This article is based on the Reimagining Love podcast episode “Ten Essential Skills for Navigating Conflict (Part 1).” To listen to this episode, click here.
None of us fall in love so that we can experience conflict, but conflict is inevitable. Why? Because the stakes are high, because our old wounds get activated, and because love requires interdependence, coordination, and endless amounts of decision-making from little stuff (what to eat for dinner) to big stuff (whether to move for a new job opportunity).
Research by Dr. John Gottman indicates that it is not the presence of conflict that erodes relationship satisfaction, but the how of conflict: how couples navigate moments of frustration, misunderstanding, and disappointment. That’s what matters.
Perhaps when you were growing up, you had the privilege of watching the big people in your home practicing Relational Self-Awareness on a regular basis, dealing with their disagreements in loving, mindful, and respectful ways. If so, please thank them for me! It’s such a gift to give to the next generation, and I imagine these early experiences help you approach conflict with curiosity rather than fear. If instead, when you were growing up, the big people in your home handled conflict in ways that were frightening or confusing to you, you have the responsibility and the opportunity to do what needs to be done to transform what I call your “conflict inheritance.”
I feel confident that this two part article series about conflict will help you meet those inevitable moments of confusion with more skill and care.
The series is called Ten Essential Skills for Navigating Conflict, and this is Part 1. In this article, I am going to talk you through the first 5 essential skills. Then, you’ll have some time to integrate and practice those skills before we cover the second 5 essential skills in the next article.
When I have a couple in therapy, especially if this is their first time in couples therapy, I find that I need to do quite a bit of what therapists call “psychoeducation,” teaching people some foundations about healthy, empowered, intimacy-promoting communication. The 10 skills that we are going to work on are the skills that I am teaching my couples.
I want to be clear. There is a difference between knowing what skillful communication looks like and communicating skillfully. A difference between awareness and enactment. None of us is perfect. When emotions run hot, it is far more difficult to engage in the way we know we need to in order to honor ourselves and tend to the relationship. It’s painful to feel misunderstood, disrespected, or invalidated. We become upset precisely because the relationship matters so much to us. And at the same time, because the relationship matters so much, we need to proceed with caution. And we need to proceed with a road map. These 10 skills are a road map. These skills are simple, but they are not easy. And they take practice. And they are easier to use on less activating topics. And they are easier to use when you are well-rested, well-fed, sober, and grounded.
As you listen, I’d like you to promise me two things:
- You won’t beat yourself up for all of the times you haven’t met these moments of friction in a mindful and empowered way. We get to be both whole as we are, and forever works in progress! You’ll have plenty of more opportunities to try something new!
- You won’t use this knowledge as a cudgel, saying to your partner, “Dr. Solomon says you should…” The only person you have control over is yourself. But take comfort in one of the foundations of family therapy, which is that when you change one part of the system, you change the system. Even if it is only you who practices some of these new moves, your partner will not be able to respond in the same old ways… because you’re changing the choreography. If you find yourself wanting your partner to listen to this episode, make sure you invite or ask them to listen rather than demand or cajole them into listening. Try saying, “I got a lot out of this episode. I would love for you to listen too,” or “I know you’re not a regular podcast listener, but it would mean a lot to me if you listen.” For more on inviting a reluctant partner into relationship work, check out this article.
We are going to talk through the five first essential skills for navigating conflict. These are:
- Skill #1: Understanding Your Conflict Template
- Skill #2: Distinguishing between the Lyrics and the Music
- Skill #3: Adding Structure to Activate Empathy
- Skill #4: Separating Problem-Discussion from Problem-Solution
- Skill #5: Hating the Moment, Not the Person
As we get started, I want to offer an important caveat: We are going to focus on ordinary, normative, expected conflict in this episode. In intimate partnerships, conflict can of course be 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, and they cannot be adequately or appropriately addressed in this format. These situations warrant the care of a couples therapist or social service agency that can help with safety planning.
Skill #1: Understanding Your Conflict Template
When we are working on expanding our Relational Self-Awareness, we spend quite a bit of time looking in the rearview mirror, understanding our past. We do that not to blame our parents or our attachment figures, but because the family system we grew up in is what I call our “Original Love Classroom.” When we are young, we are little social scientists, absorbing tons of messages implicitly and explicitly. We take these messages in two ways:
- By observing: We watch the big people in our home. We observe how they handle differences in needs and preferences. We observe how they handle moments of frustration and disappointment.
- By relating: The way that the big people respond to our needs and preferences, our moments of frustration and disappointment, teaches us so much about who we are allowed to be.
The past travels with us. So how you respond to moments of upset with your partner is shaped by the experiences you had in your Original Love Classroom.
