The following is a transcript of Billie Tarascio of I Do Over and Modern Law talking with Family Therapist Erik Gagnon about how to turn down the volume of a conflict and start working on a resolution.
Erik has recently joined I Do Over to help families survive and thrive during and after divorce. I Do Over is working to make therapy accessible for families that need it by adding Erik to the organization and with the addition of affordable group therapy sessions in the near future.
Should I Make My Teen Go To Therapy?
Billie Tarascio (00:20):
All right. Hi, this is Billie Tarascio from Modern Law, and I am excited to be joined today by Eric Gagnon. We’re going to talk about conflict resolution in high conflict relationships. Welcome. And thank you for joining me, Eric.
Erik Gagnon (00:40):
Thank you so much for having me, Billie. I really appreciate it.
Billie Tarascio (00:43):
Yeah, so, I mean, this comes up all the time. People are in high conflict relationships at work at home. It comes up all the time and I’d love to get some advice from you. And then I’ll give you some hypothetical too, because we’ve got specific situations that come up a lot. What can people do when they find themselves in a high conflict relationship?
Erik Gagnon (01:08):
That’s a tough question, Billie. Yeah, that’s the one for the ages right there. Right. A lot of high conflict. And that’s what, that’s what leads us to sometimes such desperation in solving these matters, because it is such high conflict and it does produce such emotion that it makes it difficult for us sometimes to see the forest through the trees. So really for me, and what I always want to start with in terms of conflict resolution is being open and honest and really talking about the things that are affecting us, why they’re affecting us and how they’re affecting us. If we can get generally both parties to discuss those things, we can easily kind of establish a, you know, a framework for where we need to go with it. But being honest and talking about how you’re really feeling, not just what you’re thinking, but also how you’re feeling.
Billie Tarascio (02:00):
So you, you joined us last weekend for our, our company retreat. And you heard us talking about how a divorcing couple will often be fighting over the spatula. And, and we talked about how it’s never really about the spatula but you know, there’s so many years of wounds and trauma and ill will that go into, you know, a couple that’s breaking up that it’s really hard to be honest. And sometimes people don’t even know what it is they’re being honest about. They’re so hurt. And so defensive that it’s, it’s, you know, be honest about what, that, that this person has ruined their life because that’s how they feel.
Erik Gagnon (02:46):
Right. Right. Yeah. And, and once again, and kind of, maybe for me turning off your, your spigot a little bit and allowing the other person to speak from the heart about what they’re thinking and feeling, you know, and me really listening and trying to dive into them on what they’re not only saying, but what they’re feeling, those hurts those slights any feelings of bitterness. And a lot of it also becomes about control. I want control, you want control, and we’re both kind of fighting over that metaphorical spatula, which really right, is not, is not the matter at all. It’s the, you know, and, and as we talked about the training of the day, there’s often either one or both of those parties feeling or perceiving a threat by these proceedings or by even discussion about conflict resolution. So if we can get everyone to sometimes just establish, as we talked about, you know, a common framework of language, these are the words we’re gonna use. These are the statements we want to we want to use I-statements as opposed to You-statements, we want to avoid blaming or shaming. We want to keep things in the present. We don’t want to go back to something that happened six months ago or six years ago. Because then we bring up more of those kind of specific resentments that won’t get us to resolving the conflict. It really needs to be about how we’re feeling at this time and how those feelings interject in our arguments or our discourse.
Billie Tarascio (04:23):
That’s really, really great stuff. It’s so great that we decided we were going to create our own rules of, of conflict resolution or rules of engagement surrounding conflict resolution. And by agreeing on those, those ground rules, you’re kind of making space for better communication that hopefully should get you closer to actual resolution. Now how hard, how do you go about introducing these rules of engagement?
