An Effective Communication Approach to Resolving Relationship Conflicts
Bob Gottfried Ph.D
Conflicts are quite common and can disrupt any healthy relationship. A happy relationship, however, does not happen by chance. It requires a conscious effort to keep it solid and healthy. Whether it is a relationship with a partner, a child, a sibling or a colleague, resolving conflicts as they occur is necessary maintenance. Granted, it isn’t always simple to do and can be exhausting, let alone unpleasant, but neglecting marital disputes is a surefire method to strain the relationship, leading to frustration, disappointment, unhappiness, distrust, and over time alienation. In my clinical experience working with thousands of couples, most breakups result from ineffective communication, inflexibility and unwillingness to compromise.
So, how can you healthily resolve your relationship conflicts? The key is learning to apply the principles of effective communication. There are seven essential elements included in the process.
Adopt a balanced attitude
We often think only about our perspective and forget that our partner or whoever is involved in the conflict might have different opinions, outlooks, needs, beliefs and preferences. The old saying that every argument has three sides: your side, the other person’s side, and the truth is pretty accurate. Be wary of assuming that you are correct and your partner is incorrect or that what you desire makes greater sense. Thinking about who is right and who is wrong is a guaranteed set up for failure. As I often say: no flowers grow in the territory of rightness.
Don’t try to win the argument. The goal is to understand both viewpoints and reach a mutually agreeable consensus. A healthy relationship without compromise rarely exists. At least not on a consistent basis.
Clarify your partner’s perspective with an open mind
Don’t assume anything. Instead, ask clarifying questions and practice intentional listening without interrupting. We tend to talk more than we listen. We also, many times, interrupt others while they speak. As a result, we often fail to understand where our partner is coming from. Without such a deeper understanding, it becomes more difficult to find common ground. Instead of trying to win an argument or prove that your position is correct, intentional listening focuses on both sides’ core purpose to seek a positive conclusion. Once you gain a better understanding, ask how the person is suggesting to resolve the problem. If it makes sense, agree right there and then. Don’t make decisions based on principles; instead, make decisions based on what is realistic and practical and can promote peace and harmony. Regardless of previous concerns, if the solution seems reasonable, agree and move on. However, if you are not comfortable with the resolution, tell your partner that you would like to think about it, then come back later with an alternative solution. Not every conflict can be resolved right away. The longer the problem persists, the more effective communication will be required to overcome it. Therefore, it’s okay if a few rounds of constructive discourse are needed before a fair solution is reached. Remind your partner that compromising is healthy and leads to a happier life.
The “give and take” approach
When you can’t reach an agreement, you can use the “give and take” approach. For instance, you can offer a “give and take” deal if your husband wants to take the dog out after he has had his breakfast and you prefer that it does it first thing in the morning, or if your husband likes to help with the dinner dishes only after he watches a little TV and you prefer that he does it right after dinner. Depending on your preferences, you can agree to be patient with the dishes after he has relaxed a bit as long as he takes the dog out before breakfast or the other way around. This way, you can resolve two seemingly unrelated conflicts in one go. When addressing long-standing problems, creative thinking paired with a willingness to compromise and engaging in a positive dialogue can lead to the best solution for all parties concerned.
Avoid the biggest no-no in communication
Being negative is the biggest no-no when communicating. Therefore, avoid putting your partner down. Avoid criticism, judgement, bad-mouthing, patronizing and blaming. These practices have never solved anything, have they? They only serve to put your partner in a defensive mode. Once either side is on the defensive, any chance for resolution is lost. Use clean communication instead. Regardless of the events that led to the current conflict, be respectful and try empathizing with your partner, even if you disagree with their viewpoint. Such a positive attitude will go a long way toward finding a workable solution, and isn’t that what you both want?
If you made a mistake – apologize
You need to apologize if the conflict stems from a mistake you made, such as making a nasty remark or being insensitive in some way. Inquire about your partner’s response to what you said, and listen thoughtfully. There’s no need to defend yourself. Briefly explain your state of mind at the time, but don’t use it as an excuse, and don’t bring up earlier instances of your partner engaging in similar behaviour to try and justify what you did. You must accept responsibility for your conduct and express regret for hurting your partner. Then commit to becoming more aware of your reactions to avoid repeating the same behaviour in the future.
Resolve issues one at a time
It is very common to bring up more instances that may or may not relate to the conflict you are trying to resolve with your partner. Resist the temptation because it will, without fail, cause the communication process to collapse. If your partner offers her own examples or brings up prior occurrences, encourage her to concentrate on the current conflict. Tell her that you can discuss other issues separately, then move toward finding a solution for the existing conflict.
Agree to try
Often, people are afraid to change the status quo even if it has the potential to improve a relationship. If you and your partner are considering a particular compromise but are unsure about it for whatever reason, offer to try it for a couple of weeks. Once both of you get used to the new arrangement, it will be much easier to continue until it becomes the default option. If it doesn’t work for you or your partner, go back to the drawing board and make the necessary adjustments. Tell your partner you are committed to finding an amicable solution and hope they will do the same.
Conflicts are not always bad. They can be used to bridge differences and reach new understandings and agreements to avoid future arguments and unnecessary friction between people. Approach a relationship-based problem with respect and empathy for your partner (or anyone else). If you are prepared to listen, understand, and compromise when needed, you will be able to resolve most problems and pave the road to an improved and a more satisfying relationship.
If you would like to master the art of effective communication, not just to resolve conflicts but also to become more influential, enhance existing relationships (either personal or professional) or build new ones, learn how to deal with challenging people, improve your negotiation skills and stay calm in difficult situations, please consider one of our effective communication training programs.
Bob Gottfried Ph.D. is the director of ACT-Communication with over 30 years of experience, specializing in neuro-cognition, consumer behaviour, content/message analysis and effective communication strategies.