Can Distancing Yourself From A Conflict Help A Relationship?

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September 30, 2014

By¬†“leaving” a conflict you can gain the expanded perspective needed to solve it. That means stepping out of your limited ego, and some new research shows how that can help.

It’s easy to become rigidly fixed and sclerosed within a view of who you are (“This is just the way I am”) — unable to envision possibilities for expanding your personal capacities, your thinking or emotions — outside of that fixed view. Unfortunately, that disables you from enlarging your perspective, which can be essential for solving conflicts or problems that you feel stuck inside of, unable to change or alter. That’s especially true for solving relationship difficulties.

President Eisenhower once said that if you’re having difficulty understanding a problem and how to solve it, “enlarge” the problem. Certainly that applies to life beyond the battlefield. That is, “enlarging” how you envision the problem or situation you’re stuck within can free yourself from the limitations of the perspective that imprisons you to begin with.

How can you do that? Some new empirical research shows that, in effect, distancing yourself from a problem or conflict enhances your reasoning; it helps you find new solutions through a broadened perspective. And that provides greater wisdom to bring to bear on the conflict. Researchers from the University of Waterloo and the University of Michigan, as reported in Psychological Science, examined “the ability to recognize the limits of one’s own knowledge, search for a compromise, consider the perspectives of others, and recognize the possible ways in which the scenario could unfold. The research found that you may think about a conflict more wisely if you consider it as an outside observer would.”

The study author, Igor Grossmann of the University of Waterloo, says, “These results are the first to demonstrate a new type of bias within ourselves when it comes to wise reasoning about an interpersonal relationship dilemma.” He added, “We call the bias Solomon’s Paradox, after the king who was known for his wisdom but who still failed at making personal decisions.”

As described in a summary description of the research, Grossmann and Ethan Kross from the University of Michigan asked participants who reported being in monogamous romantic relationships to imagine a scenario in which either their partner or a friend’s partner had been unfaithful. Then, they were given a set of questions about the scenario. The participants who were asked to reason about a friend’s relationship conflict made wiser responses than those who were asked to reason about their own relationship conflict.

The results from a second experiment supported those from the first: Participants who thought about their own relationship conflict from a first-person perspective showed less wise reasoning than those who thought about a friend’s relationship conflict. But that bias was eliminated when participants who thought about their own relationship conflict through a friend’s eyes. They were found to be “just as wise as those who thought about a friend’s conflict.”

According to the researchers, these findings suggest that distancing oneself from a personal problem by approaching it as an outsider may be the key to wise reasoning. “We are the first to demonstrate that there is a simple way to eliminate this bias in reasoning by talking about ourselves in the third person and using our name when reflecting on a relationship conflict,” said Grossmann. “When we employ this strategy, we are more likely to think wisely about an issue.”

In my view, this is a good example of useful research, because it provides empirical underpinning to a perspective that’s emphasized in Eastern traditions but often excluded from Western psychological thinking and research: That our life conflicts reflect the limitations of our own views of who we are — the “self” we have learned to define ourselves by, and that we confine ourselves within, often unconsciously.

That is, we tend to encase ourselves within a narrow perspective, a limited vision, of ourselves in life situations. Being able to step “outside” of ourselves expands our view of what we’re capable of. It expands our thinking and our emotional awareness, especially about our personal dilemmas and how we see others’ roles and actions. In short, that broadens our view and understanding of reality. And that’s a step towards greater wisdom.

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