In Conflict? Pass the Pencil.

31 Aug

My words stuck, unable to pass the lump in my throat. How well I remember the first time I tried important communication with George. We’d been dating only a few months. He encouraged me with these treasured words, “You can’t say the wrong thing.”

That was thirty years ago. Since that day, I’ve said the wrong thing more than once. So has he. Yet the underlying truth remains. We genuinely want to know each other’s thoughts and feelings even if we don’t agree.

Close relationships present more possibilities for conflict than casual associations. The paradox is that loving confrontation increases intimacy. Confrontation forces us outside our comfort zone into transparency and vulnerability. It’s risk-taking of the most dangerous sort. If we ask for changed behavior or expose our true feelings, we risk anger, rejection, or even a lost relationship. However, when we find mutual vulnerability and an eagerness to preserve the relationship, the rewards are staggering.

Sometimes conflict is simply a miscommunication or mistaken motives. We may have an emotional reaction based on a prior relationship or an earlier stage of our current relationship. We may have incomplete facts. That’s why the first step in resolving conflict is to identify both viewpoints. I’ve found the pencil technique to be an effective tool for couples, families, and co-workers. (This is a communication technique, not a substitute for professional counseling.)

Couples choose a pencil, couch pillow, or other object. The symbolism counts. As long as I have the pencil, I know I’ll be heard. I hold on until I feel understood.

Remember God’s communication wisdom.

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29 NIV).

“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19 NIV).

“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1 NIV).

Good communicators give eye contact, focused attention, and encouragement. Remember both people can be right based on different underlying (and sometimes unknown) assumptions and dreams. Believe the best of each other.

The person who finds communicating difficult goes first—in this example, the wife. Wife holds the pencil and explains her position. Husband doesn’t interrupt, defend, or explain. His first priority is to understand. Wife sticks to one subject without bringing up other problems. Her responsibility is to be honest and thorough without rambling. Then she asks Husband what he heard. He summarizes or paraphrases her words. (Parroting exact words doesn’t equal understanding.) If he gets it right, he takes the pencil and they switch responsibilities. If not, she retries explaining her feelings and he listens more closely. Repeat as necessary, then switch. Remember, defensiveness is a conversation killer.

Include appreciation for each other’s honesty and effort plus assurances that conflict and a great relationship aren’t mutually exclusive. Such conversations help us understand ourselves as well as the other person.

When our heart’s desire is to understand and to be understood, we tear down walls and build intimacy. In the context of unity and maturity, Paul urges Christians to “speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). We don’t have to agree or completely understand. However, we need to respect and appreciate each other’s values, hopes, and dreams.

Please let us hear from you if you have the courage to try the pencil technique or have comments or suggestions.

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