We so often wrongly assume that conflict must mean that something in our relationship is going wrong, but that’s actually not the case at all. Conflict is a natural and yes, even healthy, part of every relationship. It is not the avoidance of conflict that makes for a good relationship, but how you handle that conflict. Use these tips to resolve conflict appropriately while avoiding angry, relationship-ending habits:
Timing is everything
Timing is everything – in business, in relationships, and yes, in conflict management. If you’ve been having conflict problems with your partner, it’s important that you strategize the best time to broach the subject. For example, if they’re stressed about an upcoming project deadline, wait until after that project is due. Don’t broach the subject when you’re tired and ready for bed or when you’re busy and heading out the door. Wait until you have time to discuss the problem at hand. If the conflict comes up in a preexisting conversation, it’s okay to take a breather. Take a step back from the conversation so that you can gather your thoughts. To resolve conflict efficiently, you need to be in a healthy mental space.
Don’t beat around the bush
When engaging in conflict management with your partner, it’s important to be straightforward and to the point. Be assertive in your needs without being aggressive. Describe, at face value, the problem you have and state your needs to ensure the conflict resolves effectively. Your partner cannot properly adhere to the conflict resolution if they don’t know what they can do to make things better. For example, instead of saying “I hate when you leave the bed unmade” try saying, “If you’re the last one up in the morning, can you please remember to make the bed?” When you implicitly state your needs in a direct manner, they are more likely to adhere to them.
Don’t draw from history
Many people make the mistake of dwelling on past experiences instead of focusing on the situation at hand. To resolve conflict in a healthy manner, it’s important that you avoid character accusations built from past experiences. For instance, if your conflict is about your relationship communication issues, this is not the time to mention the problems you have with your partner’s parenting skills. Avoid statements such as: “this is so typical of you” or “this is just like that one time you _______”. Drawing upon past issues will only irritate your partner and make them less inclined to resolve conflict.
Use “I” statements
When you initiate conflict management, it’s vital that you portray your feelings about the current problem. If your partner is doing something that bothers you, instead of attacking them, tell them why it’s affecting you. For example, if your spouse has been slacking in their part of the household chores, let them know why this is a problem. Instead of saying “you NEVER clean up after yourself”, try saying “I feel overwhelmed when all the chores are left for me. Can you keep up your end?” This approach doesn’t stem from anger, so will likely be met with a better, healthier response in return.
What you’re not saying is just as important as what you are
Body language, nonverbal communication, and tone of voice are all important factors to take into consideration during a disagreement. While it’s important to speak kindly to one another, it’s also important that your nonverbal communication matches. If you use “I” statements, broach the subject at an appropriate time, and do all the “right” things, none of it will matter if your body language says otherwise. Avoid eye rolling, using sarcasm or raising your voice to most effectively communicate. Listening to what your partner has to say to you doesn’t mean that you must agree with them, it just means that they know that they have also been heard.
Conflict management is a two-way street. It’s important that both you and your partner are willing to work through your relationship problems to create healthy resolutions. Remember that conflict does not have to be the demise of your relationship when you approach it in a productive and efficient manner.
Roy Faget, MA, is a marriage and family therapist associate at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin. He works with couples to help them learn better communication skills, and with couples and individuals to help them through a variety of life transitions. Contact him for scheduling at 512-270-4883, ext. 109, or request an appointment with him by completing the form on the RCC Austin Scheduling Page.