Let’s Be Adults About This

The key to healthy communication
by Dr Tshepiso Matentjie (PhD.) & Semukele Lynnette Murape

Interpersonal conflict – whether between you and your parents, children, co-workers or significant other – is a problem that many of us face. We are very quick to blame the other person for the issue of contention, and often fail to take accountability of our contribution to the conflict. There may be unconscious forces within us that often dictate how we interact with each other. 

According to Eric Berne (1964), we think and behave in ways that are informed by our ego states; shown and described in the figure on the right. These three ego states interact with each other, both within us and between us.

When you are trying to be rational, objective and logical about an issue, yet your partner gets emotional in response; you are trying to be an “adult” about the issue and they are being “childish”. I, for example, have instances at work where I have held a meeting aiming to address some work-related issues, but a colleague has taken my constructive feedback as an attack on their character, and thus reacts aggressively – escalating the conflict. Interestingly, conflict can arise the other way around too: I recently found myself in a situation where I was hurting and tried to elicit comfort and emotional support from my partner. He responded with the 6 W’s (who, what, when, where, why and how) in an attempt to try to understand what I was going through. This ended up making me feel extremely upset, because he was not giving me the emotional support that I needed at the time. Upon reflection, I realize that I needed him to soothe and comfort me, and not try to solve my problem because I am quite capable of solving it myself. Whereas, he wanted to understand the issue from an objective perspective, to help me come up with solutions. So, we were communicating past each other, I from the Child ego state and him from the Adult ego state. I wanted the Nurturing Parent in him, and he expected the Adult in me. With my colleague, she probably experienced me as a Critical Parent. When in fact she was seeking validation and reassurance from a Nurturing Parent perspective. I, on the other hand, was looking to speak to a fellow Adult, I didn’t come to work to parent anyone after all. In both scenarios, although there is communication, it is ineffective because our communication is crossed.

Here are some Tips on How to Facilitate Healthy Conversation:

  • Given that conflict arises when you talk to each other from different ego states, it is highly important that you recognize the current ego state that each one of you is operating from, in order to de-escalate the conflict before it reaches climax. Also be aware if the ego states that you are communicating from is effective or not.
  • Remain accountable for your contribution to the conflict. If your partner is being emotional and vulnerable with you, it is your responsibility to be there for them, in order  to establish and strengthen trust and security in the relationship. Failing to do so will cause them to refrain from reaching out to you for comfort.
  • Always explore more effective ways of communicating with your partner, in the aim of avoiding having the same issues of contention coming up. Both you should feel empowered as individuals and comfortable with each other at the end of your conversation.