Conflict can be disorienting in part because more is typically at stake than we know.
On the surface, a conflict may be about who forgot to respond to an invitation, how the money is spent, or whose in-laws we’ll visit this year. But below the surface there are each person’s social motives (the desire to be connected, recognized, trusted, valued, respected) and emotional ones (the desire to avoid having someone yell at us, or to avoid disappointing someone).
To navigate this conflict crucible, we need to work through differences and reach agreements in ways that protect our social and emotional goals. Dr. Hal Movius, an acclaimed psychologist and author of Resolve: Negotiating Conflicts with Greater Confidence, shares tips on how to fight better with your partner in the year ahead.
Don’t start by criticizing. A criticism describes or implies the other person, rather than their actions, as the problem. Complaining that someone didn’t do the dishes? That’s okay. But smiling sweetly and saying, “I guess someone didn’t do the dishes again…so typical.” Ouch. Try to avoid criticisms and instead describe the behaviour or issue you want to discuss and the effect it has on you.
Practice your opening. Most fights take a turn for better or worse in the first few minutes. Practice your opening sentence(s) out loud; record them on your phone or laptop and play them back. Better still, find a friend to give you feedback and suggestions. You will feel clearer and more empowered when the time comes, and more likely to launch a productive conversation rather than provoking defensiveness.
Start with a constructive frame. Suggest a positive outcome that you would like to shoot for, rather than a problem or behaviour. “I’d like to figure out how we can make sure the bills get paid on time,” is a much more productive opening than, “What will it take for you to be more responsible?!”
Create ground rules together. Healthy couples know that conflict is a part of our best relationships, and they discover ground rules over time that keep things manageable. Examples: no serious or worrisome topics after 6:00pm; no using the words “always” and “never.” Sometimes walking together side by side is a better way to hash things out than sitting face to face. The important thing is: make the rules together. Suggest one or two yourself, and ask your partner for his or hers.
Think outside the box. Compromise happens when each person starts with a position, gives ground, meeting in the middle – and often feeling unsatisfied. When the stakes are high, new options or solutions are key. To find them, ask questions to understand what is most important to the other side. Share what’s most important to you. And declare a period of brainstorming so that you invent before deciding.
Don’t forget repair moves. When things start to spiral in an unhelpful direction, think about making what John Gottman calls “repair moves” to set the process on a different course. These include using humour or silliness (gestures or comments that both of you find tension-relieving); reminiscing about a positive time together; asking for help; or suggesting a change in process (“Could we just brainstorm for two minutes? I bet there might be other options than the ones we’re struggling with.”)
Research suggests that among all daily stressors, interpersonal conflict is the most stressful. But it also shows that the health of a relationship depends more on how we handle conflict than whether we avoid it. In 2017, your most powerful resolution might be to fight more productively.