Paul Watzlawick and his associates identified a third axiom in all relationships that tends to be essential in initiation, continuation and ultimately resolution of conflicts. This feature, called “punctuation”, refers to the assignment of one-way causality to a sequence of events or behaviors.

Typically, when we are assigning blame we assume that the other person took some action (or didn’t take some action) that caused us to feel a certain way — or act in a certain manner. Our partner in the relationship is likely to identify a different event or behavior that started things off in a conflictual manner and led to our current predicament. What one partner perceives to be their justifiable -response to a stimulus evoked by the other partner, may just as accurately be perceived by the other as a stimulus to their own subsequent response in a spiraling chain of events.

Delores and Bart’s interactions illustrate this phenomenon. Punctuation plays an important role in ongoing conflicts regarding Delores’s dramatic outbursts. Delores and Bart agree that Delores’ personality tends toward the volatile. She is often loud and demonstrative. Her feelings are very much on the surface. By contrast, Bart appears to be more reflective and quiet. His emotions are not so visible. Both attribute their current styles to their early family settings. Delores had more or less adopted her family style, which she sees as loud and exuberant, but at the same time warm and loving. Bart, on the other hand, remembers his family as smoldering with unspoken hostility. When conflict was expressed, it was unleashed in a torrent of rage. In response, Bart places importance on the ability to disagree, but to do so in a reasoned, calm and quiet fashion. Their conflicts often center around these varying styles and how they are interpreted by each partner.

Delores indicates that “when I’m angry, you tend to take it personally and you shouldn’t.” Bart agrees:

Yeah, I do, because like I say, I think it goes back to earlier days when people had those feelings, usually they were expressing feelings they had about one another, and not just a personal conflict. . . I interpret the yelling and the screaming and the slamming of things with not just a casual, “This is how I’m feeling right now. Just leave me alone,” but with more of a deep-seated moodiness . . . anger.


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William BergquistWilliam Bergquist, Ph.D. An international coach and consultant in the fields of psychology, management and public administration, author of more than 50 books, and president of a psychology institute. Dr. Bergquist consults on and writes about personal, group, organizational and societal transitions and transformations. His published work ranges from the personal transitions of men and women in their 50s and the struggles of men and women in recovering from strokes to the experiences of freedom among the men and women of Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent years, Bergquist has focused on the processes of organizational coaching. He is coauthor with Agnes Mura of coachbook, co-founder of the International Journal of Coaching in Organizations and co-founder of the International Consortium for Coaching in Organizations.

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