This topic is evergreen for me and is one I discuss often, but for our purposes here, the skill is understanding that you have a Conflict Inheritance. You have particular places you go, so to speak, during those moments of rub with your intimate partner. Your way of responding is informed by your experiences. There’s a context for why you perceive and respond the way you do.
To practice this skill, spend some time reflecting on what you saw growing up. Did the big people get loud? Did they spend days in icy silence? Did they paste smiles on their faces and carry on? Again, it’s not about blame, it’s about understanding. What you saw when you were little affects what you do during moments of friction with your intimate partner.
What we know from the field of Interpersonal Neurobiology is that there are 4 main places we tend to go when we are upset. As I share these 4 F’s, see which one seems to land for you:
- Fight: feels like anger and outrage and looks like getting loud
- Flight: feels like fear and looks like walking away, refusing to engage
- Freeze: feels like overwhelm and looks like going numb, silent
- Fawn: feels like anxiety and looks like quick apologies, agreeing with the other person, accommodating.
Each of these is a way of coping with threats. They are understandable, and they likely served to keep you safe at an earlier time in your life. This first skill, understanding your Conflict Inheritance, is essential so that you can begin to notice when you are moving from calm, open, and curious into this self-protective stance. Because this doesn’t happen randomly. It happens in response to a perceived threat—something your partner has said or done.
We are starting with this skill of understanding your Conflict Inheritance, knowing that the other skills will help you meet these inevitable moments of frustration with more tools besides just this one self-protective coping strategy, whether that is fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.
By the way, your partner also has a Conflict Inheritance, so part of this skill is getting to know what your partner saw and experienced when they were growing up and how that informs their approach to conflict. Skill #1 can help you bring more humility and curiosity into these difficult moments.
Skill #2: Distinguishing Between the Lyrics and the Music
Every conflict has both a topic and a choreography. Both a theme and a form. Both content and process. Both lyrics and music.
Anyone who has spent a hot minute in an intimate relationship knows that conflict can be sparked by any topic– a butter dish, a facial expression, a text. Research has found that couples tend to struggle most with sex, money, in-laws, parenting, domestic labor/chores. Why? There are no easy answers to conflicts in these topics. The issues are often unsolvable. They usually require collaboration or coordination, so power struggles can ensue. Smart minds differ on how to handle these topics, and they are connected to deeper issues that bring up questions like: Do you see me? Do I matter? Are we OK? These five topics are the lyrics.
How about the music, the choreography, the process, the form. Research by Dr. Gottman and others has found that there tend to be three main choreographies of conflict.
- Pursue/pursue: I get louder, then you get louder, then I bring in three more topics, then you bring up something from five years ago.
- Pursue/distance: The more I try to engage you, the more you shut down, and the more you shut down, the more I try to engage you.
- Distance/distance: When something upsetting happens, I get quiet and withdraw. When I pull back, you pull back.
The skill here is to hold this sort of dual awareness: we’re talking about Topic X, and we are talking about Topic X in this particular kind of way. Why does this skill matter of discerning between the lyrics and the music? Because if you can notice the process, then you can comment on the process. And the moment you can comment on the process, you open up a new avenue for collaboration. You can practice this skill by seeing what happens when you make a comment about the process. When you say something like, “Look, we’re doing that thing again, where the more I want to talk about this right here right now, the more you shut down.” Therapists call this “going meta”— commenting on the process. In this moment, you move from a me-versus-you stance into a we stance.
Skill #3: Separating Problem-Discussion from Problem-Solution
Sticking with this idea that conversations have forms or choreographies, there are two kinds of conversations: problem discussion conversations and problem solution conversations. This is an idea from Markman and Stanley’s classic book, Fighting for Your Marriage, which we used in the Marriage 101 course for many years. The goal of a Problem Discussion conversation is to better understand our partner and to feel better understood by our partner. The goal of a Problem Solution conversation is to make agreements to do something differently going forward.
These are really different kinds of conversations, and we make difficult moments more difficult when we move mindlessly back and forth between them, so I want you to practice being intentional about the kind of conversation you’re wanting and needing to have with your partner.
Research by Dr. John Gottman has identified that 69% of problems are not solvable because they relate to central differences between you and your partner. So the odds are pretty good that the moment that moved you and your partner from open to activated relates to something that is actually not solvable. For example: you lean more toward extraversion, and your partner leans more towards introversion. You are more comfortable spending money, and your partner wants to more closely follow a budget.
There may be aspects of these central differences where you can make agreements that help each of you feel cherished in the relationship. For example: You agree to be with friends one night of the weekend and to hang out at home the other night. You agree to run purchases over X dollars by your partner before you make them, and your partner agrees to resist the urge to comment on ordinary spending.
