This article is based on the Reimagining Love podcast episode “Ten Essential Skills for Navigating Conflict (Part 2).” To listen to this episode, click here.
Welcome back! In this article, we’ll continue discussing conflict and how to create happy and healthy relationships. This is Part 2 of my series “Ten Essential Skills for Navigating Conflict.” Hopefully you have already read over the first article, if not, please check out the previous blog post, in which I detail the first five of these ten essential skills for navigating conflict. If you’re all caught up and ready to go, keep on reading.
Last week, we talked about the first five skills which were:
- Understanding Your Conflict Template
- Distinguishing between the Lyrics and the Music
- Adding Structure to Activate Empathy
- Separating Problem-Discussion from Problem-Solution
- Hating the Moment, Not the Person.
I wonder if you have had a chance to practice any of these skills in your relationship since you read about them. And I wonder if you noticed anything different when you used the skill. Perhaps you felt a bit less upset than you otherwise would have been. Perhaps your partner got a bit less defensive than they otherwise would have gotten. Perhaps the tension dissolved a bit more quickly than it might otherwise have.
These are wins! When it comes to love, we are all about progress, not perfection. As I said in the previous article, there is a difference between knowing what regulating our emotions and using empowered communication look like during conflict and being able to use empowered communication during conflict. Awareness versus enactment. We are whole as we are and forever works in progress. We don’t always get it right, but we can commit to a growth mindset and we can commit to learning new skills.
You may find that these skills might be relatively easy for you to practice when the topic of the conflict is money for example, but harder to keep in mind when the topic is parenting. Or you may find that these skills might be relatively easy for you to practice for a while and then you get hit with a series of challenges that leave you feeling more fragile, more tender, more easily set off. Noticing patterns like this is so important because then we can advocate. We can say, “I know that difficult conversations about parenting are really hard for me, so let’s go slowly, let’s commit to taking breaks as needed, let’s use the Speaker-Listener technique” (which was skill 3 from Part 1).
I want these 10 skills to become your road map, reminding you of what a more empowered, more compassionate, more effective mindset looks like when it comes to conflict. When we embark on a journey, we need to know where we are heading. Here our journey is toward navigating conflict in a healthier way. These 10 skills are our road map. They give us structure. They point us in the direction we want to go. What I know for sure is that using these 10 skills more consistently will help us begin to view those moments of misunderstanding or disappointment as even just a little bit less scary and upsetting. Ultimately, these moments have a lot to teach us about ourselves and our partner, if and as we are able to stay a bit more engaged, a bit more calm on the inside, a bit more curious, a bit more patient, a bit gentler with ourselves, and a bit gentler with our partner. Around here, we are all about practice, practice, practice, and lots of grace.
In this article, I’m going to teach you skills 6-10, which are:
- Skill #6: Adopting a “We” Perspective
- Skill #7: Avoiding Intimacy-Blocking Language
- Skill #8: Using Intimacy-Promoting Language
- Skill #9: Offering Heartfelt Apologies
- Skill #10: Forgiving and Looking Ahead
As I mentioned in part one of this series, I want to offer an important caveat before we dive in: We are going to focus on ordinary, normative, expected conflict in this episode. Unfortunately, we know that in intimate partnerships, conflict can become abusive, toxic, and dangerous. Signs of unhealthy conflict include: yelling and screaming, name-calling, intimidation and threats, throwing things, and any violence or putting hands on a partner. These are significant problems that affect mental health and relational well being. Problems that cannot be adequately or appropriately addressed in this format. Problems that warrant the care of a couples therapist or social service agency that can help with safety planning.
Skill #6: Adopting a “We” Perspective
To set up this skill, which is one of my favorites, I want to give you a quick (and nerdy) backstory. Within the field of couples therapy, there are a variety of approaches— different ways of treating the problems that people bring to therapy. You’ve got the Cognitive-Behavioral couples therapists, the Insight Oriented couples therapists, the Emotion-Focused couples therapists…each of those “teams” has a different language, a different set of priorities, and different beliefs about how to reduce relationship distress. And each of those teams has research findings that prove the effectiveness of their approach. In 2014, a team of researchers, Doug Sprenkle, Sean Davis, and Jay Lebow, conducted something called common factors research. They looked across all of these major varieties of couples therapy in order to explore whether and what these approaches have in common, what unites them, whether there are any unifying mechanisms for creating change. And they found four common factors. I am not going to talk you through all four, but what I want you to know for our purposes here is that these researchers found that no matter the model or school or team, all of these approaches to couples therapy have some method for helping couples conceptualize their difficulties in relational terms.In other words, every approach has a set of tools or strategies, some language and process that helps partners move away from a story that sounds like this: “My partner did this to me” and toward a story that sounds like this: “The more my partner does X, the more I do Y, and round and round we go, stuck in this dance or pattern or cycle.”
