Everyone’s a little on edge right now. Schools are closed. Many of us have been contained in our homes for months. Worry, stress, exhaustion, and frustration are high; opportunities to find release are low. In other words: It’s easier than ever to engage in conflict. Spats. Small fights. Big fights. Small fights that turn into big fights. Eye rolls that lead to hour-long arguments. It’s up to all of us, then, to brush up on our conflict resolution strategies — techniques to help us keep our cool, to help us deliver the right message to those who are upset, to help us all communicate better and avoid ratcheting the tension up even more.
The truth of the matter is that with our movements and interactions limited by lockdown, we’re all more likely to take out that irritation on our family because they’re the people we’re seeing most often. But while flaring tempers and impatience are inevitable, fights aren’t. So what are some of the best conflict resolution strategies to keep in your back pocket and pull out when the moment calls for them? We asked a variety of experts — therapists, lawyers, addiction center officers, lawyers — for the best ways we can all address heated emotional moments — and show our children how to handle those moments. Will these conflict resolution skills always work out? Of course not. But understanding them and learning how to implement them can, with time, lead to a calmer, less combative household.
Conflict Resolution Strategy #1: Calm Down
Why? Sure, this might seem obvious or even trite. But composing yourself is critical to managing conflict. After all, nobody ends a fight by screaming. “The number one thing a person can do to manage conflict well is stay calm,” Philadelphia-based family therapist and Psychology Today blogger Sarah Epstein says.
How It Works: When you notice yourself getting heated, have a strategy ready. “You may need to pause and take some deep breaths, request a time out, or just take a moment to center yourself,” Epstein says. Having the self-awareness to recognize when you need a break to compose yourself so as not to make an argument or issue worse — and agreeing to come back to the issue at hand soon and not ignore it — is crucial to averting disaster.
The Conflict Resolution Strategy #2: Mirror The Other Person’s Language
Why? When somebody is upset, especially during conflict, they often don’t feel heard or understood. Repeating their statements and explaining you understand why they’re upset can quickly show that you understand their perspective.
How It Works: By acknowledging their grievance in their language, you show that you’re listening and taking their complaint seriously. Statements like “Oh, when I made that joke about your job you felt really hurt” can quickly diffuse a situation. As Epstein says, “When a person feels understood, there’s room to re-establish the sense of connection.”
The Conflict Resolution Strategy #3: Listen to Emotions, not Words
Why? Normal verbal communication hinges on words. But arguments aren’t normal communication. Attorney and mediator Douglas Noll, who’s taught conflict resolution in maximum security prisons and the halls of Congress says that in arguments, words hold less meaning than feelings. “You de-escalate by ignoring the words, paying attention to the emotions and feelings and reflecting them back,” he says.
How It Works: First, acknowledge your own emotions. If you feel angry, frustrated, and disrespected, say “I feel angry, frustrated, and disrespected.” Then put analytical reasoning aside. Noll says that attempts to fix things and solve problems during fights escalate the conflict. Your desire to problem-solve arises from your unconscious need to soothe your own anxiety around the dispute or fight. Resist the urge to fix things. “The secret is to de-escalate the emotions and only then problem-solve,” Noll says. “You de-escalate by ignoring the words, paying attention to the emotions and feelings.”
Conflict Resolution Strategy #4: Aim to End Fights, Not Win Them
Why?: This is a reminder of what the real goalposts are. Fights start because people want things they’re not getting — respect, personal space, a clean kitchen. But they often don’t end with people getting what they want. This is especially true with kids. “Sometimes you may agree to disagree and you have to teach your child that resolving conflicts doesn’t mean you always get what you want,” chief clinical officer of Nashville addiction treatment center Journeypure Brian Windsays.
How It Works: Wind recommends focusing on cooperation and compromise with children. If you’re in conflict with your kid, be flexible. Don’t acquiesce to their demands, as appeasement will blow up in your face later. But give your kids a reasonable amount of choice and control over the outcome. “Allow them to propose a different solution that works for everyone,” Wind says. “It doesn’t mean you should always give in and the solution should be something you are comfortable with as well.”
Conflict Resolution Strategy #5: Remember the 5:1 Ratio
What Is It?: In a multi-year study conducted in the 1970s, the influential relationship psychology researcher John Gottman found that happy couples balanced positive and negative interactions during conflicts. Gottman believed happy couples maintained a ratio of five positive interactions, like showing interest or affection for the other partner for each negative, creating the 5:1 ratio that Gottman’s acolytes hold as the gold standard for successful relationships.
How It Works: No one is perfectly considerate of their partner 24 hours a day. But as long as the vast majority of your relationship’s interactions are positive, your conflicts will be more gentle and easier to repair. The Gottman Institute recommends keeping a journal of positive and negative interactions to help couples to understand their ratio. Carrie Krawiec, a marriage and family therapist at the Birmingham Maple Clinic in Troy, MI, recommends couples keep the ratio in mind during conflicts. “When you want to address problematic behavior, reduce the intensity of your reaction by recalling at least five positive behaviors of the person in question,” Krawiec says.
Conflict Resolution Strategy #6: The Gentle Start Up
What Is It?: Like the 5:1 ratio, the “gentle start up” is one of the Gottman institute’s greatest relationship advice hits. During a disagreement, you express what you’re feeling and nudge your sparring partner towards an action you believe can help resolve the conflict or at least dial down the tension in the room.
How It Works: Colorado relationship therapist Dan Sneider-Cotter says the gentle start up involves using ‘I’ language followed by expressing a positive need. “For example, ‘I am feeling frustrated right now because I am tired but the kitchen still needs to be cleaned…could you please help me load the dishwasher and clean the counters,’ Sneider-Cotter says. “Or something like, ‘I am feeling sad today because you didn’t ask me about my day; could you please sit and talk with me for a few minutes so that I can share what happened?’” Because the gentle start-up involves expressing feelings in simple language without placing blame, it’s a technique children can learn and emulate in future conflicts. “Each person can better understand where the hurt is coming from and know what to do next,” Sneider-Cotter says.
Conflict Resolution Strategy #7: Notice the Fullness of “Stress Cups”
What Is It? Let’s say the kid left their wet towels on the floor after their shower. Again. Your natural impulse is to confront them the moment you see the damp mess on the bathroom floor. But you picked the wrong moment. Your simple reasonable request for your kid to pick up after themselves erupts into a full blown war.
How It Works: Stressed out people aren’t receptive to resolving conflict. British clinical psychologist Lucy Russell suggests thinking of stress like a liquid that ebbs and flows in people. “Never try to resolve an issue when someone’s ‘stress cup’ is full,” Russell says. “For example, when a child comes home from school, his nervous system is likely to be overloaded from all the academic, sensory and social demands of the day.” Let them relax and decompress. Then knock on their door and talk to them about being responsible with towels. “Try to deal with a difficult issue when the cup is full, and their cup will probably overflow, causing irritability, anger or meltdown,” Russell says.
Conflict Resolution Strategy #8: Walk Away
Why? Not all fights are worth fighting. And some of those worthless fights drag on for days with the vicious circle you’re caught in growing ever more vicious and circular.
How It Works: You know that place where your argument is taking place? You’re not going to be there any more. Maybe you’re still mad. Maybe nothing is resolved. Maybe your partner implores you to stay. But if the argument’s playing on a never ending loop, Northampton, MA divorce attorney and mediator Gabrielle Hartley advises putting some distance between yourself and the argument. “Take a five minute respite from whatever heated conversation you find yourself enmeshed in,” Hartley says. “Go for a walk around the block and consider whether the issue is one that you truly need to address or if you can release your attachment to the particulars.”