world entirely according to its own perspective. Its way is the right way. The other person needs to change! Right?

We tend to identify with our primary selves, thinking that that’s just who we are. But actually we have had to suppress the opposite way of being in order to survive – perhaps as a child we felt we had no choice but to do perfect work, achieve heaps, help everyone, responsibly manage the home if a parent was absent in some way. So the acheiver/responsibles never get round to just playing, the pleasers feel frustrated or resentful and don’t get their needs met, the laidbacks may eventually pay a price for a lack of achieving or organisation, the selfish ones create resentful people around them who don’t like them.

Here’s the weird bit – we all actually have the whole spectrum of parts within us. We have just identified with some of them and suppressed, or not developed the rest. Way back we ‘decided’ that we had to be certain ways so as to survive, so other ways of being were pushed aside, other needs suppressed. We became a more restricted version of who we could be.

What’s the solution? Moving towards wholeness, which begins with self awareness about who is running you, and the acknowledgement that all parts have their gifts and limitations. To free things up:

1. We need to dis-identify from our primary self (or selves)

This means we catch it in the act and step back a little and see if there are limitations that come with these automatic ways of operating. What are its gifts? Where did it come from? What is it costing us to be run by this part of us? This doesn’t mean not being like that any more, but rather, from a neutral place of awareness, to use its energy where it works, rather than being used by it. We let our achiever take a breath and give ourselves an evening off, we step away from our responsible self, take a very deep breath and delegate some control, we let some of that ‘what about me??’ energy out and teach ourselves to gradually be more assertive.

2. We then need to explore what might be available to us, what might free up within us, if we let a bit of that opposite energy develop in us

It’s not about becoming the opposite, but allowing it in. It’s about balance – becoming a more whole person rather than one-sided. What are those needs that you constantly suppress?

When we have the experiential awareness that voice dialogue brings, the push-pull of opposites around the other person begins to shift. We may still get annoyed, as we will tend to keep going back to our primary self’s perspective – but this time we can catch it and realise that the person no longer has the power to drive us crazy. That our reaction is less about their behaviour and more about our own personality structure. When we take on a little bit of their primary self we are not so bugged by them. We don’t have to change them. We have a neutral aware place – called the aware ego by Drs Hal and Sidra Stone – from which to look at the things that come up in the relationship. There’s room to move. No-one is absolutely right or wrong – both are just ways of being that have that mix of gifts and limitations. And each are just one part of the amazing tapestry of who really are.

For more on how to do this kind of work see voice dialogue tab. Click here to book a facilitation with Kris

Drs Hal and Sidra Stone’s website has many articles, books and other resources on these topics.