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Interpersonal communication is defined as the interaction between two or more individuals. Where this is the case, the tendency for conflicts to take place is almost inevitable. This is because most people do not have the same opinions, needs and/or mindsets. The effects of conflicts can be disruptive to relationships. However, if handled well, conflicts can contribute positively by improving understanding and tolerance among people, as well as strengthening the bonds between them. Thus, the style that one employs in expressing and managing interpersonal conflicts plays a crucial role in maintaining and improving the quality of communication in his/her relationship.
The movie “Parenthood” features several conflicts between its characters. The nature of conflicts varies, as well as the style characters adopt in reacting to and resolving conflicts which arise. Gill and Karen, the main characters of the movie, often face disagreements like every married couple does. However, the greatest argument between them arises when Gill comes home angry after quitting his job one day and having Karen inform him that she is pregnant. Being in an easily irritable state at that time, Karen’s pregnancy did not bring joy to him. Instead, he reacts to her negatively, making her feel as if he did not want the baby. This created a disconfirming communication climate between them. Karen feels that she is underappreciated and the defensive mechanism in her is activated. They begin arguing about the severity of each other’s lost because of the unexpected baby. They both react to the situation with direct aggression; verbally attacking and insulting the other party’s position. As a result, the issue was not resolved but amplified.
In actual fact, the impact of the conflict could have been reduced if a different style of expression was used. For example, having known that Gill had just lost his job and was in a foul mood, Karen could choose to withhold the news of her pregnancy until later when Gill’s emotional turbulence has settled. This non-assertive style may be more appropriate in view of the situation at hand. Also, she could be more supportive and understanding towards his decision. According to Jack Gibb, empathy contributes greatly to a positive relational climate. Being able to accept another’s feelings and putting oneself in their place would make them feel valued and cared about. This encourages them to open up to the other party, making communication much more effective.
However, non-assertion should only be used sparingly because it does not go to the root of the problem. In order to achieve a satisfying resolution, Gill and Karen should discuss the issue later in a calm and peaceful manner, adopting the assertive style of communication. They should allow each other to express their thoughts and feelings directly about the issue and then coming up with a win-win solution. Both parties should respect each other and their discussion should be problem oriented- finding a way in which both parties’ needs are satisfied and working out some arrangement which makes everyone feel like a winner (Adler, 2003, p.229).
Another instance of conflict also occurs between Suzan, Gill’s sister, and her husband, Nathan. Their problem revolves around the upbringing style of their daughter, Patty. Nathan insists that Patty should be given strict education in all aspects, despite her young age, in order for her full potential to be utilised. Suzan, on the other hand, feels that her daughter should be given a normal childhood. Besides that, she also feels that her husband is being too uptight and controlling, always behaving as if he knows best. This is seen when Nathan insists that they should only have one child despite Suzan’s attempt to re-discuss the issue with him. However, instead of confronting the problem, Suzan chooses to be passive aggressive. She pretends to put up with his practices such as power-eating but secretly chows down sweets and chocolates as a symbol of anger and discontent. Eventually, her approach no longer calms her anger and she finally tells Nathan that she is leaving him.
There are several factors which contribute to the aggravation of their conflict. Primarily, Nathan’s controlling and always certain behavior often causes Suzan to feel that her opinions and feelings are unimportant. He often imposes his way of life on her with little regard to her needs. In addition to that, he also rarely accepts and acknowledges her suggestions and ideas. For instance, when Suzan tells him that Patty should be allowed to behave more like a normal child instead of constantly being strictly guided, he ridicules her frustration and rejects her concern. In another context, Suzan’s method of handling her unhappiness- passive aggression- is also not an effective manner. It not only does not allow Nathan to know his mistakes, it creates an illusion which shows as if she is happy with her situation.
The resolution of the conflict, as seen in the ending of the movie, was when Nathan finally realises his fault after having Suzan leave him. This indirect communication used by Suzan is nonetheless effective, even though there could be a possibility of Nathan misinterpreting her intentions. Her extreme measures lead Nathan to re-evaluate his behavior and discover that his methods in handling their relationship are inappropriate. Finally, he apologises to her sincerely and receives her forgiveness. Since then, his behavior changes for the better and their relationship becomes stronger.
Aside from marital conflicts, there are also conflicts between parent and child in the movie. For example, the relationship between Gill and his son, Kevin. Kevin is a very sensitive and emotional child. As a result, Gill has to be extra careful in handling him. Conflicts often arise when Kevin becomes upset by something trivial. For example, when Kevin thinks of himself as being abnormal because he was seeing a psychiatrist, Gill has to comfort and ensure him that things were alright. In this situation, Gill adopts an indirect communication approach. He tells Kevin that he was seeing a psychiatrist not because he was sick or abnormal, only more prone to worry than others and that the doctor was there to help him conquer this anxiety. He then shifts Kevin’s focus from the topic to his upcoming birthday celebration. This lights up Kevin’s mood and resolves the tension between them. Gill’s method, in this case, is effective because any other method may have irritated Kevin further. Also, as a loving and supportive father, Gill often tries to maintain a confirming communication climate between them. He displays great levels of empathy and equality when interacting with Kevin. He tries to understand his son’s needs and emotions instead of dictating them based on his personal experiences. Thus, because of his efforts, the conflicts that arise between them each time is resolved appropriately.
In conclusion, conflicts will always be prevalent in any interpersonal relationships. Be it between husband and wife, parent and child or friends, conflict is sure to arise because of the unique difference between every individual. It is how people manage and express the conflicts that would determine whether the resolution is satisfying for all parties. Thus, it is crucial that one be able to adopt the proper style in expressing his/her dissatisfaction based on the situation at hand in order to reduce the impact of conflicts and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships.
Adler, R.B., Rodman, G. (2003) Understanding Human Communication. New York: Oxford University Press.
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