In relationships, conflict is a given. As much as we would like to pretend it isn’t so, there is no way around this truth. For many of us the unconscious question we are always asking ourselves is, “How do I avoid conflict?”. Yet poorly managed conflict (or even worse, avoided conflict) will rapidly disintegrate a relationship over time.
For a relationship to thrive there is a better question we need to ask, “How can I do conflict well?“ In this article I will share with you some of the ways I have learned to do conflict well.
Having a common goal
As we all know, prevention is better than cure. Having a common goal that both parties understand is one of the best ways to prevent huge difficult-to-resolve conflicts. This is because when we understand what we are striving for everything we do revolves around this agreement.
For example, I often send my clients away to work on their common goal by answering questions like these together:
Taking personal responsibility
It is absolutely essential for a healthy relationship that each party understands that the only thing they are responsible for is their own behaviour (the exception for this being domestic violence or abuse). Likewise the only thing we can contemplate, improve and change is ourselves. It is fruitless to spend your life complaining about and trying to change others.
A tactic for conflict that I love is from Jordan Petersons book, 12 Rules for Life, The Antidote to Chaos. He says that he and his wife manage conflict by moving away from one another for a period of twenty minutes to contemplate what they each individually could have done differently. Note that means you are contemplating only what YOU could have done different, not what your partner could have done. I challenge you to try this for just one week and see how your relationship flourishes and grows.
Hearing the music
Remember that terrifying and escalating music in the movie Jaws? How as it played the tension went up and up and up? A friend of mine uses the Jaws music as a great analogy: that you have to learn to hear it right at the start, before the tension gets too high. Often we are in a conflict and deep down we know exactly where it is going to end up, but we don’t stop to listen to the music. If we paid attention we would hear the music loud and clear and we would recognise that we are headed nowhere good.
With this analogy we train ourselves to hear the music and get out of the water. My friend recommends using a phrase or word that you say to one another before the argument escalates out of control. That word may signal that it is time to self-regulate or spend a little while apart before coming back to discuss.
The nervous system in conflict
Conflict results in immediate sympathetic nervous system (or SNS) stimulation, otherwise known as the fight or flight response or the stress response. In fact there are three parts to this: fight (we may argue, yell, get angry or threaten), flight (withdraw and run away) or freeze (shut down, become immobile).
When we feel threatened by a conflict we tend to default to one of these three choices. Likewise, we all have a history of how loved ones have responded to us in the past when they feel threatened. Both of these affect the way we engage (or try not to engage) in conflict now.
For example when I was a child I experienced aggression from the close men in my life. I learned to cope by withdrawing (which is a flight response). On the other hand my husband has a history of experiencing female withdrawal (flight). The close women in his life tended to retreat away from him which usually felt like rejection.
As conflict begins between us this creates a complex dynamic. If I perceive aggression from him (which happens easily due to my past experiences) I will respond by withdrawing. As he perceives withdrawal and rejection from me (which happens easily due to his past experiences) he responds by moving in closer, which I then perceive as more aggression. Can you see how an unhelpful cycle begins here?
By understanding one another’s history and SNS responses we can put into place a plan of action for when conflict arises. In our case, we created a plan where I ask my husband for ten minutes away from him so that I can regulate and soothe myself. I am in a flight or fight response and I need to calm myself down. My husband knows that he must agree and I know that I must keep my word to return in no more than ten minutes. This way he will feel safe too.
The opposite of your SNS or stress response is your PNS (or parasympathetic nervous system) which can also be called the relaxation response. You can stimulate this through deep breathing, consciously relaxing your muscles or using mindfulness of the body or breath. When I leave the room I am doing something really important: I am soothing my own nervous system. I use a series of learned tools to exit my flight/fight/freeze responses and come into relaxation.
Sometimes we need to physically release the energy of an SNS response. Ways to do this are by running, stomping, dancing, punching or throwing pillows, sighing loudly, singing, dancing, laying under a blanket or having a damn good cry. These actions work the best when you can completely avoid any stories that may be going through your head. Just move for the sake of moving, to release energy and feel your body.
It is important to note that during a stress response we can’t think critically. We are honed in on survival or protection. It is only once we are calmed down and relaxed that we can breathe deeply and think widely. Conflict is resolved much more peacefully when we are not supercharged and triggered. It is a great skill to learn to come back to the discussion once relaxed and with your common goal in mind.