Every approach to couples therapy has a method for helping a couple conceptualize their difficulties in relational terms. Why? Because it tends to be far easier to see what the other person did to create the problem we are having than to hold a complex and nuanced understanding of the dynamics. It’s really easy to point a finger and see what our partner is doing. We are all at risk of telling what author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the single story.” It’s harder to see how our words and actions contribute to a problem. And it’s harder to look at a conflict as a pattern or a dance or a cycle.
When a couple sits down for their first therapy session, above Partner A’s head is a thinking bubble that says, “Finally! We are here! This therapist and I are going to help Partner B understand the error of their ways!” Unfortunately, above Partner B’s head is also a thinking bubble that says, “I can’t wait for this therapist to help me explain to Partner A all of the ways in which they are a pain in my ass!”
Michelle Obama tells a story in her book, Becoming, about going to couples therapy with Barack and feeling just like this. She thought couples therapy would be about helping Barack be a better husband and she was quite taken aback when the therapist also helped her understand her role in their dynamics. So if Michelle struggled with shifting into a “we” perspective you know the rest of us are going to struggle with this for sure! The good news is that I am going to teach you a very specific skill that you can use, without the help of a couples therapist, to practice adopting this “we” perspective.
Back in 2013, my friend, Northwestern University psychology professor Dr. Eli Finkel, conducted a study he refers to as the “Marriage Hack.” He and a few other researchers recruited 120 happily and recently married (for less than five years) couples. In the first year of the study, every four months, participants wrote about the most significant fight they had in the previous four months. In the second year of the study, the researchers divided the couples into two groups. The control group continued with the same plan (once every four months they wrote about their most significant fight). The experimental group wrote a summary of their most significant fight as well, but in addition they wrote about the conflict from the perspective of a neutral third person who wants the best for both partners. They were asked to also include, if possible, a single positive aspect to the fight. The researchers wanted this second group to be able to keep this “outsider perspective” in mind all year long, so they also asked these couples to write about what might get in the way of them adopting this neutral third point of view during future fights and what they could do to keep that from happening. These additional writing prompts took each person in the second group about twenty-one extra minutes during the course of the year.
The results were amazing! Most studies about marriage unfortunately show that relationship satisfaction declines during the first year of marriage, and the couples in both groups reported similar dissatisfactions. But differences between the two groups showed up in the second year of the study. The couples in the control group, the ones who just wrote about their fights, continued to show declining levels of relationship satisfaction, whereas the couples in the second group, the ones who adopted the outsider perspective showed no additional decline and reported their fights were less distressing over time.
The next time you and your partner are hitting a bump in the road, press pause. Take a mindful time out, an intentional reset. Step away. Take ten minutes and write about the conflict from the perspective of a neutral third party who cares about each of you! Literally use your names as you write: “Alexandra is afraid of X and Todd really wants and needs Y.” This practice will help you adopt a “we” perspective. It will help you see the role that each of you play in creating this problem, and it will help you feel more empathy and compassion for your partner. It will help you get a bit more clear on what you want to do next.
Skill #7: Avoiding Intimacy-Blocking Language
The words we choose, and the tone we use to convey our thoughts and feelings, matter a lot. Certainly when we are feeling distressed, this leads our words to become more sharp, more severe, more extreme. But the arrow also goes in the other direction. Our extreme words amplify our own distress, and they hold the power to move our partner into a state of greater distress. Skill #7 is about avoiding language that blocks intimacy, language that reinforces our pain, language that likely pushes our partner further away. Words that make an unfortunate situation even more polarized or extreme. Here’s what I’d like you to avoid:
1. Always and never
“You always do this to me.” “You never have my back.” Always and never are efforts to convey the depth of our distress, but saying always and never guarantees that your partner is going to come back at you with an example that disproves your declaration. “I do have your back! Remember last week, when my mom called and…” And then when your partner brings up the example that disproves your declaration, you’re going to feel like your present concern has been invalidated. And on and on! “Always” and “never” fall into the criticism category of Gottman’s 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse. For more on the 4 Horsemen, listen to Episode #8 of Reimagining Love with Liz Earnshaw.