Erik Gagnon (04:56):
Well, usually it’s, like I said, it’s a frank discussion that should happen, you know, right up front when you’re doing this and really every step of the way. And even at times, reminding folks of, hey, when we started this, this was the language we agreed to keep it to. So kind of it’s through repetition a lot of times. Cause sometimes folks get very heated and, and the, the emotions run high and then they forget our shared framework of discussion. So it’s okay to kind of, you know, pause things, roll back a little bit and maybe, you know, review, hey, this is what we’re looking to accomplish. And these are the rules that we agreed to abide upon when we have these discussions. And I understand they’re difficult. And, but a lot of what, you know, we talked about in the training obviously is about reframing things, being patient, listening to what others are saying, thinking and feeling, and then maybe reframing so that I can know exactly and specifically what it is you’re thinking, feeling and wanting to convey this. So a lot of reframing and a lot of summarizing of, you know, what I think I hear you saying is I would like this, but yet maybe your facial expression doesn’t match what you’ve just said. So am I confused in the way I’m taking in the information? So how can I be specific with you?
Billie Tarascio (06:18):
That’s really good. Do you, do you think in a high conflict relationship that one person can introduce the rules of engagement? Or do you think that if you’re in a high conflict relationship, you need a third party to kind of set the stage with those rules of engagement, no blaming, no shaming stay in the moment, that sort of thing.
Erik Gagnon (06:41):
You know, I think it, it often requires a third party. I really do, because as we’ve discussed, some of those emotions run so high sometimes for both parties and both parties feeling aggrieved, it’s going to be difficult for them sometimes to agree on a common framework. Cause if they were able to do that, they probably wouldn’t need to be with it.
Billie Tarascio (07:03):
Erik Gagnon (07:04):
Right. If they were able to do that at home, in their relationship, they wouldn’t be in my office seeking a third party who can be objective because for me, it’s not an emotional conversation cause I’m not involved in it. And haven’t been for the last 10, 12 years, I haven’t witnessed the perceived slights. So it’s easier for me to say, Hey, can we all agree on this is how we’re going to go about it. And that this is going to take time and we need to be patient. We can’t force, you know, folks to sometimes, you know, fix their grievances after they’ve taken, you know, days, weeks, months, years, even decades to fester to arrive at that time. This is going to take time.
Billie Tarascio (07:43):
What’s so hard about divorce is you have this relationship that’s broken and people have, by the time they come to me, they’ve done everything they can to try to fix it. They have truly tried to fix it. Nobody gets married and then it’s like, yeah, okay, I’ll get a divorce. It really doesn’t work that way. So they’ve done their best and the relationship is over, which is why they’re getting a divorce. And yet now they have to try to negotiate the things that are most important in what feels like a zero sum game. And you have to continue to have some sort of a relationship. So the legal system seems to make it worse and then you have to go on, you know, co-parenting or coexisting. So any thoughts on how people can navigate that a little better
Erik Gagnon (08:32):
In terms of being on their own or having a third party moderator?
Billie Tarascio (08:37):
Well, figuring out yeah. When you’re having those conversations with a moderator or without how to, how to frame that. So that it’s a little bit more productive.
Erik Gagnon (08:46):
Right? Well, and so for me, what I need to provide for those folks is a, is certainly an unbiased third voice. And I can’t appear to be heavy, too heavy handed on one side or the other. I need to make sure that everyone feels validated. Everyone feels supported and everyone’s talking points are given time and consideration. I also believe in the honesty part. So if I’m honest and direct with you in terms of saying, here’s the limits of this procedure, here’s, you know what we need to work on for me, it’s always about honesty and that’s how I build a rapport in a relationship. So even if they don’t trust one another, I need to have their trust for me. And if they trust me, I generally find that they’ll be willing to allow me to guide them through this process.
Billie Tarascio (09:34):
If you’re working with one person who’s in a high conflict relationship and they are seeking help from you in order to, you know, do better in their future communications, how does that work? And can you help in that situation?
Erik Gagnon (09:49):
Right, right. Yeah. Absolutely. Matter of fact, much of my work in therapy over the years has been high conflict and only having one party present because often the other party is not involved or not wanting to be. And so there are certainly things that we can look at one individual and say, Hey, we might not have the buy in from the other person here, but these are some things that you can be doing to say, you know, improve your parents, your parenting skills, just because the other parent is agreeing or not agreeing to, to be part of it or be consistent with their parenting rules. That doesn’t mean that you can’t make benefits as a parent to provide increased stability and consistency for your child, which will benefit them in the long run. It may certainly not be ideal. You’d rather have both people involved, but I found that there’s always something that I can work with an individual on. That’s going to help them move forward. And that can just be sometimes their own regulation of their, their mood. So if I can help you regulate your mood a little bit, you may be in a better position to be able to negotiate or deal with that, that other person who’s not there or not willing to go along. So there’s always something that can be done with that individual. Absolutely.
