Conflict is an inevitable and necessary part of any relationship. When done effectively, conflict can promote growth and intimacy in the relationship. This is why it is so important to learn how to communicate during conflict– the way we communicate with our partner directly affects our feeling heard and understood. These tips will help you and your partner communicate more effectively:
Take Breaks When Things Get Heated
Work on becoming more mindful during interactions with your partner so that you can identify your “tipping point” in which you are no longer able to have a productive conversation. This “tipping point” is also known as flooding, and it prevents us from being able to have a productive conversation by inhibiting our ability to take in new information, increasing our defensiveness, reducing our creative problem-solving abilities, and reducing our ability to listen and empathize with our partner.
Some ways to tell if you may be feeling flooded are:
- Increased heart rate
- Stonewalling (emotional withdrawal)
- Increase in the volume of your voice
- Your breathing is reduced, or you stop breathing
- Decreased responsiveness or not responding at all
- Involvement in other behaviors that signal “I am not here” (i.e., playing with a pencil, playing with your hair, looking out the window)
- Cognitive looseness (speaking carelessly/saying whatever is on your mind)
When feeling flooded, excuse yourself from the interaction and take a short break. Ideally this break would be about 20-30 minutes, but it can be however long it needs to be for you to feel calm enough to continue the conversation. Tell your partner why you are pausing the interaction and when your partner can expect for you to resume the conversation. For example, you may say “I’m feeling overwhelmed right now and it’s making it hard for me to continue this conversation. I’m going to take a 20-30 minute break and I will let you know when I feel calm enough to continue the conversation.” During the break, you can choose to engage in either distraction or relaxation activities. To use distraction, find an activity that captures your attention so you are not thinking about the interaction with your partner. Some ideas are doing a puzzle (jigsaw, crossword, Sudoku, etc.), exercising, watching a funny television show, or reading a book. Relaxation techniques can help you shift out of fight-or-flight that occurs when you are flooded. You can find a guided meditation on YouTube or an application on your phone (i.e., Calm, Headspace, Insight Timer, or Simple Habit). You can even include your partner to help both of you relax and come back to the conversation physiologically and emotionally calmer. Learning to take breaks will help you resolve conflict calmly, rationally, and empathetically.
Use A Softened Start-Up
The first three minutes of a conversation usually predicts how the conversation will end. If the conversation starts in a calm and compassionate way, the conversation will most likely continue in this manner. On the other hand, if a conversation starts with criticizing, attacking, or blaming, it will most likely turn into a heated conversation. When bringing up an issue with your partner, use a softened start-up by using the formula: “I feel ______ about ______. I need _______.” Let’s break this down a bit:
“I feel _________.” Fill in the blank your feelings. No one can truly listen when they’re being attacked or criticized. They can, however, listen when a person is describing his or her own feelings about a situation. By starting the sentence with yourself as the subject, it relieves your partner of the responsibility of having to defend themself and allows them the ability to hear and empathize with your feelings.
“About ________.” Fill in the blank with your description of the problem rather than your partner. Be as specific as you can, and avoid generalizing or including other past situations.
“I need _______.” Fill in the blank with a positive need. Instead of what you’d like your partner to stop doing, tell them what you’d like them to do instead. Giving your partner a positive need offers them tangible ways to make this issue better for you in the future.
Let’s look at an example using this softened start-up. Imagine that you are upset because you feel that your partner does not contribute equally with the household tasks. Harsh start-up may sound like the following: “You never help out around the house. I’m sick of always having to do all the chores around here!” Softened start-up may sound like the following: “I feel exhausted and overwhelmed about the household tasks. I need us to sit down and divvy up the chores so that we both are on the same page about who does what.”
View Your Partner As An Ally Rather Than An Enemy
Anatol Rapoport, psychologist and author of the book Fights, Games, and Debates, calls this the Assumption of Similarity. He posits that during conflict, people see their partner as dissimilar to them, often thinking of themselves as the one possessing all the positive traits and qualities while thinking of their partner the opposite way. In this way, conflict becomes a “battle” we must “win.” During conflict conversations, see if you can work as a team tackling a problem rather than you versus your partner. To do this, ask yourself: What do we both agree on within this situation? What has my partner done right within this situation? If my partner’s behavior is uncharacteristic of him or her in this situation, what positive attributes do they really possess? How can we work together better to resolve this issue?
Accept Influence From Your Partner
Enter into conversations with your partner with an openness to learning more or hearing your partner out. Allow there to be a give-and-take in the conversation so that there is room for compromise. This can be something as simple as saying “Good point” when your partner shares his or her input with you. This will allow both you and your partner to feel heard and valued.
Prepare Ahead Of Time
If you’re bringing up an issue with your partner, have an idea of what you’d like to say before starting the conversation. You can write down your “I feel _____ about ____. I need _____” formula or discuss it with someone else. This way, you are less susceptible to emotional influence or saying something you didn’t mean.
Have Regularly Scheduled Relationship “Check-Ins”
Drs. John and Julie Gottman call this the State of the Union conversation, and it is meant to help couples assess how the relationship is going in order to prevent resentment buildup by being able to acknowledge and discuss residual issues or needs that are not being met. Pick a frequency that feels appropriate and make a commitment to sitting down and spending some time assessing how the relationship is going. To reflect, you can ask yourself the following: Are my needs being met in the relationship? If not, what needs do I have that are not being met? What can I do to better meet my partner’s needs? Is there anything within the relationship that I’m having difficulty letting go of? Are there external stressors or circumstances that may be impacting the relationship that I can notify my partner about?
Gottman, John, and Julie S Gottman. “Level 2 Clinical Training: Gottman Method Couples
Therapy.” The Gottman Institute, Inc., 2000.