3.14.2009

Politeness in Conflict

This is a brief discussion of conflict strategies as seen through the concept of politeness.

Face-Attacking and Face-Enhancing Strategies: Politeness in Conflict

Face-attacking conflict strategies are those that attack a person’s positive face (for example, comments that criticize the person’s contribution to a relationship or any of the person’s abilities) or a person’s negative face (for example, making demands on a person’s time or resources or comments that attack the person’s autonomy). Face-enhancing strategies are those that support and confirm a person’s positive (praise, a pat on the back, a sincere smile) or negative face (giving the person space and asking rather than demanding), for example. Not surprisingly, academics have a special acronym for these: FTAs or Face Threatening Acts.
A wide range of conflict strategies could probably be viewed from the perspective of face and politeness. For the most part, it seems, the kinds of strategies textbook authors recommend to use are polite and the strategies recommended to avoid are impolite. But, several strategies seem especially appropriate to discuss in terms of politeness.
One popular but destructive face-attacking strategy is beltlining (Bach & Wyden, 1968). Much like fighters in a ring, each of us has a “beltline,” (here, an emotional one). When you hit below this emotional beltline, you can inflict serious injury. When you hit above the belt, however, the person is able to absorb the blow. With most interpersonal relationships, especially those of long standing, you know where the beltline is. You know, for example, that to hit Kristen or Matt with the inability to have children is to hit below the belt. You know that to hit Jack or Jill with the failure to get a permanent job is to hit below the belt. This type of face-attacking strategy causes all persons involved added problems.
Another such face-attacking strategy is blame. Instead of focusing on a solution to a problem, some members try to affix blame on the other person. Whether true or not, blaming is unproductive; it diverts attention away from the problem and from its potential solution and it creates resentment that is likely to be responded to with additional resentment. The conflict then spirals into personal attacks, leaving the individuals and the relationship worse off than before the conflict was ever addressed.
Strategies that enhance a person’s self image and that acknowledge a person’s autonomy will not only be polite, they’re likely to be more effective than strategies that attack a person self image and deny a person’s autonomy. Even when you get what you want, it’s wise to help the other person retain positive face because it makes it less likely that future conflicts will arise (Donahue & Kolt, 1992).
Instead of face-attacking, try face-enhancing strategies:
• Use messages that enhance a person’s self image
• Use messages that acknowledge a person’s autonomy
• Compliment the other person even in the midst of a conflict
• Make few demands, respect another’s time, give the other person space especially in times of conflict
• Keep blows to areas above the belt
• Avoid blaming the other person
• Express respect for the other’s point of view even when it differs greatly from your own

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