Personal Growth

These Six Words Are the Key to Defusing Conflict

Sometimes, people make you mad on purpose. But more often, it's a result of a misunderstanding. What's the best way to fix a misunderstanding? Explaining yourself. Research professor Brené Brown — whose TED talk is one of the five most viewed of all time — has an easy six-word hack to get to the root of a misunderstanding. Start a sentence with, "The story I'm making up is ..." and go from there. You'll be surprised how quickly tempers fade.

Internal Fiction

Think about the last time you fought with a significant other, or got mad at your boss, or were offended by a close friend. Once everything was mended, how much of the conflict was real? Conversely, how much of it was something you had confabulated in your head?

Brown gives an example of one such confabulation in her book "Rising Strong": after a very hectic day, her husband Steve opened the refrigerator and lamented, "We have no groceries. Not even lunch meat." She immediately shot back, "I'm doing the best I can. You can shop too!"

Steve was confused and asked her what was going on. "I knew exactly what was going on," she wrote. "I had turned his comment into a story about how I'm a disorganized, unreliable partner and mother. I apologized and started my next sentence with the phrase that's become a lifesaver in my marriage, parenting, and professional life: 'The story I'm making up is that you were blaming me for not having groceries, that I was screwing up.'" He wasn't, of course. Steve was just tired and hungry.

Related Video: The Negative Side of Positive Thinking

Examine and Emote

The key to telling someone you're making up a story is, first, that you're admitting that to yourself. When you recognize the confabulations in your head, you can get to the bottom of them. What made you think that way? What emotions are behind the story? Once you investigate the stories you make up, you can challenge them and get to the real truth.

At the same time, you make yourself vulnerable to the other person. The same way that dogs expose their bellies to avoid a fight, exposing your unpleasant emotions to another person can lead them to let their guard down, too. With the fire extinguished, both of you can more easily take the other person's perspective and find a fair solution to the issue.

To better wrangle with the stories in your head, Brown suggests asking yourself three questions:

  1. What are the facts, and what are my assumptions?
  2. What do I need to know about the others involved?
  3. What am I really feeling? What part did I play?

This may lead to some startling discoveries. Maybe that feeling of anger comes from a deeper sense of guilt, or sadness, or fear. It's not always comfortable to examine the truths behind your feelings, but it's a lot more pleasant than living in constant conflict. So the next time you feel miffed by a loved one or get riled up by a coworker, start your next sentence with these six words: "The story I'm making up is ..."

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Need extra help with fights in your relationship? Check out "The High-Conflict Couple: A Dialectical Behavior Therapy Guide to Finding Peace, Intimacy, and Validation" by Alan E. Fruzzetti, Ph.D. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer September 6, 2017

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