How to Have Healthier Conflict for Happier Relationships

It can be the thing that we most avoid, it can make us want to run away, shut down, lie, ignore people, drink too much wine and a host of other things.

CONFLICT!

It is BOUND TO HAPPEN in any relationship that is worth having however.  If a relationship cannot withstand conflict, it is probably pretty fragile and we want to help you build some reserves so that it feels more solid.

We all come from differing perspectives; we all have blindspots when it comes to understanding things form others’ perspectives and just by the nature of being different human beings, we are inevitably going to see things differently, disagree about something or (hopefully unintentionally) hurt one another.

Having healthy conflict is actually a skill that you can practice.

If you know me personally, you probably know that I value being authentic and honest.  I have had a couple of friends tell me that they do not peg me as a conflict avoider and although that is good, I still want you to know something.  I still get butterflies in my stomach when I have to have a difficult conversation (and not the good kind).  I still have the thought “eh, maybe you can just avoid this one and pretend it will go away.” Underneath my big personality is a sensitive little soul that still doesn’t like it when people don’t like her and is truly a puppy dog.

I say all this not to make you my therapist, but rather, to let you know that you are not alone in the desire to avoid conflict.  We do have to choose our battles wisely AND.. it really is a necessary part of being in healthy grown-up relationships.

SO let’s talk about some things that can help:

THE MOST IMPORTANT THING FOR BOTH PEOPLE TO HAVE IS EMPATHY

Empathy is also something we can practice and although it is simple, it can be very difficult, because often times, we get defensive and want to explain things from our perspective without understanding the other person’s words.

You can set boundaries or disagree with behavior, but emotions cannot be argued or fixed.  Emotions need validation and empathy and that is the gateway to building trust and connection in healthy relationships.

If you are with someone that struggles with empathy, it can feel like your perspective is never heard or understood.  Someone who is truly incapable of empathy needs support and likely professional help to navigate narcissistic or even sociopathic tendencies.

If you are someone that struggles with empathy yourself, it may be time for some self-reflection and curiosity about how you learned to cut off from that. It may have been a survival strategy for a toxic situation AND a lack of empathy will either lead to an ending of relationships or relationships fraught with resentment and avoidance.

Empathy is often just as simple as “it makes sense that you feel that way. I can understand that.  I love you and you matter to me.”

GET PERMISSION AND SET UP A TIME

I know this can be tricky.  It’s kind of like the classic cliché “We need to talk” and sometimes that can send people spinning.  However, if you can say something along the lines of “Hey- I need to check in with you about something that has been bothering me and I am wondering when would be a good time.  I think it should take about a half an hour and please know that my intention is to bring us closer.” This way- you are not catching someone off guard and they can come to the table knowing that they too are willingly entering into healthy conflict.

That being said, sometimes boundaries need to be set in the moment.  If someone has said something that has hurt your feelings.  You can say something along the lines of “Suzie- I love you as a person AND what you just said really hurt.” If that person can’t handle that truth, they likely need some self-reflection and maybe don’t need to be in your inner circle….

AND THAT BEING SAID…. Sometimes there are people in your life that absolutely cannot handle conflict.

I certainly have relationships in my life that I know that any kind of hurt feelings I express will be invalidated, gaslit, minimized and turned around on me.  For all the complicated reasons and situations that being a human being requires, I cannot fully cut these people out of my life, despite many a well-intentioned Facebook meme telling me “it’s that simple- just cut toxic people out of your life.”

I certainly encourage you to cut toxic people out if you can, but sometimes, they are still in our orbit.  Work, school, community, neighbors, family members, exes who you still have to co-parent with…. Sometimes, we just can’t cut them out completely. For these relationships, we have to set time and space boundaries, meaning, I know that they are not my tribe.  Their opinions cannot matter as much. They do not get access to our deepest emotional pain.  Do not go to the poisoned well expecting nourishment.  Keep communication neutral, concrete and as needed.  They may have to be in your orbit, but they are not your tribe.  If people can’t respect your boundaries, if people are intent on making you the bad guy with no self-reflection, if people do not own their mistakes and try to improve themselves, they are not your tribe.  For these people, I still want to stand in my integrity and treat people with dignity and respect AND they are not my tribe.

