Conflict is inevitable, but absolutely necessary and useful. Productive conflict is a skill set you learn. Like any skill set, such as riding a bike, it takes a lot of practice to be successful. Read about these four steps to improve your conflict discussions with your partner.
Soften Your Start-Up
A softened approach is another way of taking the bite out of a complaint. It’s finding a way to approach a complaint or concern in a manner that puts the listener at ease and able to accept what is being said as a legit complaint rather than feeling blamed for all the wrongs in a relationship. Try the following tips to soften your approach.
- State your complaint briefly, then stop.
- Take the blame out of your complaint by describing how you are feeling and what you perceive is happening. Keep away from statements that indicate you perceive something is “wrong” with your partner.
- Frame what you want in a positive light – ask for something rather than stating what you do not have.
- Start with “I” rather than “You” when stating how you feel. It keeps the focus on what you need rather than blaming your partner. For example, say “I would like to feel understood and valued” instead of “You are ignoring me again.”
- Explicitly state what you need. “I would like it if you cleaned the kitchen” instead of “The kitchen is always a mess!”
- Be polite. Say “please” and “thank you”, and “I would appreciate…”
- Express appreciation for when your partner has done well in the past and state how much you would like the behavior to happen now.
- One complaint at a time. Do not store them up and unleash them on your partner all at once. it can be overwhelming for the listener to hear more than one complaint at a time. It can, also, derail your conversation.
- Rephrase your anger or resentment as one of the softer emotions underneath, such as fear or sadness. For example, instead of saying “I am so mad that you don’t listen to me anymore”, say “I am afraid you are less interested in me than you used to be.”
Notice and Utilize Repair Attempts
In a conflict discussion there are times when tensions increase and one partner will make a repair attempt to the other. A repair attempt can be anything to reduce tension, allowing for a more positive interaction in the midst of conflict.
- Use of positive humor
- Changing body positions to be more open
- Reaching out physically for hand holding, a hug, or other contact
- Offering a signal of peace, such as offering to do an errand or watch a show together
It is essential to recognize these attempts by your partner and to accept them. They are an attempt to remain connected despite the difficulty. If you reject these attempts then the conflict can escalate. Acknowledging them and responding to them can help you both feel more positive about the conflict.
Take Care of Yourself with Self-Soothing
The physiological state of your body affects your ability to listen, to remember newly learned skills, and can send you into fight or flight mode. During a high conflict discussion with your partner, you may become emotionally flooded. Recognize when this is happening.
- Increased heart rate
- Tense muscles
- Increase in temperature in face or ears
- Tightness in chest or stomach
- Clenched jaw or fist
If you notice this emotional flooding, agree to take a break from the conversation for 20-30 minutes. This is the minimum amount of time for the human body to regain clear thinking. Some people require at least 45 minutes to completely return to their fully thinking selves.
It is extremely important you and your partner have agreed to breaks prior to a conflict. If you call for the break then establish for how long, when you will return, and acknowledge you will be responsible for beginning the conversation again. Several breaks may be required to get through the entire conversation. As a hint, some couples prefer to remain in the home during breaks and others are comfortable with their partner leaving for 30 minutes. Make sure you have established what is agreeable between both of you before doing it.
During a break time, take deep breaths. Purposefully contract and relax your jaw, neck muscles, shoulders, arms and back. Engage your mind in a relaxing activity such as a walk, enjoying a sitcom, drinking water, playing with a pet, working on a project, etc. It is always best to engage your mind and body in an actual break from the difficult discussion and environment.
When you return from taking a break, begin by looking for the part of your partner’s complaint, experience, or point of view to which you can say “Yes, that’s understandable.” Beginning the discussion with “Yes” allows you both to be on the same side working toward a shared desire for resolution and connection.
Next, invite your partner to explain their ideas, feelings, or thought process fully without interruption. This will require you to begin the discussion with the sole focus, or goal, of understanding what your partner wants, needs, or wishes.
Trying all this at once can be overwhelming. Choose one strategy to focus on for this week. For example, you want to notice more repairs from your partner or extend more repairs yourself. Practicing one new strategy at a time will increase your awareness and skill set during difficult conversations.
Source: Gottman, John and Silver, Nan. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. 1999. Three Rivers Press, New York, New York.