How can I overcome conflict in a relationship?

Updated: Mar 15, 2020

Often conflict and disagreements in a relationship are caused by confusion or mis-information that one person assumes to be true or accurate and on later investigation may find that it was incorrect.

We can tend to jump directly to a position of blaming another person and flying off the handle rather than seeking to find out more information. This can lead to conflict and distance in a relationship.

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Tips for navigating conflict in a relationship:

1. Seek to understand first: Listening to someone and actually hearing and understanding what they are saying are two very different things. During a conflict when emotions are heated or heightened it can often be hard to maintain as sense of calm, but if you are wanting to navigate disagreement with a child or adult in the quickest and most respectful way possible then try the following… listen and reflect back to the other person what you hear them trying to tell you or how you are noticing they are feeling. E.g. “are you feeling angry with me because you thought I did not care?” This can immediately take the sting out of a conflict if it is said without a sarcastic tone.

2. Respond in a respectful way, even if the person before you is disrespecting you. You may ask why should I do this and how. Now I am not suggesting you accept bad behaviour rather put in boundaries in a calm and respectful yet assertive way. “ I can see that you are really angry right now and this is really important for you, how about we talk about it later when we are both calm" and set a time aside to do so.

3. Anger is considered a secondary emotion, so if anger is being expressed in a conflict consider what the underlying emotion may be, e.g. sadness, hurt, fear, worry, shame, unease. If either person can identify this and name it the intensity will also reduce. E.g. “I can hear you are very angry, I am also wondering if you I have hurt you?”, “I am feeling lonely and worried that you don’t want to be around me”.

4. Owning your stuff: Take responsibility for your part in the disagreement or issue rather than continuing to point the finger at the other person. It takes a lot of guts for someone to stand up and say sorry I made a mistake. Only do this if this is the truth, apologising for something you have not done to keep the peace is not respecting yourself and will likely fester in you.

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5. Use “I” statements: "I feel…. When…. I would prefer…. for next time". E.g. "I feel upset when you don’t talk to me about how you are feeling and I would prefer that you are upfront with me next time so that I can know how to support you”.

6. Walk away or time out. If you feel things are getting heated it may be best to take a time out and walk away for a while to calm down with the intention to return to the discussion when you are both calmer. This can be particularly important for you to role model to your children that it is ok to take a break, calm down then return to the conversation once your thinking brain comes back on line, from your emotional brain taking over.

7. Write things down: This could be used at any point, prior to the discussion you could express your thoughts on paper first getting much of the emotion out then if you feel so inclined re-write in a way that can be heard by the other person focusing on a couple of key points. Write when you have a break or after to get the issue out of your system. Or if you are not able to work through an issue in person with someone perhaps respectfully writing down a few key points to give them using I statements and focusing on how the issue is effecting you rather than pointing the finger and blaming.

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If you are feeling stuck in a repeated pattern rehashing an old issue over and over it may be time to seek support from a professional to help you navigate and give fresh perspective and hopefully find a solution.

Psychologists or social workers trained in relationship counselling or family therapists can offer such support.

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