Love it or hate it, we all have to deal with conflict. Relationships, partnerships, and career successes all depend on the ability to effectively manage stressful times. Managing conflict can be daunting for some, but in my professional (and personal) experience, I have learned that being true to yourself and your opinions will lead to greater satisfaction in the long run.
Professional mediators work with individuals to help them move towards a resolution; however, you don’t need a live-in professional to help you work through day-to-day issues in your personal life. Try these practical skills to make conflict less daunting.
Are you hearing or listening?
Given how much we spend our day listening, you’d think this would be a mastered skill for most. In reality, most people believe that they are listening when they are really focusing on their rebuttal, their to-do list, or that song that was playing on their way home from work. Remember a time when you were super engaged in something (like an episode of Big Little Lies), and compare that to a time when you felt really bored (like a mandatory work training). Now in the time you were bored, you may have seemed like you were listening because you were physically present, but not mentally there. How much of that training can you remember now?
It’s the same with active listening – to really hear the other person, you have to listen with all your senses. This means paying attention to what they are saying and what their body is saying (more on that soon). When you practice this skill, you will become more attuned to what they are “really” saying, and by providing the feedback that you care to listen wholeheartedly, you can encourage more positive and open communication in the future.
Read the body language.
Consider non-verbal communication as the younger sibling to active listening. This is one of the simplest ways to show the other person that you are tuned in to them and that you are valuing what they have to say. Imagine you’re having an argument with your partner. You’re expressing yourself while they are on their phone, not looking up, and mumbling “mhm, yeah.” This is infuriating, right? We’ve all been there.
The reason that this is SO annoying is that they may be “hearing” you but their body language is telling you otherwise. This can lead you to feel you’re wasting your time or that they don’t care what you have to say (even if this isn’t true, your body tells a story that others have access to).
Trying to keep your body open and relaxed is one of the quickest ways to de-escalate tension in the room. I tell my clients to keep their arms open rather than crossed (this shows a willingness to hear what the other is saying) and to keep eyes focused on the other person.
Take the kettle off the flame.
I was working with a couple when they described their breaking point – the husband accidentally breaking a teapot in their home. The fight escalated, and turned into shared blaming, shaming, and name-calling. The husband could not understand why his wife was so angry. When pressed for more information, the wife explained that she had recently lost her grandmother and felt her husband was not supportive through her grief. Her grandmother had gifted her the teapot, and the broken teapot felt like a metaphor for her husband’s dismissal of her feelings. When we actually laid out the facts on the table, a lightbulb went off as the husband asked, “It was never about the teapot, was it?”
Often, what blows up the argument is not what’s truly important to the person, but rather just the breaking point. Therefore, it’s important to check in with the other person. This can be as simple as, “This is what I’ve understood, is that what you mean?” Or summarize their point and repeat it back to them. This way, your partner is confident that you understand them and you can move forward with the same information, or they know you do not understand them and can clarify themselves. The risk of miscommunication or arguing past each other (because you’re not arguing about the same thing) is then resolved.
Listen for what’s behind the scenes.
Once you mastered the first three skills, you will likely be more aware during conversations. The next step is to look under the surface — try to listen and really hear what emotions and interpretations the other person is frustrated about, rather than just reacting to what they are saying.
Look at the facts – the description and substance of what the other person is saying – and the interests, what the person wants and needs. For example, someone who says, “You always work late,” might be upset about more than just the act of working late. Look for the clues – is this a judgment or an exaggeration? It sounds like they are trying to convey an emotion by overgeneralizing the behavior – maybe they are feeling lonely at night or left out. By getting at the real issue, you will be in a better position to move forward rather than reacting to the original statement.
Beyond just listening, also ask! While your partner will appreciate your emotional effort of looking deeper into their statements, they probably wouldn’t love it if you then keep your assumptions to yourself. Remember what we talked about in the section above — bring your thought process to your partner, and they can affirm or correct you, and then you can move forward together.
Take a breather.
Conflict is tough! Arguing with someone may bring up all sorts of emotional responses within yourself (rage, frustration, anger, worry, sadness, etc.). It is important to listen to yourself and your body. It will be more beneficial in the long run to excuse yourself, take a breather, and check in with yourself. Seriously – a few long, measured deep breaths can do wonders for settling your body’s fight/flight/freeze response and give you the mental space to evaluate the situation beyond whatever your strongest emotion is telling you.
It is important to be level-headed in any negotiation, and when you let your emotions get the better of you, you are more likely to settle on an outcome you don’t like or give in to pressure.
It’s always best to put your best foot forward during conflict, even when you feel like you could just explode. I know, I know — way easier said than done. It is never helpful or right to downplay another’s feelings or just cut them off. Consider a time when your partner told you to just calm down. Did this help you? Did this make you feel calm? No. This really only helps to ignite more rage and makes you feel like that person just wasn’t listening to you at all.
Another place I see many couples get stuck is when being truth seekers. Rather than assuming someone is lying or being deceptive, it can be helpful to consider that their version of reality may just be different from yours. Often times “winning” an argument by being right doesn’t solve the actual issue.
Part of active listening, like we talked about earlier, is assuming the validity of the person you’re in conflict with. Hear them out, assume the best, and definitely don’t tell them to “calm down” or use any body language — looking at you, eye rollers and scoffers — that would indicate your disdain or disbelief.
Reframe your understanding.
In any argument, both sides come to the table with positions in mind. This means that they have expectations about how the conflict will be settled. The problem with positions is they often don’t take into account the whole problem, and they are often one-sided. When listening to the other person, it is important to consider:
What do they need?
Why does it matter to them?
Once you understand what the other’s interests are, you are one step closer to looking at solutions. Often times, you may have more in common with the other person than you realize. By highlighting the things that you both feel or want, you are setting the stage for finding common ground.
For example, maybe you often fight with your partner about wanting to spice up the relationship, and you feel they never take initiative to make an effort. They may feel judged or discouraged. Here’s the shared experience: “Clearly we both care a lot about our relationship, and we both want to make sure that effort is made to keep things exciting.”
Agree on a ‘good enough’ resolution.
Once you are sharing the same reality (even partially), it’s time to shift towards resolution.
One easy way to do this is by taking the problem statement and flipping it into something more positive and future-focused. Consider our above example about spicing things up, the flipped statement could be: “I’ve heard that it can be important to set aside some time during the week for a date night, but we always end up ordering in. Do you think you could plan a dinner out next week?” When coming to a resolution, I always urge my clients to consider what would be “good enough,” to find a compromise that sets the stage for the other to be successful and accomplish a common goal.
Most negotiations end in compromise on the part of both parties, and if one party is getting everything they want – at the lack of the other losing out – this may be fuel for another argument in the near future. It’s best to meet in the middle and consider the bare bones of what you would really need to feel okay at the end of any argument.
Know what red flags look like.
The number one most important part of any negotiation is making sure that you are safe, emotionally and physically. Research tells us that during tense times in relationships, there is a higher than average likelihood that violence can occur. Remember that name calling, coercion, manipulation, making threats, physical aggression, violence towards objects, and other behaviors that make you feel unsafe are all red flags. It is important that you listen to your internal radar, and seek support or advice when you feel things are getting out of hand. It is also important to notice when you are in a situation that feels never-ending; conflict and violence can be cyclical, and if you find yourself having the same argument multiple times without resolution, it may be time to call in some help. There are many professionals who specialize in helping individuals and couples move through conflict safely. There is no weakness in asking for help!
If any of the red flags listed above sound familiar, call the domestic abuse hotline (1-800-799-7233 //1-800-787-3224 (TTY) ) to talk to someone about your situation.