With a nod to contributing author Lori Hollander, LCSW-C, BCD, at GoodTherapy.org, I offer this outline on how to engage in healthy conflict. While the piece is devoted to personal relationships between partners, the model also works well for business relationships.
A model for healthy conflict in relationships
With couples, several outcomes result when two people engage. If both you and your partner fight, there will be arguments that escalate. If you both avoid conflict, a standoff will occur resulting in a chasm that separates the two of you. Since avoidance creates more avoidance, partners end up living parallel lives without much emotional intimacy. In a relationship where one person withdraws and the other one fights the result will be domination, or punishment or resignation. None of these patterns are healthy.
Paradoxically, what couples need most is a way to avoid, “avoiding conflict” or a healthy, conscious way to “fight.” When you don’t avoid or get rapt in conflict and, instead, embrace your relationship “in trouble” as you would embrace a wounded child, you take the first step toward transforming your partnership through conflict. Taking on the conflict, averts the ensuing poison that comes with avoidance and prevents the potential crippling effects on each other’s self-esteem.
Here are Hollander’s suggested steps and skills for couples seeking to resolve conflict:
- Consciously acknowledge your fight or flight response when you become angry.
- Mutually agree to explore the disagreement in a respectful way.
- Take turns expressing thoughts and feelings, one at a time, without interrupting.
- Use “I” statements to avoid blame and own your feelings.
- Listen between the lines for understanding and meaning.
- Be “curious” about your partner’s point of view.
- Talk until you can “make your partner’s case” as well as your own.
- Remember the goal is not to figure out who is right or wrong, but to understand each other’s position.
- Then, and only then, can you problem-solve together.
Without the very conflict that tears at the fabric of our connection, we will never experience deep intimacy. There is some truth to the old saying, “No pain, no gain.” Leveraging conflict stimulates the growth of you and your partner and, most importantly, of the third entity – the relationship itself.
As partners discover how to manage conflict, the vital connection begins to materialize. Yet it all starts with a vision of you and your partner turning toward each other, rather than away, no matter what the circumstances. This turning toward brings a sense of security and trust to your partner. As you practice leaning into conflict, you become stronger in your belief that your partner would never intentionally hurt you, so when you do feel hurt, you can work on resolving the issue and healing the hurt and clearing your emotional triggers. This all take practice and even training. Relationships are often challenging, especially if you are looking to release their greatest potential.
If all this sounds overwhelming or complicated, do as my friend and long-time couples’ therapist Ted Barrett-Page teaches; when you are digging yourself a hole in an argument (i.e., you are really losing your cool and unable to be empathetic or compassionate in the moment) stop digging! Most couples are best served by taking time outs and returning to the conversation after a cooling off period, and getting clear about the real source of their upset and can communicate with compassion.