When words fail: the importance of the 'non-verbals' in resolving conflict

It's great when we are able to talk things out with our partner - define the problem, generate possible solutions together, and have the trust to experiment in arriving at the right solution for you as a couple. This is an example of a 'top-down' process from a neuro-biological perspective; that is - the pre-frontal cortex (the verbal, analytic part of the brain) is online and able to do its work. The problem for so many of us is that when we're feeling distressed, especially in the context of our most important relationship, that part of the brain is off-line. When any of us are upset, we are operating from the emotional centre of the brain, or the amygdala. In this state, we need 'bottom-up' strategies to help us calm down and reconnect before we can bring our analytical, problem-solving brains to the table. At this stage, it's the 'non-verbals' that count. What we most need from our partner in this moment are actions that speak directly to the body and the senses - physically turning towards each other, leaning forward, perhaps a gentle touch. Non-verbal sounds may help too - a soothing tone of voice will get through when we're not yet able to focus on the words that are spoken.

If you are stuck in conflict where it's hard to reason your way out of the problem, perhaps you may try some of these strategies:-

* turn towards your partner and just listen. Show you're listening by turning your body toward her, nodding your head, showing in actions rather than words that you hear what she's saying. Keep your body language open and your movements slow.


* touch your partner on the arm or hand, or give him a hug. (You may need to check with him first if this would be OK)


* Once she's calmer, try to paraphrase what she's been saying to you. " You're telling me that...."  "What I hear you saying is......"  Remember that your tone of voice (soothing, calming) is much more important than getting it right!!!


* If you're also distressed, walk away and use your own 'bottom-up' strategies to calm down before attempting to help your partner. These might include taking some deep, slow breaths, going for a walk, noticing your feet on the ground, hugging a cushion, or taking a warm shower.


Once you and your partner have calmed down, it's likely that your frontal lobes will come back online! Then it's important to use those higher cortical functions to work through your issues and generate useful solutions.


Till next post, Vivienne.


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