Billie Tarascio (11:04):
Okay. I really liked that because people feel very powerless stuck in a high conflict relationship. They feel like many times, no matter how much they do their, you know, the other person in the high conflict relationship won’t hear them or won’t respect them or that they’re powerless. So it’s good to hear that that’s not the case.
Erik Gagnon (11:24):
Yes. And you know, as you know, we certainly can’t force that there are folks who are just not going to engage in the process, not going to be involved and not willing to be, you know, solution focused. And that’s unfortunate, but I have to, once again, focus on what I have control over or in this situation when you’re coming to see me, what you have control over, what can you work on change and fix on your own regardless of the other person. And there’s always something.
Billie Tarascio (11:54):
Yeah. Sometimes I feel like, you know, with a lot of our domestic violence victims or victims who have people who have made it, who maybe are not traditional domestic violence victims, but have been in very unhealthy relationships you know, relationships with narcissists, they, they often feel like they’ve tried everything they can possibly try and putting themselves back out there is just, you know, more trauma.
Erik Gagnon (12:23):
Right, right. Yeah, absolutely. And you know, as I’ve certainly spoken about, you know, trauma is one of those things that it makes it very difficult for us to process information or problem solve or communicate effectively. We get into that fight or flight response and we’re, you know, we’re really just going by those, those two things I’m either going to argue or I’m going to leave the room or shut down. And those things in and of themselves become a very difficult, you know uphill battle in terms of discussing conflict resolution. How are we going to get to an outcome that, you know, we may not all be thrilled with, but most people can accept is okay, well, it’s better than it was. And, and these are positive steps. So like you said, that feeling of helplessness you know, and I think some people sometimes feel that they’ve done everything that they can do, but sometimes when we involve either, you know, professionals in the mental health field or the legal field, we often find that there are solutions or options that they have not tried because they weren’t aware of them or that they weren’t emotionally stable enough in that moment to be able to make those things work.
Billie Tarascio (13:34):
Yeah. I think that’s a thousand percent true. You know, we find ourselves triggered, we go into fight or flight, all of our communication skills go out the window. You know, all of our best intentions are just gone and we find ourselves, you know, in one more unproductive conversation and then beat ourselves up over it. But I think what you’re saying is like, until you heal the trauma and so that you’re not, you know, in fight or flight, every time you’re having a conversation, like there’s no way to move forward.
Erik Gagnon (14:05):
Yes. I agree. A hundred percent. And that’s, like I said, if, if I only have one party in therapy, that’s always something I can work on is your own stability and your own you know, re responses to trauma. Cause once we do that, like I said, if that puts you in a, in a more regulated state, you’re going to have a better ability to think, feel, and maybe even negotiate these types of conflict resolute.
Billie Tarascio (14:32):
One of the things that we talked about that was really powerful was I-statements and can you explain a little bit about what that is?
Erik Gagnon (14:42):
Sure. You know, it’s really, you know, a framework that I use in terms of me not blaming or shaming people that I’m working with. So as an example, I might say, you know, I’m having a really hard time understanding what you’re trying to get across and maybe that’s my own confusion. And maybe you can, you can tell me about that as opposed to me saying, you’re hard to understand you are not communicating well. Cause when I do those things, I’m, I’m blaming or shaming you for it. So when I put it on myself and, and, and I allow myself to be the foil or someone who needs more clarification I think that’s the best way to go about it. Cause you’re not gonna feel attacked. I, my hope is you’re going to feel like maybe I’m a little obtuse and I need further clarification so I can understand and better help you. But a lot of this is about clarification because like I said, sometimes there are statements that are made that don’t match the person’s facial affect. Right. If I tell you I’m fine, everything’s great. Is that necessarily, I think everyone who’s watching this would say, well, he doesn’t look fine. Right. So when you say these things, right, go ahead. Sorry.
Billie Tarascio (16:00):
So I, I like this example I’m having a hard time understanding someone I’m feeling like they might be incoherent or screws loose or something. And instead of being like, you’re not making any sense, I’m going to say something like I’m having a hard time understanding. Could you, could you say it for me one more time? Could you say it in a different way? Is that good? Okay. so should we be looking to reframe our negative emotions about somebody else onto ourselves? Like, does that, does that go across the board for I-statements?
