Managing Conflict Well (Part 2)

The previous post on managing conflict discussed how we react before taking time to respond thoughtfully in relationships. When we get into perpetual problems (personality differences, different lifestyles, etc.), the focus of communication isn’t just to “problem-solve” or “compromise,” as it is to feel heard, understood, and respected. Remember: your partner probably won’t remember most of what you said, but they will definitely remember how it made them feel.

A second aspect of conflict management I want to discuss is the role of patience.

Patience play a crucial role in conflict due to our immediate reactions often lacking the thoughtfulness required to craft a positive response. Initial reactions are often a stress response. This is why we express them so intensely and instantaneously. We feel justified because we are not suppose to “bottle-up” our emotions or let our partner get away with treating us like that. The problem is that expressing emotion is only helpful when done in a productive manner. Simply yelling, blowing-up, saying hurtful words, expressing anger, being passive-aggressive, or being critical does not actually calm stress responses, it often fuels them further.

It is important to acknowledge the three stages of emotional reaction we often go through in conflict:

1st Reaction: Stress Response—Anger, irritation, feeling overwhelmed, annoyed, etc.

2nd Reaction: Calming Response—Deep breathing, thinking it through, making sense of the conflict, trying to see both sides of the discussion, etc.

3rd Reaction: Kind Response—Recognizing and acknowledging partners needs, taking ownership of your role in the conflict, working toward a common ground.

These stages highlight the importance of patience during conflict since it is difficult to will ourselves from one reaction to the next. Often the most dependable antidote is time: take a moment between responses, have brief periods of silence, and ensure when your partner is talking you are listening and not just anticipating your response.

Expressing our emotions can be healthy and helpful when done in the calming response stage. When we express emotions in the stress response stage it doesn’t have the calming effect we hope for, in fact it usually fuels and reinforces stress responses.

Exercises to practice patience:

  1. Implement a silence-rule: during conflict each partner must wait a minimum 15 seconds to craft their response before saying it out loud. (Bonus: use a safe-word to initiate the silence-rule, something you both find cute or funny).
  2. Implement a rebuttal rule: before you can rebuttal you must be able to repeat the essence of what your partner expressed, in your own words, back to them.
  3. Implement a kindness rule: before you can respond with anything critical or negative toward your partner you must first state something positive about them, the strengths of their argument, and which parts of it you agree with.

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