Using always and never also implies a consistent personality flaw rather than an unmet need or a concern about how our partner has handled something. Stick to words like, “You didn’t…” “I wanted you to…” “I feel disappointed that you didn’t…” You can even describe a pattern to your partner by saying something like, “I am concerned because it has happened a few times lately.”
2. Name-calling and character assassination:
“You’re crazy.” “You’re an asshole.” “You’re lazy.” “You’re just like your father.”
This is language that conveys how upset we are, and likely increases how upset we are. This same language will push our partner further away. It erodes a sense of safety, spikes defensiveness, and ensures that we will not get what we need.
3. Arguing that others agree with you
“My friends all think…” “My therapist said…” “Any normal rational person knows…” When we don’t feel like our concerns are validated, it’s understandable that we want to bring in reinforcements. Bringing in those additional voices act as a way to bolster your argument in the hopes that your partner will hear and understand you. But it promotes that right/wrong mentality that keeps you stuck. It’s likely that your partner will say something like, “Why are you talking with them about our problems?” It may feel like a boundary violation. Your partner will feel ganged up on and therefore more defensive.
Your concerns warrant their consideration simply because they are your concerns. I don’t want you to feel like you need to bring in back up in order to feel legitimized.
4. Guilt trips
“I do it for you.” “If you really loved me, you would…” Statements like these create the conditions for your partner to respond, “But you don’t have to do it for me!” or “If you really loved me, you wouldn’t ask me to…” Again, your need/longing/wish/desire/claim is legit on its own!
5. Absolutes or “shoulds”
Very little in relationships is absolute capital T truth. Absolutes and shoulds feel shaming, again, like your partner is inherently wrong or damaged or deficient. Language that conveys that your partner’s way is deficient is going to further shut your partner down. Again, I want you to feel entitled to your perspective and your experience without resorting to abstract shoulds or rules. If it felt bad to you or didn’t sit well with you, that’s reason enough to ask your partner to talk it through with you.
6. Kitchen sink
Something that is common, unhelpful, and intimacy-blocking, that couples therapists see all the time is kitchen sinking. The conversation starts with one specific concern, “I didn’t like when you told your family about our travel plans without checking first with me” but quickly chains to a bunch of other concerns: “It reminds me of that time you told my friend about my raise and that time you made plans with your brother,” and and and. This is understandable when a particular moment feels like it’s chained to a larger pattern of behavior. And for those of us who thrive on pattern recognition, this sometimes happens without us even being consciously aware. But when you lay five examples out all at once, it’s very likely that your partner will feel flooded. This will block their ability to respond to your present concern because they are overwhelmed by all of the concerns.
Sometimes, kitchen sinking happens because we have stored up so many tiny resentments that they all come out at once. So we can prevent kitchen-sinking by adopting what Gottman calls a low negativity threshold: addressing the pebble in the shoe before it becomes a big ole blister!
Sometimes people feel resistant to being mindful of their language. They will say to me, “but these are my feelings. I am just expressing my feelings!” Feelings are legit. AND in order to care for our relationships, we need to commit to avoiding language choices that guarantee that we will get what we want and need.
Skill #8: Using Intimacy-Promoting Language
So I just laid out a whole bunch of stuff we should not say. Let’s talk now about some of my favorite empowered communication practices. Couples therapists love to say that behind every criticism is an unmet need. Conflict goes so differently when we can move from being critical to identifying and naming our unmet need or needs. Each of these intimacy-promoting language choices gives you a way of moving from that finger-pointing, escalating critical stance into something more vulnerable and more inviting.
1. I statements
“I feel hurt.” “I feel misunderstood.” “I feel sad.” Notice how this emphasizes your own experience without labeling the other person. Not “I feel like you’re an asshole.” Making an “I statement” rather than “character assassination” promotes intimacy and reduces defensiveness. This is a more vulnerable way of communicating, so it may feel difficult and takes practice! This is normal.
