Conflict happens all the time. Children have conflict with each other and with their parents. Adults experience conflict with co-workers, friends and family members. And of course there is conflict between partners in a relationship.
Conflict is normal. If it is managed well, conflict is also healthy for the relationship because it presents an opportunity for growth. Unmanaged, it can deepen misunderstandings and resentment and drive a wedge into the relationship.
Some people work very hard to avoid conflict. They may have felt victimized by conflict between their parents or been abused as a child. They may feel that even the slightest misunderstanding will cause them to lose control of their anger. Maybe they simply feel incapable of defending their opinions. Instead of managing conflict or using it productively, such people tend to become passive, or even victims of abuse. Unfortunately such a passive response can lead to harboring even greater resentment and can contribute to the worsening of the relationship.
With effective resolution, conflict can lead to deeper understanding, better communication, greater respect and renewed closeness in the relationship. The idea behind conflict resolution is that both partners must gain something from the solution – a win-win – even when compromise is necessary.
One of the challenges of conflict resolution is that conflict often comes with an emotional charge. The partners are “hot under the collar” and not terribly rational. They may be blaming the other, defensive, yelling or even violent.
The first step is to defuse the anger. This takes strength and integrity and it means you’ll have to set aside the immediate need to defend yourself. Defuse the anger by agreeing with something your partner says. For example, “You’re right. I know I promised to call you when I was going to be late. I was irresponsible.” Once you have both calmed down a bit, suggest that you talk about the subject of your conflict. Then try this problem solving technique:
Identify the problem. This is the hardest and most important part. You won’t be able to find a solution unless you are working to solve the same problem. You probably each have your own ideas about what the problem is. It’s easy to get caught up in blaming and conflict once again.
Listen without interrupting. Try to see the situation from your partner’s perspective. Acknowledge your partner’s ideas. Keep to the specific problem; don’t generalize this conflict to all other conflicts or use words like “always” or “never.” Make a list of the different ideas you each have about the nature of the problem. When you can agree on a single problem, go on to the next step.
Look at both sides. Take turns expressing what you each wanted in the situation that caused the conflict. Don’t blame, criticize or belittle your partner for wanting something that seems impossible to you. Notice your points of agreement.
List possible solutions. Brainstorm as many ideas as you can for resolving the problem. Don’t evaluate the solutions, just list them. Be creative.
Evaluate the solutions. Consider your list of solutions one by one. Examine the pros and cons of each one. Narrow down your list to no more than three solutions. It’s likely that the best solutions will require some compromise and that neither of you will get everything you want. As long as the solutions are fair, that’s okay.
Choose the best solution. Make a choice from your short list and make a mutual commitment to work with that solution.
Implement the solution. A solution is not a magic wand. You must each take an active role in the solution. Outline the details and talk about what happens if one or both of you fail to keep your commitment.
Check your progress. Give your solution a little time to work, then check your progress. Are you both keeping your commitments? Does the solution seem to be working? Is there something one or both of you could do to make it work better? If you can agree on constructive changes to your solution, implement them.
During the “Identify the problem” step, you may have named some additional problems. Once you’ve made progress with the problem that cause this conflict, you can use the same technique to resolve other problems one at a time.
If you’re having frequent or difficult conflict or if you’re having a hard time resolving your conflict, a relationship coach can help.
For a free phone consult, call Dr. Fibus at 818.395.2831.