SEPARATE FACTS AND BEHAVIOR FROM THE PERSON

As a general rule, starting sentences with YOU is generally not a great way to enter into conflict.  Better is “When you ___________ (talk about the behavior), I feel ___________.”  When you are talking about behavior, try to describe they behavior as non-judgmentally as possible. Not “when you are acting like an asshole, I feel like I want to kill you.” This will likely not work. Sentences that have the words “should, always and never” are also not great at building healthy conflict.

Here are some examples:

“When you do not look up from your phone when I am saying something to you, I feel disrespected and hurt.”

“When you don’t tell me that you are going to be late, I feel angry and hurt.”

Even better is to own the assumptions that you are making.  A video camera would not pick up on “I do not matter to my husband.” A video camera would pick up on him not responding to your question, looking at his phone while you are talking to him, him not having eye contact with you, him not touching you or saying anything.”  THE ASSUMPTION IS THAT YOU DO NOT MATTER TO HIM.

If you are on the receiving end of someone telling you that a behavior you did hurt them, take a breath and try to first understand the emotion.  There is actually an opportunity to connect and deepen trust here.  “I can understand that.  I’m so sorry that I hurt you.  You matter to me and I want to be more mindful.” You may be able to give some context to what was happening for you AND lay down some empathy FIRST.

DO YOUR BEST TO STAY CALM (ish)

If both people are screaming and yelling, nobody is going to hear or understand anything new.  Walk away until you are in a calmer place and wiling to both talk AND listen.  Commit to come back to the table to talk calmly.  If your partner needs space, honor that.  Learn to sooth your anxieties until they are in  a calmer place.  If you are the one that needs space, you must commit to re-engaging in the conversation.

There does need to be room for emotion however.  Sadness, fear, anger, shame and feelings around rejection need to be able to be explored.  No name-calling, no shaming, no blaming.

NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF CURIOSITY, COMPASSION AND REASSURANCE
(AND LAUGHTER)

All humans have two major needs in relationships: power and belonging.  That is- we want to feel like we matter and that we have a balance in who has decision making and power in the relationship AND that we are seen, that our feelings, needs, wants and desires matter to the person we are in relationship with.  You may not have to agree with the other person, but what is the underlying need? Do they need to feel like they matter? Do they need some reassurance that the relationship is important?  Offering this doesn’t mean you lose yourself, it means that you can jump into their shoes for a minute and understand their pain.

AS for the laughter piece- you do not want to crack a joke when someone is in deep emotional pain. You also cannot say hurtful things and then dismiss any responsibility for that by saying “I was just joking.” NOT COOL.

But healthy laughter and silliness can build reserves for the relationship to tolerate when things aren’t unicorns and rainbows. Finding ways to play together builds some reserves and builds trust that neither of you are going anywhere or bailing at the first sign of troubled waters.

If you have been the one that has hurt someone’s feelings, offer repair. Validate and understand their emotions, apologize, try to make it right if you can, make a plan to do something different in the future, and radically accept that they may take some time to trust you again, then you can work towards forgiving yourself and letting it go.

Relationships are made up of tiny little decisions where we can either choose to connect and answer what Gottman calls “bids for connection.” Every interaction, we can either choose to connect, to turn away or to turn against.  The more you choose to turn towards relationships, the more connection you have, the more trust you build and the better your life ultimately is.  It requires a wiliness to get uncomfortable and to have difficult conversations AND it’s worth it.

For more on healthy conflict, check out the amazing Whitney Gaffari. She is a talented relationship coach that helps her clients restore intimacy, create better sex and go from conflict to connection.

Take a quiz that can help you gain some insight about your conflict style  https://www.whitneygaffari.com/CMA-Quiz

And some other great tips and thoughts on healthy conflict:Essence of Relationship Drama – https://www.whitneygaffari.com/8KeyInsights

The skill to be able to willingly enter into healthy conflict might just be the most important thing in building connections.  YOU GOT THIS!

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