A Lesson from La La Land
Essay on communication and conflict resolution
(Warning: this article contains spoilers of the film La La Land.)
Like millions of other Americans, I recently crammed into the theater to see the film La La Land starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Having a few days to think, I realized one particular incident stood out to me. There was a scene where Mia (Stone) and Sebastian (Gosling) became embroiled in an intense argument over Sebastian’s decision to abandon his dream. Mia expressed disappointment and shock that he was setting aside his career plans for financial security, to which Sebastian defensively responded that he was doing it for her. Things escalated to the point where Mia stormed out of the apartment in a fury.
We see these kinds of conflicts permeate cinema and even anticipate them to arise when viewing romance movies or dramas precisely because they are so prevalent in interpersonal relationships. This particular scene from La La Land remained with me because it was a genuine example of the kind of strife couples can undergo when they fail to practice complete communication with each other.
What is complete communication?
Complete communication, simply put, is the ability to honestly, openly, and respectfully express one’s thoughts and feelings to another, along with being able to receive and comprehend their feedback. This includes determining the communication needs and dynamics of both or all parties involved, along with identifying and avoiding false assumptions.
In the context of conflict resolution in a romantic relationship, it often requires framing discussions with both the conscious intent to understand a partner’s perspective and the willingness to be emotionally vulnerable. The very fact that the situations which require conflict resolution are often predicated on strong emotions naturally makes complete communication a challenge. For many people, it requires a lot of deliberation.
Put active listening to practice
When addressing a point of friction between you and your partner, it is extremely important to first set the tone of the conversation. If you are initiating communication, taking on the role of the active listener is vital. A rule of thumb I have learned is to go into the discussion with the intent to understand and not to act on your own emotions. Relay that you want to hear your partner’s perspective and follow up with clarifying questions when something is ambiguous to you. These questions demonstrate that you care about what they feel and deflates any primed negative emotions from boiling over into a shouting match.
Once you have insight into their feelings, communicate your interpretations back to them. Oftentimes, people like to feel understood and become defensive when they believe their perspectives are being maligned or misinterpreted. For example, in the highlighted scene from La La Land, Sebastian reacted angrily to Mia’s remarks on his career decision because he felt she was not recognizing the sacrifice he was making for their relationship. It was apparent to the audience that Mia was voicing her concerns over Sebastian’s career decision because she loved him and wanted him to make a choice that would be optimal for achieving his dream; however, Mia did not preface the conversation by listening to the reasons why Sebastian made his decision, so her expressed concerns were not interpreted by him the way she had intended them to be.
Don’t make assumptions
Sebastian, however, made another classic mistake of incomplete communication. While he was angry about Mia’s perceived disregard for the sacrifice he made, he failed to see that his entire decision was based on a false assumption about what Mia wanted. Earlier in the film, Sebastian overheard Mia talk with her mother over the phone about his financial standing. Having overheard this, he assumed that Mia wanted him to provide financial stability for their relationship and tacitly made the decision to indefinitely postpone pursuing his dream of opening a jazz club. All the while, he never communicated these thoughts or decisions to Mia for clarification, which set the stage for the explosive conflict in the second act.
The whole situation could potentially have been avoided if Sebastian had reflected upon whether he was making an assumption on incomplete information and if he had simply asked Mia what she thought about their financial standings as a couple. Obviously, this would have made for a far less gut-wrenching scene to play out on the big screen; however, when applied to our own lives, questioning assumptions and seeking clarification can alleviate a lot of sorrow down the road.
Be an open book… a respectful open book
When figuring out each other’s head space, I have found it essential to be honest with your own perspective and to not shy away from directly sharing your thoughts and emotions. After all, the emphasis in complete communication is not to attack your partner or accuse them of slandering your own intentions, but to communicate your feelings. For me personally, this is the hardest part of complete communication, and one that I have had to invest a lot of time and energy in improving.
Expressing your point of view in a non-aggressive way can be very challenging if you are experiencing strong emotions, such as feeling indignant or betrayed. When we experience such powerful sentiments, we are often irrational actors when attempting to communicate. Sebastian slashing at Mia with his declaration that she only wanted him to struggle so she could feel good about herself is a perfect example of someone letting their pain control their tongue. To navigate around letting those feelings poison our words, it is best to keep one’s focus on the end goal: solving the conflict.
I have found that the easiest way to do this is to think of communicating emotions as an exercise to inform your partner about how you feel for their benefit of knowing. Such a framework does not place too much impetus for them to come to your perspective, but keeps them in the loop while respecting their intellectual autonomy. I have learned to use verbs in the past-tense (“I felt,” “I thought,” etc.) as a way to indicate how I felt coming into the situation and that I’m now at a junction where I’m willing to change my mind.
Coming to a mutual resolution is also easier when you can admit error. Confessing when you were mistaken or when you committed a harmful act goes a long way in mending hostilities. Respecting your partner’s feelings about your own thoughts, even if it means not coming to a total agreement or receiving validation yourself, is more important for your connection together than “winning” the argument.
Keep sight of the end goal
When it boils down to it, conflict resolution in a romantic relationship is about breaking through obstacles and coming to a peaceful resolution where you are both comfortable. So often is the case we get lost in our grievances and unnecessarily prolong conflict with the people we love. Reflecting upon this, I say let’s polish our communication skills and leave the combustive fights to the movies.