My wife and I have always had a strong friendship. We’re pretty good at communicating and don’t often fight. But when we do get into a conflict, it’s like a fender bender. We don’t see it coming, and it can cause a little damage.
When Character Strengths Collide
Let me play out one such fender bender. We were both involved in a new project, and conversations with various people had taken place. Some included both of us, and some I had without my wife while I was collecting inputs and formulating ideas for the project.
I sat down one morning with my wife to get her perspective on an emerging idea. I laid it out. What I described is quite different than the last conversation we had together. That last conversation was with someone we both like a lot who was hoping to get a job with the emerging project. My wife hears that my idea may leave this person either out of the picture or in a less central role. Unfair. Unkind. I feel things starting to swerve. It is also apparent to her that my evolved thinking came from conversations she was not included in. Unfair. Unkind. I notice irritation in her voice and her less-than-enthusiastic receptivity to what I am describing.
Bam! The fender bender.
I am disappointed by her response. I accuse her of misunderstanding what I’m saying. We find ourselves talking AT one another and not WITH one another. And it feels terrible to both of us. We realize we’re actually fighting instead of having a discussion, so we walk away from each other feeling horrible–angry, guilty, disappointed.
Why We Argue
Later, we returned to scene of the crash to see if we could repair the damage from this relationship fender bender. Both being psychologists and both immersed in character science, we immediately looked to our character strengths to understand what might be happening.
Here’s what we discovered:
- Yes, we’ve had some recent stressors. Under conditions of stress, we, like others, tend to lean on our most familiar and second-nature signature strengths.
- Our signature strengths were colliding.
- We could defuse the hurt and frustration by having a discussion and bringing other strengths forward to navigate more safely.
Among my top signature strengths are creativity, perseverance, and judgment. This means that I tend to “dispassionately” consider the various facts in a situation, process them rationally to arrive at new perspectives/ideas, and am very persistent in doing so.
My wife’s top strengths include fairness, kindness, and perspective. This means that she looks at a situation and arrives at a perspective by considering the facts but also with a keen sensitivity to the impact on others in terms of compassion and justice.
When we sat down to assess the damage, I recognized that when I approached my wife that morning I had led with my signature strengths without consideration of hers. In retrospect I easily could have anticipated that she would react to being left out of certain conversations and that what I was presenting might hurt our mutual friend. I needed to call on my strength of perspective to realize that she felt an offense against her kindness and fairness.
She realized that she could have anticipated that my creative impulsiveness led to a variety of impromptu conversations and that my critical thinking was formulating various possible solutions, as opposed to thinking that I had impulsively arrived at a conclusion of how to proceed. She quickly tapped into her strength of forgiveness as she was reminded of my top strengths and realized I wasn’t intentionally leaving her out of the plans.
You see, especially in times of stress, we tend to jam on the accelerators of our signature strengths and to kick into reactive mode vs. responsive mode. At that point it’s like we’re in bumper cars. At any and every moment we seem to be colliding with others. When you feel a fender bender coming on, here’s what to do:
How to Resolve Conflicts
- Know your signature character strengths and your partner’s by taking the VIA Survey and having a conversation about the results.
- Prior to any discussion that might be emotionally loaded or in times of stress, pause before starting a conversation. During that pause, remind yourself of your partner’s signature strengths and how what you want to say will be filtered by those strengths. Adjust accordingly.
- If you notice bumps in the road, pause again. This is a tall order–easier said than done, as you need to keep listening to what is being said. During this pause, refocus on your partner’s signature strengths–speak to her kindness/fairness, in my case. For example, “I realize it’s unfair of me to not have included you and others in all the conversations. It leaves everyone at a disadvantage and also gives the impression that I’m wanting to make this decision alone. I can see how that could feel bad to you and others.”
- If it seems to be turning into a full blown fender bender, call time out. “Something is happening here that feels bad and that I don’t understand. I don’t want to fight with you. Let’s break, try to figure out what’s going on, and come back to it later.”
- Understand that “crashes” are bound to happen in close relationships and that they are not indicators that something is wrong with the relationship. Instead, realize that human communication is tricky, that language is imperfect, and that conflicts are opportunities to grow.
- Keep your character strengths top of mind. Imagine them riding on top of your head like your sunglasses–there to be used quickly when needed.
The follow-up signature strengths conversation I had with my wife was like sending our car to the body shop and getting it back with dents removed and fresh paint. We are now wiser about how our respective signature strengths impact our communication.