You know how crazy you feel when you’re driving along and someone darts in front of you without signaling, cuts you off, and leaves you barely enough room to slam on your breaks so you don’t hit their car in front of you? Those feelings of anger, fear, and unsafety are familiar to us when we are in physical danger—especially when we’re driving.
Why use signals?
Reflecting on the quick driving example above, if the other driver had just used a signal to let you know what they were going to do and waited for the best moment to merge, you wouldn’t have been put in danger. In driving we can use our turn signals, our break lights, and sometimes even our facial expressions (if we make eye contact) to communicate with other drivers. We have limited, but necessary ways of communicating with other drivers about our intentions so we can safely get where we want to go.
The problems with over-signaling
Equally frustrating and confusing are the drivers who forget to turn their turn signals off or who push on their breaks constantly. When we continuously signal, others don’t know what to think about our intentions. Most likely, when other drivers don’t know what we’re going to do because of over-signaling they think we’re not paying attention at all.
Using signals when approaching conflict
In conflict, we have similar choices about signaling to others our intentions so that they can adjust and modify their actions to move along in harmony with us—even if we’re ultimately headed to different destinations.
Similar to sudden dangers we encounter while driving, when we are in emotional danger and feeling vulnerable, we need effective ways to communicate with others before unnecessary conflict erupts. Unfortunately, we often fail to signal to others our true intentions or needs. Instead, we surprise each other with unshared emotions, opinions, and hurts that seem like they have come out of the blue or are so rushed that we don’t know what to think.
On the flip side, we may have our “needs, wants, and expectations” blinkers on so constantly that others don’t know what TO react to and what NOT to react to. The constant “blinking” or “breaking” makes it like there’s no blinking at all. The people around us tend to avoid this situation of overload and confusion because it’s just too much altogether.
While we are wired to fight or flee danger, if we are made aware of potential dangers in our way, we can strategically prepare to meet them without unnecessary stress and discomfort.
In this post, we will compare various ways this analogy of signaling while driving relates to understanding how to constructively signal to others when approaching potential conflict where needs or goals appear incompatible.
As we add signaling to our conflict resolution tool kit, we are better equipped to avoid the unnecessary conflicts of life and put ourselves in a position to more effectively choose our responses to conflict rather than merely reacting based on instinct or habit. In short, while conflict is normal, signaling helps us to avoid truly ineffective and often unnecessary conflict situations.
HOW CAN WE SIGNAL IN CONFLICT?
Refresher on what conflict actually is and what it is not
Before we dive into our signaling analogy, it’s important to remember that conflict is merely a difference that matters to one or more people. Most often conflicts relate to real-- or what appear to be-- incompatible goals between people. Conflict does not necessarily involve negative feelings, but contention implies that we have negative or hostile feelings about the differences we experience or perceive. Conflict is normal and continuous in human relationships, but contention is a choice.
Remember there are five approaches to conflict
Just like with driving, we have a variety of options to use when approaching conflict. We can avoid (take a different route), accommodate (you go first), compromise (take turns), compete (buzz the other driver or cut them off), or collaborate (little trickier to apply to the driving analogy!).
We can use both verbal and nonverbal signals to signal and warn about potential conflicts and prepare for an appropriate approach to any given potential conflict.
What types of things would a person signal about in conflict?
There are a variety of needs and stresses that influence the development of real or perceived incompatible goals between people=conflict. The range of human needs is broad, but covers such topics as:
- Emotional connection
- Food, health, shelter
Why would I want to signal to someone that there’s a potential conflict coming?
While these and other human needs are universal, we may not always be able to meet the needs of others in the way that they desire (at the time) for different reasons including:
- Bad Timing—the timing is simply bad because we are stressed, occupied with something else, sick, and so on.
- Lack of Confidentiality—there may not be enough trust or privacy to allow for any necessary conflict resolution in a particular moment.
- Limited Emotional Capacity—after a busy day of helping others, I may not be able to listen to you empathically. I may need to take care of myself first before I can listen to and meet your needs. I may suffer from mental illnesses that limit my ability to help you manage your needs.
- Overwhelming Stress—outside factors or even your own “over-signaling” behavior may limit my ability to be effective in managing our differences.
- Current Distraction—I may not be keyed into what you’re saying, or I’m busy helping someone else with something.
- Illness or other Health Issues—I am in pain or not able to use all my faculties (if I have the necessary ones) to meet the needs that are about to conflict between us.
- Fatigue—I am so tired right now, I can’t think straight.
When we perceive needs and requests of others as we approach conflict situations, there are a variety of ways we can respond. I mentioned the five conflict approaches of avoiding, accommodating, compromising, competing, and collaborating, but we have access to both verbal and nonverbal signals to communicate with others with these approaches.
