Conflict happens in every relationship, no matter how good it is. The key to handling quarrels or conflict in a relationship is to recognize when one or both partners have entered an emotional hot spot, are activated, agitated, and defensive, and are unlikely to be able to continue the conversation without something being done to address how they are feeling.
Many of us press on, even when it is pretty clear that the other person is not really listening to what we are saying. Unfortunately, that strategy almost never works, and often leads to a feeling that the other person is fundamentally unable to pay attention to your needs and concerns.
Rule number one: Stop talking about issues if the other person seems agitated, angry, and/or defensive.
OK, let’s say we have learned how to recognize when the other person is agitated and defensive. How do we resolve that emotional state?
John Gottman’s book The Science of Trust is a great place to start. Chapter 8 summarizes the research on how couples with durable relationships end conflict.
A quick note, if you read this blog post trying to find a “fair” way of resolving a conflict you may be missing the point. When you are in a conflict with a partner you can’t address fairness until both people are in a calmer, and more reasonable state.
Rule number two: Focus on what works rather than what is fair when you are trying to defuse a conflict.
Strategies for resolving conflict can be divided into cognitive strategies – aimed at getting back to a rational discussion by looking for compromises – and emotional strategies – focusing just on changing the other person’s mood rather than addressing the issue directly.
On the whole cognitive strategies are not effective. These cognitive strategies focused on logic and rationality and included:
- defining the conflict – trying to find a way of describing the conflict that both people could agree to
- trying to find a compromise – seeking a solution that might be OK for both parties
- making promises to change
- monitoring the conversation – trying to keep it on track and resolving confusion or miscommunication
The only cognitive strategy that had any impact (that reduced tension or improved positive feelings in either partner) was when the wife offered to compromise, or when the wife agreed with her partner.
By contrast, emotional strategies, ones that abandoned any attempt to find a “solution” and instead focused on trying to change the other person’s mood, were much more likely to work.
- self disclosure, empathy, reassurance and understanding – husband self disclosure led to much more positive affect in the wife, husband’s understanding the other person or empathy led to an increase in his positivity and a big decrease in his negative feelings.
- we’re ok – when the wife took the long view and reassured the partner that “we are ok” – meaning this conflict did not threaten the relationship it increased both partner’s positivity.
- taking responsibility – the husband taking responsibility for even a part of the problem increased his wife’s positivity, and the wife taking responsibility for even a part of the problem increased both partner’s positive feelings.
- finding humor in the situation – wife’s humor led to a significant increase in her partner’s positive affect and significantly reduced both partner’s negativity; husband’s humor led only to a reduction in his negativity.
- time out or change of topic – when the husband changed the topic or stopped the angry discussion his mood improved, when the wife stopped the angry discussion it improved both partner’s moods.
So, the most effective strategies for resolving conflict focus on the feelings: understanding or normalizing those feelings, reassuring both partners that the relationship is not threatened by the conflict, finding humor, looking for something that you can take responsibility for changing, or just changing the topic to a topic that is not contentious.
The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples by John Gottman, PhD.