Cultivating constructive conflict
We all know conflict is inevitable in any relationship. But does it always have to be so gut-wrenchingly hard? As someone that was once passive aggressive and overly anxious, I am relieved to say it is possible to cultivate constructive conflict skills. It can get better with conscious attention and technique.
How conflict is managed can vary enormously depending on the individuals involved, communication skills, past wounding and fundamental characters. Constructive conflict skills enable respecting and treating each other kindly whilst attending to differing needs and interests. So, how can we do that?
Let’s start with getting a sense of some of the things that influence the way we do conflict:
It’s been the buzz concept in self development circles for a while now so I’ll only refer briefly to the secure - anxious - dismissive avoidant - fearful avoidant (also known as disorganised) combinations of attachment styles that have been inherited from the relationships we had with our primary caregivers in our earlier years. If you’re not familiar with this concept, I recommend looking it up as it can explain a lot (but not everything) about the behaviours that come to the fore when we are feeling strong emotions. When we are more aware of the patterns and habits we have, the more we can compassionately witness ourselves and our partner/s. From this place, it becomes easier to cultivate more constructive conflict styles.
Previous wounding and/or trauma
Past experiences have a profound effect on how we relate (much like the above). These sensitivities are often referred to as ‘triggers’ - when something resembles a previous experience that sends us spinning off into a similar response as our nervous system engages our fight/flight/freeze/fawn protective mechanisms. The nervous system can become habitually wired to react even if the danger isn’t really as big a threat as our firing hormones tell us it is. So again, understanding one’s history and cultivating skills to rewire the nervous system - such as deep breathing, tapping and movement - can go a long way to keeping your head and heart open during conflict.
Do you always argue after a few glasses of wine? When one of you is tired and stressed? Or does the little issue get dropped just as someone’s walking out the door? If conflict patterns are apparent, think about how it may be possible to address these. Choosing the right time to discuss difficult topics is going to have a much better outcome than falling into the conversation at an inappropriate time.
Perpetual problems or solvable problems?
Dr John and Julie Gottman (renowned relationship specialists and researchers) talk about the difference between perpetual and solvable issues. You know the story - the same issue comes up time and again and it never feels like it gets resolved. It is ideal to try and work through perpetual issues so they don’t become gridlocked. Gridlocked issues tend to tie into underlying beliefs/feelings/needs which is often why they can be so tricky to solve. In that case, doing deeper work on the underlying issues may help resolve those pesky perpetual problems. As for solvable issues - well, they seem fairly self-explanatory. The basic rule for any conflict is to understand the issue before trying to solve the issue.
The 4 horsemen: stonewalling, defensiveness, criticism, contempt
The Gottmans have also developed The Four Horsemen concept which defines some of the key behaviours that undermine relationships: https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/
The great thing about these behaviours is that there are also antidotes that can nurture relationships rather than destroy them. Learning to communicate using these strategies will cultivate more understanding and respect, even when certain conflicts are unresolvable.
Managing conflict is a more realistic approach than seeking to always solve. The nature of differing personalities, lifestyles, priorities etc can mean that we need to understand and accept our partners’ needs to enable more flow and ease in the relationship. Here are a few strategies for managing conflict in constructive ways:
Start with choosing an appropriate time to discuss issues. Check in with your partner so they can agree to fully engage in the conversation. Name the behaviour or the specific circumstance so there’s something tangible to relate to. Avoid using ‘you’ statements as they are most likely a criticism. Use “I” statements to highlight how the issue makes you feel. Check you are really describing your feelings, not what the other is doing. It is easy to slip into things like, "I feel like you are judging/disrespecting/avoiding me" - which is not a feeling. People tend to respond much better to feelings than to criticisms. Of course your partner doesn't want you to feel x... And you don't want them to feel terrible either!
Active Listening (listening without filters)
How many times have you been in an argument and rather than actually hearing what the other person is saying, you’re busy lining up your next statement or rebuttal that will certainly bust through their argument and you will be vindicated?!! This is the opposite of active listening and will inevitably continue the conflict cycle. Active listening involves dropping the beliefs, insecurities, woundings, and presumptions we have so that we can actually hear exactly what it is our partner is trying to express. Fully understanding what our partner is saying is very different to projecting our perspective onto their words. Understanding must always come before any attempt at solving.
