A couple using the Gottman Method to resolve conflict taught by their therapist in Fair Oaks, CA | How to fight fair in a relationship

We all have different views, opinions, feelings, and perspectives — they’re just some of the wonderful things that make us human. Sometimes, these things can bring us much closer with others and help us to create balanced, healthy relationships. And sometimes, our outlook on a situation — from day-to-day personal experiences to global issues — may differ from someone else’s. In these instances, we have a chance to connect more deeply and better understand each other — but of course, it’s not always that easy. 

Conflict is a normal, natural part of the human experience — and it’s important for us to learn to manage conflict, and maintain channels of healthy, constructive communication. Here are five simple steps to help you approach conflict in your relationships — whether platonic, professional, family, or romantic. 

1. Identify and articulate your feelings. 

In the middle of an argument, it’s better to remove yourself from the situation (with calm, fair warning), and allow both parties a chance to “cool down”. Let the other person know that you’re not walking away from the conversation altogether, and if possible, provide a timeframe for when you’ll be ready to continue the discussion.

Use this time to identify how you’re feeling. Name the emotion (or emotions) or describe the sensations of the emotions. For example, the situation may have you feeling frustrated, sad, out of control, like you wanted to win, or particularly defensive. When you’re ready to share these feelings with the other person, keep your statements short. Avoid the temptation to lay out “the facts”. And remember — perception is everything, so try not to comment on how you believe the other person might be feeling. 

2. Validate the other person’s experience.

Just because you “disagree” with how your partner is feeling, or can’t understand why they feel the way they do, doesn’t mean your partner is “wrong”. In fact, trying to counter, explain away, or change the other person’s feelings about the situation can make them feel invalidated and powerless — which won’t do either party any good. 

Instead, actively listen to the other person, and offer empathetic statements that show you’re listening to their perspective. It doesn’t mean you have to agree — rather, it shows that you are listening, and you care about their emotional response, rather than the actions that led you to the argument in the first place. 

Try one of these statements or questions to help the other person feel seen and heard: 

  • “I can see how what I said might have felt triggering for you.”
  • “I hear what you’re saying, and I’m trying to understand your feelings better — which is why I wanted to talk.”
  • “Is there anything else I should know about how you feel right now, before we go any further?”

    3. Share how you felt triggered, and why. 

Providing context is a great way for the other party to see things from your perspective. Remember — people aren’t mind-readers, and often, we assume that others will simply understand why we feel the way we do. In reality, it takes effort and open communication to effectively demonstrate to others how we’re feeling, and why. 

It may be helpful to go back to the emotion (or emotions) you identified in Step 1, and then recall another time in your life when you felt the same way. What was the situation? Who was involved? Did the situation resolve itself, or not? Try to avoid saying “You made me feel…”, and instead, focus on how the emotion related to you specifically. 

Your trigger statement might sound something like this:

  • “I felt disrespected, and that is a sensitive emotion for me.”
  • “I felt powerless. When I feel powerless, it reminds me of how I used to feel when my parents would argue at night when they thought I was asleep.”
  • “I felt ashamed. I’ve tried to make changes like this before, and couldn’t — which sometimes makes me feel like a failure.” 

    4. Take ownership and apologize for your part in the conflict.

man and woman doing online counseling in California | also shows how marriage counseling works in person in Roseville, CA

In an argument, it can be tempting to “stick to your guns” and try to avoid accepting the part you may have played in the conflict. No one likes to be wrong — but admitting where we are at fault demonstrates self-awareness, compassion, and humility. In most instances, it’s just like the old saying goes — it takes two to tango.*

Be prepared to offer some background and context for the circumstances that led to your part in the conflict. For example:

  • “I’ve been dealing with a really stressful situation at work, and I see that I’ve projected some of that frustration on you.” 
  • “I’ve been getting easily upset because I’ve been going through a rough time with my partner.”
  • “I’m running on empty, and didn’t really have the emotional bandwidth for our conversation.”

Acknowledge how your own personal circumstances might have contributed to the conflict, and allow them to inform your apology. This might look like: 

  • “I overreacted. I’m sorry.”
  • “I was defensive. I’m sorry.” 
  • “I didn’t listen to how you were feeling. I’m sorry.” 

(Note: If you are suffering from abusive behavior within your relationship, you may benefit from speaking to a licensed therapist about what to do next. Your therapist may suggest a number of other options available to you, particularly if the situation you are in is unsafe.) 

5. Come up with a strategy for how you’ll both manage conflict in the future.

As mentioned earlier — conflict is a natural, normal part of relationships. It’s unrealistic to think that you’ll never have another fight — but what you can do is develop a strategy to manage it in the future.

Share with the other person one thing they could do better to avoid the conflict next time. It’s important for you to voice your desires and set clear boundaries for the behavior you won’t tolerate. It’s also important for the other person to have this opportunity, too — and for you to respect their needs and their own boundaries. 

This could sound like:

  • “In the future, if I say that I need some time alone, please know that it’s not about you, and I will come to you when I’m ready to talk.”
  • “The next time I’m feeling upset because of work, I’ll speak to you about it before it escalates and creates conflict at home.”
  • “Feel free to tell me when I’m being overbearing, and I will give you the space you need.”

Learning to navigate conflict is one of the most important skills you can learn. It will help you create and maintain long-lasting relationships of all kinds. This 5-step process for conflict resolution will help you to communicate better, empathize with others, and improve your general wellbeing by reducing stress and limiting confrontation.

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