Moving Past Gridlock – Part 2: Essential Skills to Work Through Conflict

In this 4-part series we are looking at what couples can do to move through gridlock to form a healthy dialogue in conflicts.  Last week we discussed listening and validating one another.  This week we will explore 4 skills couples can use in managing conflict effectively.  (This information was adapted from Dr. John M. Gottman and Dr. Julie Gottman, Bridging the Couple Chasm, 2000-2011).

First, SLOW DOWN before you start talking.  Fights often occur within the first minutes of an argument because one partner is escalated in their emotions, tone, or physical affect.  This causes the other person to either escalate or retreat.  Begin with the “I feel ___” statements instead of pointing out problems in your partner.  Starting a conversation about a problem by saying, “Ugh, why didn’t you do the laundry!  What were you doing when I was gone?!” will invite defensiveness from your partner.

Second, REPAIR ruptures in the relationship along the way.  Just as it is critical to not escalate early in a conflict so it is imperative to attempt to repair any hurts you may have caused early in the conflict.  The sooner the repair the stronger the rest of the conversation will be.  A repair might be simply, “I’m sorry, I know I’m pushing you on this topic, let me slow down,” or “Honey, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that about you.”  These are emotional repairs which are more effective than cognitive repairs.  Couples often get caught up in believing that a cognitive repair should do the trick, “Honey, you know that’s not true,” (when the other person is feeling strongly about something).

Third, ACCEPT INFLUENCE.  The only way you can expect or ask for or hope for someone else’s accountability is to first be accountable yourself.  Being accountable means you not only take responsibility for your own actions but that you take account of how those actions affect others around you.  With being accountable comes the credit of being influential.  You cannot be influential unless you are able to be influenced.  Accepting influence from your partner might look like saying, “You’re right, I didn’t think of that” or “that’s true,” but then it also means adding this influence into the equation of the conflict.  This is where you can begin to compromise on issues.

Lastly, CALM DOWN.  This goes for yourself and helping your partner.  When people argue and emotions become heightened there is a physiological reaction sometimes where adrenaline and cortisol get pushed into the body’s systems.  These are the “fight, flight, freeze” hormones and are put there to keep us from danger – either to engage, run away, or hide.  With this hormone rush comes escalated heart rate, clenched fists, reddened face, animated motions and gestures, sweating, tense muscles, and rapid speech.  When the body enters this state of alarm it is difficult to engage the executive functions of the brain like reasoning, insight, and empathy.  So, notice how you feel.  If you’re feeling flooded by the argument or the other person let them know you need to disengage for a while to calm yourself.  If your partner is escalated notice their signals and help them disengage, “I can see you’re upset, let’s take a break.”

Hopefully, by taking some of these steps you may improve your ability to work through conflict with your partner instead of allowing the conflict to control you or your relationship.  Next week, how your dreams and your partner’s dreams are often unnoticed but crucial elements in conflicts and key to their resolution.

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