One way to determine if you have accurately heard what has been expressed is to repeat back what you heard to your partner. Allow them to clarify or adjust any aspects or nuances so that you can really understand what they are trying to tell you. Then repeat it back again. It may take a few cycles before you actually repeat back to them what they are really saying. The unconscious filters we have in our ears can colour conflict and cause a lot of unnecessary turmoil. I repeat: repeat back and repeat again. You may find out something new or important that can enable deeper understanding and foster greater intimacy. Even if it is something difficult to take on board. The upshot is, that’s where growth can happen.
Owning it and making amends (without defending whilst explaining!)
Often our partner is trying to illuminate something to us that we may not be aware of. Certain behaviours, beliefs, habits and patterns can be at the root of conflict. Defending ourselves stifles self-awareness and serves only to frustrate the other, again locking us into negative cycling. There’s always a benefit to acknowledging the issue before explaining the why of it. Saying sorry - if warranted - also indicates the hurt has been noticed. If we can soften our hearts and minds enough to see their perspective and validate their experience, not only do we get the benefit of learning more about ourselves but they feel seen. It means we may not do that thing that is causing the conflict again, positively supporting the longevity of the relationship. Although, be realistic and acknowledge that sometimes it can take many attempts before embedded change happens! Making mistakes and causing hurt is normal. It’s what we do next that determines the quality of our interactions.
What can be changed/compromised/negotiated?
Conflict shouldn’t be about determining who’s right and who’s wrong. Sometimes both sides can be right, just different. In fact, viewing things from the angle of both being on the same side, working towards best outcomes for all, can help reframe the goal. Is there a certain behaviour that can be addressed? Could an agreement be settled by incorporating various needs? What needs to shift in order to find a path that works for both/all parties? Thinking laterally about ways to adapt to changes will yield far more positive outcomes than getting stuck in those ruts of righteousness.
Of course, there are times when we get flooded with emotions and it feels impossible to move through things. The reality is, it is impossible to move through things when we are overwhelmed with intense feelings. Our nervous system has taken control, we’re in fight/flight/freeze/fawn mode and our rational brain, the neo-frontal cortex, has literally gone offline. Calling a “time out” can create space to breathe, ground, tap into what’s really underneath this issue for you and stretch into considering what is possibly going on for the other. Either party can instigate a time out and it may avoid those ugly yelling matches of hurtful words and filibustering. It can be anywhere from 10 minutes to 24 hours but it’s important that there is an agreement of when you will reconvene. Leaving a partner suspended in not knowing what’s going to happen can create anxiety. Avoid pulling a time out as a controlling move. Being considerate of the need to reconnect in a fair, grounded and loving way will establish a better forum for moving through the conflict.
Appreciating the other
One of the hardest things about conflict is that it can often leave us feeling like our partner doesn’t really care for or understand us. One of the best things you can do to cultivate a positive relationship culture is to ALWAYS initiate a ritual of articulating things you appreciate about your partner after a tricky moment. It may not always be immediately accessible but even when things are heightened, it really helps to pave a pathway towards respectful reconnection.
Sometimes a professional can make it easier to voice uncomfortable feelings and notice blind spots. Having a designated container and an independent witness and facilitator takes the pressure off anyone in the relationship to be holding space for difficult issues. It’s a skill to do so and if neither party has those skills, they can be learned with the support of someone who has them. Relationship counselling is not something all therapists are comfortable with so do your research and find someone that feels good to all relevant parties. It will backfire if one person feels good with the therapist but the other doesn’t. It can also take time for couples to establish trust and then glean the lessons so be prepared to do at least a few sessions.
A relationship that consciously commits to cultivating constructive conflict styles will be more easeful, allowing more time for pleasure and connection. Whilst it may take time and effort to learn and implement the tips above, over time, you will find it easier to move through difficult things. It really helps if both parties are familiar with these concepts and strategies so you can support each other when it feels clunky or things have fallen over. Which will happen so don’t lose heart when it does. All new skills take time to learn and become instinctive. Being kind to yourself and your partner/s is a fundamental principle to more rewarding relationships.
A note on unhealthy signs of conflict: there is a big difference between someone who lacks the communication skills to navigate conflict well and abusive relationships. Character assassination, gaslighting, emotional/physical/financial manipulation, threats to leave and violence are not ok. If you are uncertain about whether your experiences have tipped into abusive territory, you may like to speak to someone.
Safe Steps is Victoria's 24/7 Family Violence response centre (for all genders and relationship models):
24/7 phone: 1800 015 188