Improving Conflict Management Skills Will Strengthen Sobriety

©2018 L. Georgi DiStefano, LCSW

In my new book, Paradigm Change: The Collective Wisdom of Recovery, I discuss the importance of improving our conflict management skills in order to strengthen and enhance quality sobriety. Self-regulation is a key step in the recovery process. Individuals who focus on utilizing self-regulation strategies and techniques will create new coping mechanisms for managing their daily lives.

I frequently encourage my clients who are new in recovery, to learn the EAR™ techniques and to practice EAR Statements™ in their interactions with others. This approach is a valuable tool for individuals in recovery and an effective method of communication with anyone. My frequent co-author and esteemed colleague, Bill Eddy, conceptualized the EAR Statement and it is currently being taught in a host of settings including corporate workplaces. For those in recovery this technique is particularly valuable.

The E stands for empathy.

By demonstrating empathy for the other person, you are seeing a situation from their perspective and appreciating the problems or issues associated with their situation. Active alcohol and drug abuse often promote a self-absorbed set of responses to others. In early recovery, individuals need to learn to truly hear others and respond with empathy when appropriate. In the A.A. program members often make “Amends” as part of their healing process. It is virtually impossible to make amends to someone if you cannot deeply understand the injury you have created. It is the growth of empathy that fosters the ability to make true amends.

The A stands for attention.

By demonstrating attention, you are giving the person your full concentration, which will help to increase your thorough comprehension of the issues. People who have engaged in chronic alcohol and drug abuse are often reactive. They frequently respond with anger or heightened emotions without having all the facts or appreciating the nuances of a situation. By focusing on active listening the individual is much more likely to have a better understanding of a situation. Many people in recovery will tell you that it is often a great challenge to manage responses differently. Paying attention by actively listening to others is an important component of recovery.

The R stands for respect.

By demonstrating respect for the other person in a communication, you are supporting their self-esteem, acknowledging their value, and facilitating a positive connection with them. People who have engaged in alcohol and drug abuse, often are focused in obtaining what they want with little regard for the feelings of others. Respectful interaction is an essential ingredient to a healthy recovery process. Individuals who participate in the SMART Recovery Program, a self-help organization, are provided many opportunities to engage in respectful interactions.

An important element of EAR is that you do not have to agree with content. Nevertheless, by learning to respond with empathy, attention, and respect, situations frequently de-escalate. Perhaps more importantly, as I point out in my Paradigm Change book, the EAR method provides the recovering person a standard of communication designed to keep emotions managed and responses appropriate. Many of my clients have adopted EAR as a recovery routine, in that it becomes their go-to process in communications with others. Many clients have commented to me that it is also an easy technique to remember when emotions begin to escalate.

In our book, It’s All Your Fault At Work, and in our New Ways For Work Coaching Manual, Bill Eddy and I present a cognitive-behavioral method designed to help individuals reduce their conflict at work or at home and improve their  overall self-regulation. We focus on four skill areas of self-regulation that are exceptionally useful and appropriate for individuals to work on in early recovery.

The first skill area is “Flexible Thinking.” One of the biggest barriers to successful problem solving is all or nothing thinking. Individuals with all or nothing thinking tend to view situations in the extremes. There are few gray areas, only black and white. This type of thinking impairs effective problem solving. Such extremes in thinking frequently lead to heightened and often upset emotions. Individuals in early sobriety are very susceptible to rigid and extreme thinking. A.A. has many expressions designed to help individuals manage their thinking and emotional responses such as “easy does it,” “one day at a time,” or “It’s progress, not perfection.” A number of my clients have adopted the process of asking themselves “what options do I have using my flexible thinking?” Over time, they recognize when they are being reactive and learn to self-correct and challenge their thinking and initial responses.

Another important skill area of self-regulation is “Managed Emotions.” Being unable to manage our negative emotions can distract us from achieving our goals and often will create new and worse problems for us. Learning to manage our emotions can make a big difference in being able to remain clean and sober. As I discuss in my book Paradigm Change: The Collective Wisdom of Recovery, if emotions escalate it often leads to extreme behaviors that frequently are regrettable. In early sobriety, individuals often spend a lot of time trying to fix the damage caused by their extreme emotional outbursts. Utilizing strategies and techniques such as EAR and Flexible Thinking options will go a long way in helping an individual gain mastery over their emotional responses.

A third skill area very essential to successful recovery is learning to “Moderate Behavior.” An individual can manage their emotions more easily once thinking becomes flexible. This helps create behavior that is moderate and not extreme. Moderate behavior can lead to collaboration, compromise, and other positive outcomes. Extreme behavior often results in heightened conflict, name-calling, bullying, regrettable decision-making, and frequently, relapse.

A key factor in facilitating a process of flexible thinking, managed emotions, and moderate behavior is the final skill “Checking Yourself.” This last piece of the New Ways method is designed to encourage individuals to reflect on their emotional responses, and recognize where they have been successful and what needs to be improved. This is a valuable tool for self-regulation. Working with a therapist, counselor, or coach on self-regulation tools, provides a consistent opportunity to reflect on and expose patterns that can be limiting or damaging. It also provides an opportunity to identify and reinforce positive changes in thinking, emotions and behavior.

In conclusion, I would encourage individuals engaged in recovery to focus on the conflict management skills I have outlined. Sobriety is enhanced and strengthened as individuals grow in their capacity to self-regulate and manage conflict.

L. GEORGI DISTEFANO is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with extensive experience in the management of substance abuse programs and employee assistance programs, as well as a popular speaker on workplace conflict resolution. She is a therapist, Employee Assistance Professional and workplace trainer in conflict resolution. She is the co-author of It’s All Your Fault at Work! Managing Narcissists and Other High-Conflict People and New Ways for Work℠: Personal Skills for Productive Relationships – Coaching Manual and Workbook.

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