2. XYZ statement
“When you did X in situation Y, I felt Z.” “When you told your family about our travel plans when we were together for dinner, I felt sad and embarrassed.” This is how you bring up a specific concern in a specific context, and it has that element of the I statement.
3. The story I am telling myself is…
“When you told your family about our travel plans when we were together for dinner, I felt sad and embarrassed and the story I am telling myself is that your family is more important to you than I am.” Those seven words pack a huge punch! “The story I am telling myself is..” They offer grace to your partner by centering yourself in the story. And they require self-reflecting on what it is you are telling yourself beneath the surface level reactions and emotions. A knee jerk reaction might be to say something like, “You love your family more than you love me. Your family is your priority, not me.” You have just added a ton of meaning. You have gotten inside your partner’s head. “The story I am telling myself is” adds space between what happened and your interpretation of what happened. We are meaning-making creatures, so we make up stories very quickly, sometimes without even knowing. So the intimacy promoting practice is to slow ourselves down and force ourselves to notice that we have gone from the thing that happened to the story about the thing that happened.
4. Personalize your requests
In Skill #7, I talked about avoiding the vague “my friends all think” or “anyone knows…” Instead, see what happens when you say, “It would mean so much to me if you would…” This is more vulnerable, yes. Therefore more intimacy promoting! That’s the goal!
5. Criticize actions, not character
This is an intricate but important distinction. But criticizing actions over character allows the conversation to be problem centered and not partner centered, and will feel less like a personal attack. Try to explicitly convey respect: “I know what a good parent you are. I know how stressed you are at work.” Think about their intent versus impact: “I know you did not mean to hurt my feelings, and it hurt when you said X.” This way you are both highlighting a specific action that hurt you and recognizing that at their core, your partner is not a bad person.
6. Stay on topic
Address the concern at hand. This is the antidote to kitchen sinking. If your partner is bringing up five issues, see if you can help the two of you tackle one matter at a time.
7. When requesting change, be clear and specific:
When there has been a conflict, we likely want to figure out how to prevent it from happening again, so we likely want to request some change going forward. It is helpful to make a request that is clear and specific. “Going forward, it would mean a lot to me if you would check with me about plans before you make them.” But life is complicated and messy, so it’s important to remember that there are a lot of shades of gray between anarchy on one end (having no guideposts/expectations/agreements) and attempting to create rules for every possible scenario that might come up. In my IR101 e-course, one of the activities is a values card sort, where individuals and couples can get clear and conscious about the values that they want to have guide their agreements and that ensure that requests for change hook onto the relational values you have agreed matter to you both.
Phew! Skills 7 and 8 covered a lot of ground. Two skills to go!
Skill #9: Offering Heartfelt Apologies
These last two skills are about repair. The topic of apologies is a huge one. For our purposes here, we will talk about the skill of saying “I’m sorry.” When we start to look at conflicts from that “we” perspective, when we start to adopt that frame of “the more I do this, the more you do that,” it becomes easier to identify the piece of the conflict that each partner can apologize for, and the subsequent heartfelt apology that each partner can offer the other. To say “I’m sorry” is to say, “the health of this relationship matters more than my need to win or to be right.”
A vital Relational Self-Awareness question is, “What is the piece of this conflict that I can take accountability for and apologize for?” What is the kernel of truth in your partner’s perspective? Identify this kernel of truth and own it completely. “I own that I have been more irritable than usual this week. I am sorry that I snapped at you for watching John Oliver without me. I wish that instead of snapping at you, I had instead expressed my disappointment.”
Here are the 8 elements of a heartfelt apology:
- Take responsibility: “I did X”
- Name the impact: “My action hurt you”
- Bear witness: Ask, “Can you tell me how you’re feeling?” or ask “What was that like for you?”
- Avoid “if”: For example, don’t say, “I’m sorry if I hurt you”
- Avoid “but”: For example, don’t say, “But I didn’t mean it.” Generally speaking, anything you say after the but negates everything you said before the but.
- Avoid passive voice: For example, don’t say, “I’m sorry if you were offended.”