What types of signals can we use with potential conflicts?
Whether with a stranger or loved one, we have a variety of ways to verbally signal and respond to expressed needs that cannot be fulfilled immediately. Whether I am the person who first expresses a need or am the party responding to a need, I have words to facilitate constructive interaction and conflict management.
Expressed Need: “I need help with this project—it’s due in two days and I don’t understand the assignment.”
Response to Expressed Need: “I don’t think I have the time and energy to get that done tonight. Can we decide on another time for tomorrow once I’ve had cleared off my schedule?”
Lack of Confidentiality
Expressed Need: (at the company Christmas party) “I really want to talk about my performance review with you (my boss). I don’t understand why I didn’t get more than a 1% raise.”
Response to Expressed Need: “I’d really love to talk to you about your performance review, but let’s schedule a time next week when we are in a better situation to talk about private matters at the office.”
Limited Emotional Capacity
Expressed Need: “I really like it when you come along with me and golf with the guys. Could you come along tomorrow for the tournament?”
Response to Expressed Need: “I could go with you, but I don’t think I’m up for the small talk and chatting this weekend. Could we plan for another time soon and put it on the calendar?”
Expressed Need: “I’m really stressed about this project so I’m hoping that you can take the kids to practice tonight so I can finish this up.”
Response to Expressed Need: “Sorry that you’re so stressed. I’ve got something going on already tonight. Do you know anyone else who could take the kids? Is the sitter available to call?”
Expressed Need: “I really need to talk to you about our budget tonight before I pay these medical bills.”
Response to Expressed Need: “I hear you. We have some decisions to make. I’m currently on a call with my boss but I’d like to look over the bills before we chat about it. Could we set a time to talk tomorrow night once I’ve gone through everything?”
Illness or other Health Issue
Expressed Need: “Could you help me move the desk back upstairs? It’s annoying to have it still sitting in the middle of our bedroom.”
Response to Expressed Need: “I would love to, but I just pulled my hamstring this morning while playing basketball. Could you get the boys to help you out? If they can’t I can call some friends.”
Expressed Need: “I’d really love to talk through our argument from last night.”
Response to Expressed Need: “I know we need to do that. I’ve been up since 5 am. Is there any chance, we could grab lunch tomorrow and talk about it after I’ve had a good night’s sleep?”
These responses to expressed needs can seem like excuses. They might actually BE excuses and, consequently, ignite greater conflict if they are not sincere. However, sincere responses to expressed needs like this can be the beginnings of a true conversation (and collaboration) about needs—especially in close, intimate relationships.
In the United States, we often expect people to use words to signal to each other how they’re feeling. I have learned that you don’t necessarily always need to use words.
My husband and I have talked about creating signals with each other for public situations when something’s headed in the wrong direction. A little wink, or a nod can do the trick to signal that something’s headed in a negative direction and that we need to course correct.
While living in Japan as a young adult, I learned to appreciate the many different nonverbal ways we have to alert others to potential conflicts.
Rather than voice concerns, Japanese people often use a variety of nonverbal signals to communicate signs of danger or discomfort. For example, when asking a direct question that Japanese people did not want to answer, I would often receive a shrugging of the shoulders, signaling a desire to change the conversation.
Of course, I could have—in my direct American way—followed up about the shrugging with a question like this: “I see that you’re shrugging your shoulders. Does that mean that you don’t really believe what I’m saying?” This would have only made the Japanese person more uncomfortable and awkward upping the conflict ante or diminishing the intimacy of the relationship.
While it may seem awkward to discuss deliberately, even American couples, families, and friends can develop nonverbal signs for each other that allow the diffusion of tension and create opportunities to choose the time and place that would be best for difficult conversations.
Like the driver trying to squeeze into the small space ahead of me in the fast lane, I might respond better to your needs, if you let me know you want to come into my lane and if you wait until there’s a little more space.
With important conversations and potential conflicts, timing and space make a big difference. Rather than trying to work out the fight late at night when we’re both tired, what if we decided that meeting for lunch after we’re rested and have had space to think would build rather than diminish our relationship?
The forms of nonverbal communication are really endless, but we can begin with small gestures that allow for nonverbal communication in potentially volatile or otherwise difficult situations. These gestures include:
- Changing eye contact
- Taking a deep breath
- Moving positions or changing rooms
- Texting or emailing about your current needs
These are very simple examples of expressing and responding to needs, but they allow us to start thinking about the myriad of possibilities for signaling to each other about our needs as we approach potential conflicts.
The next time you perceive potential incompatible goals (i.e., conflict) with someone you know very well or even not at all, consider how you can signal and respond to needs in a way that avoids unnecessary conflict and allows for more constructive resolution based on choice rather than instinct or habit.