Erik Gagnon (16:38):
Yeah, like I said, I, I generally want to make those, like, if there’s any confusion, I want to make that kind of my problem and not yours. And by doing that, I think I’m giving you the, the wide open forum to continue to specify and explain to me what I’m missing.
Billie Tarascio (16:55):
Okay. Or even like, observing, like as opposed to saying like, you’re angry, why are you so angry? Something like I’m feeling, I’m feeling hostility. Am I misconceiving that? Is that a nice statement?
Erik Gagnon (17:08):
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, and we talked about motivational interviewing, which is a series of questions and reflections, and it’s about eliciting the best information without making that person feel on the defensive. Because at times when I use that, it’s about, you know, it’s a very popular technique used in substance abuse treatment. So someone who’s been abusing substances for many years and I’m doing therapy with them. The last thing I want is for them to feel defensive and attacked, because if that’s the case, they’re not going to trust this entire process. But if I can continue to clarify and say, you know what I think I hear you saying is I allow you to say, yes, that’s exactly what I’m telling or no, you’ve missed the point completely. And here’s what I’m telling you. And either way that’s valuable to me as a person gathering information.
Erik Gagnon (17:58):
Because like I said, for me, conflict resolution is really just about being patient and listening to what is not only being said, but what also is being felt and interpreting those cues, the body language, the facial affect all those things are telling me things. And I’m trying to kind of put all this puzzle together to best help you solve those problems. It’s really not up to me to resolve the conflict. It’s up to me to shepherd and put you guys in a situation where you’re going to help yourselves resolve it because these conflicts may be ongoing, especially parents that have successfully divorced or an, but they were going to have continued contact with each other as co-parents for years. So moving forward, even when you’re not in my office anymore, I still want you to use these skills on your own that you’ve learned in therapy to help you guys resolve the conflicts you may be having over your child or parenting. It’s going to be an ongoing process.
Billie Tarascio (18:59):
Yeah. Let’s take a, a workplace conflict example. So let’s say I we were talking to you about how sometimes people can become offended and the person who’s done the offending is oblivious. So let’s say I get on, I get on a meeting with one of my employees and I can tell that they’re very upset and they’re upset at me. And I have no idea why, what is the best thing for me to do?
Erik Gagnon (19:39):
Well, it certainly, if someone’s upset with you and it’s a group setting in there, and it’s clear that they’re upset with you, I would find that the best time to kind of battery issue there, I would find that the best time to probably table the conversation. And then you meet with that folk person individually to kind of maybe discuss those possible issues. Cause you really don’t want that aired in front of a group of other people who’s submission, state admission is working on the case or conflict resolution. Those things are going to be a lot better discuss when it’s just the two of us in a private setting, because some of that might make someone feel that they’re being accused or make them defensive. So let’s eliminate the audience and eliminate the, you know, the, the conflict at hand to try and work out our own issue so that we can be in a better position. So then return to this, but it’s okay to take a break. It’s okay to pull away from it, regardless of who’s feeling emotional, that’s usually a good time to take a break.
Billie Tarascio (20:34):
Okay. So I’ve taken a break. I’ve gone with this person. One-On-One, they’re being super hostile to me. I can feel myself becoming hostile in return, very defensive, very upset. This usually doesn’t happen to me, but I see this all the time. Now we’ve got to hostile people to upset people. One person knows why they’re offended. The other person is offended that that the first person’s offended, what should they do?
Speaker 3 (21:03):
Well sometimes if, if it comes to that, that we’re having a hard time discussing it face to face, I might recommend that people maybe submit a text, an email do it in writing something that’s a little less emotional. A matter of fact, I spoke with somebody at the training the other day about this, and I said, sometimes we have to step back from our emotions and make this more, an intellectual pursuit. It, these things are bothering me when you do a, B and C. So if we can put maybe things in writing, I find sometimes it takes some of the emotion out of it and it allows people to take their time, think it through, discuss what they’re really upset about. So there are different venues that we can use to go through these perceived grievances or, or conflict, and sometimes face to face when people are angry is it’s difficult. And as I suggested in the training the other day people sometimes take proximity or closeness as a threat. So folks aren’t getting along or someone’s unhappy with me, I’m going to suggest that they probably maybe go and take a walking and get as far away from me for a little while, until they feel ready to come back and reengage in the process. I can’t force it. Sometimes.
