We’ve been through two lockdowns now, so I wouldn’t be surprised if tension ran a little high within your bubble. It’s hard to always enjoy the company of the same people since sometimes they can get on your nerves when you’re also dealing with online learning, and there’s no escape from them. Conflict is something that we all want to avoid, but is inevitable in relationships with others.
So, how can we most effectively and sustainably communicate with others when we’re all frustrated?
The four ways that people typically respond to behaviour that is threatening to their relationships are exit, voice, loyalty, and neglect. These can be grouped into either positive or negative, and direct or indirect.
Exit is a direct negative response, involving criticism, abuse, or threatening to leave. This is what happens at the climax of basically every teen romcom: the protagonist gets into a shouting match with their best friend or romantic interest, and leaves them.
On the other hand, voice is a direct positive response, where attempts are made to improve the situation, offering solutions to the problems, and engaging with others to make changes. This could be us and the university, but they playing.
Loyalty is a positive but indirect response, involving passively waiting for improvement in the situation, forgiving wrongdoings of the other person, and supporting them despite their hurtful actions towards you. If you’re anything like me, this is what it’s like to work on a group project where the groups are assigned by the tutor.
Neglect is an indirect negative response consisting of ignoring others, avoiding and withdrawing from discussions of problems, and letting things fall apart. Neglect is perhaps the worst response of the four, as its withdrawal aspect is the strongest predictor of negative outcomes like divorce in married couples.
While you’d expect the positive responses to be beneficial and the negative responses to be detrimental, that’s actually not always the case.
Why? Well, in the short-term, loyalty may be beneficial for your relationships as you’re restraining your negative reactions and expressing optimism instead. You’re softening the blow of the criticisms you’re delivering by gift-wrapping and sugar-coating them.
However, resentment will build up in the long-term. The issues you want to address aren’t being addressed because the other person isn’t taking it seriously, and problematic behaviour continues on.
A negative direct response may actually be more beneficial in the long-term, because communicating the seriousness of the problem can lead to greater efforts from the other person to make changes, and thus leading to greater satisfaction in all the parties involved.
Different communication strategies should be used in different contexts. Taking a direct approach may be most beneficial when there is a problem that can be solved. Fighting with your close others isn’t always bad, and it may well be better than sitting idly by in hopes of the situation getting better.
Good communication is key for any relationship to work, but communication and relationships are both two-way streets. What matters is how you decide to initiate a discussion, or respond to conflict and negativity.
The next time someone shouts at you about a problem they have, think about these different approaches and consider whether it’s necessary for you to shout back. Remember to take a second to breathe and process the situation before you act.