- Avoid cross-complaining: For example, don’t say, “You did Y.”
- Offer an amends action or change: For example, say something like, “I wonder if this would help going forward.” Make sure it’s doable and that you can commit to it.
Remember that you can offer an apology even if you didn’t mean to hurt your partner. You can have both innocent intent and harmful impact. Apologies in that context are still necessary! You can offer an apology even if you think your partner is overreacting. Let’s just please ban that word—overreacting—from our vocabulary. None of us is the Actuary of Emotional Responses. None of us gets to measure the appropriate size of an emotional response given a particular stimulus. You can offer an apology even if you are very sure you would not have been hurt if the tables were turned! You and your partner are different.
Skill #10: Forgiving and Looking Ahead
Forgiveness is another huge topic. One that I wrote about in my first book, Loving Bravely. One that we talk a lot about in my e-course about trust. For our purposes here, I’m going to talk about forgiveness as a skill, an essential skill for the health of our relationship. Sometimes forgiveness is not possible or advisable. Some violations are relationship enders, and we may forgive an ex partner quietly and privately inside our own hearts to spare ourselves the difficulty of continuing to carry that pain. But what I am focusing on here is that if we want to remain in an intimate relationship, we need to be able to practice forgiveness. Otherwise we build up resentments that are not good for our individual health or our relational health. Forgiveness does not make you a fool. It makes you relational.
Like every other skill we have covered, forgiveness is relational. Your ability to step into accountability invites me to step into forgiveness. My willingness to forgive makes it easier for you to be accountable now and going forward. Here are two quotes by Rabbi Kushner, from his classic book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
First: “Good people will do good things, lots of them, because they are good people. They will do bad things because they are human.” Second: “Are you capable of forgiving and loving the people around you, even if they have hurt you and let you down by not being perfect? Can you forgive them and love them, because there aren’t any perfect people around, and because the penalty for not being able to love imperfect people is condemning oneself to loneliness?”
I think about forgiveness on a spectrum. At one end is a really quick, “It’s fine. Let’s move on.” At the other end is holding a grudge. This is not an exact science of course, but check in about where on that spectrum you tend to fall. Those of us who tend toward the “It’s fine, let’s move on” end of the spectrum forgive really quickly because the space between ourselves and our partner feels really threatening, or we feel guilty that our partner is feeling badly. Those of us who tend toward holding a grudge do that because we want to ensure that our partner really gets it. This can teeter on punishment. Ultimately, we want our partner to step into accountability because that’s who they want to be rather than because they feel adequately punished by you. Accountability that someone steps into only because they are being punished doesn’t really set the stage for lasting change.
We can move ourselves out of those extremes and toward the middle of the spectrum by checking in with ourselves. Our emotions are like waves, they rise and fall. Do you feel yourself naturally beginning to settle? If not, you can do some practices to help your emotions begin to settle. A hot shower, a run, a walk in nature, listening to music. Are you beginning to hold both your hurt and your compassion for your partner? That’s a clue that you’re integrating this conflict and feeling ready to forgive.
As you and your partner move through apology and forgiveness, you likely won’t move immediately back into silly and fun. But perhaps you can move back into comfort. See if you can identify something to do as a couple that is low risk, high comfort. Go get coffee. Run errands. Watch a show together. Be proactive. As you come back together, you both may feel a bit tender and tentative. It can be helpful to name that, “I’m glad we are going for a walk even if we feel like we’re a little shaky still.”
It can also feel helpful to reflect together on the process: What are you proud of about how you handled this frustrating experience with your partner? What are you proud of about how your partner handled this frustrating experience with you? What went better than it would have 6 months ago or 2 years ago or last week? What went better than it would have gone in your family of origin?
If and when you notice negative thoughts about the conflict arising, shift your attention back to this moment. You’re not ignoring that you two went through a conflict, you are proactively, intentionally, mindfully looking ahead. You’re taking responsibility for your part of shaping how the space between you and your partner feels.
So there you have it, ten essential skills for navigating conflict. Thanks for sticking with me through these two blog posts. I know that this is a TON of information. Try and release the pressure to incorporate all ten of these skills right here right now. For now, focus on two or three that really resonate with you and consider how they could alter your approach and language choices the next time you face a challenging situation with a partner or loved one.