Billie Tarascio (22:15):
I really liked that idea of, of writing it down because sometimes our feelings can precede. The thoughts that can explain the feelings. Like sometimes we feel something and we don’t know why. And it might take a while to get words that that can articulate or match our feeling. Okay.
Speaker 3 (22:37):
Absolutely. And a lot of the, a lot of the things that come up are often not reality, but our perceptions, I may perceive you Billie as doing something that’s bothering me. And then maybe I come to find out two months later that you were not doing that. And that was more my own negative thinking and my own negative assumptions rather than the reality of the situation. So that’s also why it’s good to have an impartial third person sometimes as a therapist, you know, just as a couple is experiencing relational issues. If there are perceptions that things aren’t being done right, or being done with respect, then maybe a third person who can look at it objectively and say, well, maybe, you know, maybe your past experiences, why you’re, you’re thinking and feeling this way rather than what’s happening in this current situation. So it often helps to have an impartial third party.
Billie Tarascio (23:26):
Yeah. So that, that, that I think is a good place to end because we could talk about conflict resolution for absolutely ever. But this is a lot of good tips. So like my big takeaways from this are have some rules of engagement. Before you go into a, a tense conversation where, where there’s high conflict in the relationship, get help get a third party to help set those ground rules also take the time to kind of step back and self recognize what’s going on and maybe process any trauma before we go in and we try to resolve intense conflicts moving forward. What else, what are the other big takeaways from today?
Erik Gagnon (24:16):
Yeah, and I don’t know if we, if we really mentioned it as much, but certainly I need to think about, you know, we talked a lot in our training the other day about self awareness. And to me, self awareness is so important because I need to understand myself and how I feel about conflict or confrontation. Am I someone that is too passive and doesn’t engage in the process? Am I someone who’s too aggressive? Am I someone who’s triggered by conflict due to previous trauma in my life? If those are issues, I need to start kind of working through some of those, maybe in a different setting before I get there. So then, and that way, say if I’m too passive, I might, you know, bring in the help of someone else. So I know is a bit more assertive and can help my shortcomings.
Erik Gagnon (25:02):
So really self-awareness the way I respond to things is really a lot of this cause we talked about perceptions. So, so I need to make sure that I’m, you know, stable and doing as well as possible. For example, I would never provide a therapy to someone who’s intoxicated under that circumstance. You’re not really going to gain or benefit from the therapeutic process. Cause I don’t know how many drinks you’ve had today. You know, your, your ability to process information correctly. So sometimes if in that situation, someone is not stable. We’re going to have a hard time with that, but really self awareness and thinking about our own issues, our own perceptions, our own shortcomings or obstacles before the process. And you know, maybe getting, you know, whatever professional you’re working with to help you train you ahead of time, in terms of writing things down, having a plan, because what training provides you is, you know, your ability to go into doing something that you need to do when you become emotional, when things become difficult, you’re going to rely on your training. Right? Right. But when they, when they train soldiers for war, there’s a lot of training that goes into it. So when you get to war and you’re in, you’re afraid and the bullets are flying, you will rely and fall back on your training because it’s become second nature. So a lot of these things are like kind of pre discussions and planning to be done long before we ever get into situations of trying to resolve claims.
Billie Tarascio (26:29):
And that is also just great advice. I don’t think we can really over-prepare for, for real, really important conversation.
Erik Gagnon (26:36):
Correct. Right. Attorneys, as they say, attorneys never asked the question that they don’t know the answer to.
Billie Tarascio (26:41):
We try not to. Well, thank you so much, Eric. If people want to schedule with you, all they have to do is go to, I do over.life or call us at Modern Law and we can get you set up with anybody who’s going through any sort of conflict or trauma or who needs to process anything. Thank you so much for today. And we’ll talk again soon.
Speaker 4 (27:07):
Of course, Billie, thank you so much for having me. It was an absolute pleasure to be with you.
Billie Tarascio (27:11):
All right. We’ll talk soon. Bye. Okay.