Conflict Is Information

Published: Jun 13, 2022

The following is an excerpt from AoM Podcast #799: Getting Along Is Overrated, starting around the 20:00 mark.

I like this advice and I see it in action on a weekly basis. One of the (rare) little pleasures of my job is a productive (often heated) meeting. There’s something fun, maybe even noble, about getting skilled, assertive people in an architecture meeting, then letting them hash it out. There’s no fear of hurting each other’s feelings, just the pursuit of the best solution for the problem at hand.

Ian: … there’s a really interesting line of research from scientists who study marital relationships or, you know, long term couples. Where, and in this field, it used to be thought, the norm was that couples who argue a lot are the couples who split up, because they looked to couples who split up and they said “did you argue a lot?”, and they said “yes”. And actually, they started doing more kind of sophisticated experiments with this and they got a different story.

What they do, just to briefly explain the model of this research, is they’ll get couples into the lab, and they’ll say, “can you just discuss an issue of contention, a long running issue in your relationship, and we’ll leave the room, leave the camera on, and you 2 just talk about it.” And actually couples usually get into it pretty quickly and start talking and kind of forget that the camera is on.

And then they track the progress of that relationship over the coming weeks, months, and years. These are kind of longitudinal studies. And what they have found, and this has really become apparent in the last 10 years of so, is that the couples who are quicker to rise to argument and often have quite heated back-and-forths, are the ones who are more likely to stay together over the long term, and to be happier, and to have solved the problems that they’re discussing.

So, number 1, you know, I just think that’s hilarious and great. And some of my favorite couples are the ones who just really have no hesitation and kind of get into it and having a big wrap, and still love each other, right. I think that’s really kind of interesting. But also, it begs the question, what is that? What is going on there? And when I asked one of the psychologists who runs these studies about that, she said conflict is information.

And what she meant by that was, when you’re in an argument, you’re really learning about what the other person really thinks and really feels, right. You’re getting a little glimpse into their soul. The veil of politeness or just passivity is dropped, and you’ll say “right, wow I didn’t realize you cared about that so much, well that’s what you think, is it, my goodness”, right. And in the moment, it can be quite uncomfortable and stressful but you’re updating your model of your partner and it’s a really important thing to do. Because if you don’t do that, you’re stuck with this model in your head of what your partner is like, you think you know them really well, you know them better than they know themselves. 5, 10 years down the line, turns out they’re completely different from the person you had in your head and the relationship comes to an end.

So, arguments and conflict are giving you information about what your partner is thinking and feeling and keeping you up to date on their emotions and ultimately bringing you closer together.

Brett: And that can showcase like how not arguing can cause relationships to go south, because you have all those emotions kind of seething beneath the surface and there’s a lot of resentment and it might express itself in passive aggressiveness.

Ian: Yeah, I mean … the organizational psychologists look at this as well, you know the people who study workplaces, and so on, they will talk about how different kinds of aggression are productive in different ways, you know, direct aggression vs indirect, and so on. The one form of conflict that nobody has found any benefits for whatsoever is passive aggression, right. Passive aggression comes to no good. It’s corrosive. And it’s what happens when disagreements and conflicts aren’t aired, right. The disagreement, the issue of contention, does not disappear, it does not dissolve into the ether, it is merely swept under the carpet. It goes underground and it kind of corrodes the basis of the relationship. And whether it’s in a marriage or in a workplace, you should really be trying to minimize that. And that means getting used to having your disagreements out in the open and not feeling like it is actually a huge, terrible, high-stakes, dramatic thing. It’s the way we do things.

Brett: And I think a key to having a row with someone, a spouse, or a kid, or someone at work, is as long as, you know I think it’s Gottman, as long as you avoid contempt, like that will be fine. Like as soon as you go into “I think you’re little, I think you’re less than what you think you are, I’m going to call you names”, that’s not going anywhere. But if you can passionately argue without going there, it’ll be productive.

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