Every relationship has points of rub, and many of those are not solvable. This means that very often what we need is to feel heard, validated, and understood. That’s problem-discussion. That is different from problem-solving.
When couples aren’t intentional about the kind of conversation they need to have, they may offer solutions when empathy is what’s needed, or rush to a solution without understanding the deeper feeling, guaranteeing the attempted solution will backfire. They may also try to solve something that actually is unsolvable, thus missing out on the chance to bring compassion and maybe even humor to a central difference.
And most importantly, they may miss out on a chance to leverage that central difference as a resource!
You and your partner can put Skill #3 into action by making this agreement: We agree that when we bump into a tender topic, we will have a Problem Discussion conversation before we try to solve anything. If you make this agreement, one of two things will happen. You will get to the end of that Problem Discussion conversation and realize nothing even needs to be solved, or you will get to the end of that Problem Discussion conversation and be in a more collaborative position to brainstorm and create solutions that feel good to both of you.
Skill #4: Adding Structure to Activate Empathy
Skill #4 offers you a framework for how to have a Problem Discussion.This skill is also something I learned many years ago from Markman and Stanley’s book, Fighting For Your Marriage. It’s called the Speaker-Listener technique. It is simple but not necessarily easy. Here is how it works.
- Choose an object– a pen, a rock, the remote.
- Assign roles: one speaker and one listener.
- The speaker holds the rock. They have the floor. The speaker talks a bit about their experience of the problem. Short sentences. I statements. Avoiding blame. Digestible bits.
- After a few statements, the listener reflects back what they have heard. Not responding. Literally just reflecting back. “What I’m hearing you say is, X, Y, Z. Am I getting that right?”
- The speaker either says, “yes, that’s it.” Or, if the listener didn’t get it right, the speaker can say something like, “You’ve got the first part right, but let me say the second part again because I don’t think you quite understood.”
- The speaker tries again. The listener reflects back again, and checks to see if they’ve got it.
- After a bit, call it 5-10 minutes, switch roles. When the listener becomes the speaker, they are now speaking about the problem from their perspective, and the listener is reflecting back.
Fair warning that the Speaker-Listener technique can feel clunky at first. It can feel slow and heavy. It takes some practice. It’s not how we usually talk with each other. But that’s exactly the point! To create a structure that allows you to have a different kind of conversation! Without structure, we are at greater risk of slipping into our old pattern of pursue/pursue, pursue/distance, or distance/distance. With the structure, we stack the deck in our favor that we will feel both understood and understanding. Finally, when you and your partner practice this skill, I want you to feel proud that you’re doing something in the service of your relationship rather than ashamed that you need structure to be able to have this conversation!
Skill #5: Hating the Moment, Not the Person
One of my professors/supervisors/mentors in graduate school, Dr. Cheryl Rampage, told a story in class one day. She said that early in her marriage, when she and her husband would fight, she would feel so angry with him, and she would think to herself, “Ugh! I hate him!” Hate is a very strong word, and it may not land exactly right for you. The point is that early in her marriage, their fights felt so deeply personal. She was furious at him. The shift she was able to make was from hating him to hating the moment. She shifted from feeling furious at him to feeling upset about the disconnection between them.
This is the heart of conflict. Conflict takes us out of connection with someone who matters tremendously to us, a relationship in which the stakes are so high. Dr. Sue Johnson’s research focuses on how deeply we attach to our intimate partner, which is why moments of distress feel so painful. They are painful because they take us out of connection with someone who matters so much to us. While it feels very much like this thing they did or said makes us feel mad at them, the skill here is to be hard on the issue and soft on the person.
How do we practice this skill? Notice the chatter inside your head. Is it hyper-focused on your partner? If so, you might have thoughts like, “ They are so controlling,” “They are so thoughtless,” or “How could they do this to me?”
These thoughts are real. However they are also thoughts that are going to keep you stuck. See what happens when you try to shift toward thoughts about the problem. Those thoughts could sound like, “I hate this moment,” “I hate feeling so misunderstood,” “This conflict scares me,” or “It’s so hard to feel so far apart.”
Again, simple. And not easy.
Oof! We did it! We covered a lot of ground! I hope these first five skills give you a great starting point for building your conflict resolution toolkit. As I like to say, you can only do 100% of your half, but I think you’ll find that increasing your own Relational Self-Awareness, cultivating empathy, and leading with love will increase the likelihood that your partner will also approach a challenging relational knot with this lens.
The next article will be a continuation of this series. I hope you’ll read to learn five more essential skills for navigating conflict, which include some of my favorite strategies like using intimacy-promoting language and offering heartfelt apologies. Until then, be well.