Avoid Relationship Meltdown: Your Blueprint for Conflict Resolution

By Sharon MArtin, LCSW

Conflict is normal

Do you know how to effectively resolve conflicts? There’s a lot of skill involved in being able to navigate all the potential landmines that come with unresolved conflict. Michelle Farris, LMFT has generously shared a blueprint for conflict resolution. I encourage you to try to implement some of these conflict resolution strategies. Like all skills, it takes lots of practice to master them, but I know you will in time!

Every relationship has conflict; it’s completely normal to disagree or argue from time to time. But without the right tools, conflict resolution isn’t possible and that’s when the real problems set in. How many times have you found yourself saying the wrong thing or overreacting? Over time, not being able to resolve conflicts contributes to “relationship meltdown”. 

When conflicts don’t get resolved, the hurt and anger can go on for years. Eventually, the relationship fails not because you didn’t work at it – but because you simply couldn’t resolve anything.

Many people would rather ignore disagreements and problems and hope they go away on their own. Maybe it’s not that bad yet. But you find yourself having the same argument again and again. You wrestle with bringing it up again or leaving it alone. 

To confront or not to confront

There are two factors to consider in confronting an issue directly.

  1. Is it safe to talk things out? For instance, if there is any past history of violence or abuse, bringing up problems can be potentially dangerous. You may need professional help to figure it out.
  2. Are you in the right place emotionally to discuss things? If you’re too tired, stressed or upset, it’s better to wait. If all you want to do is retaliate, don’t do anything.

When you’re ready to confront a conflict, here are some steps to increase the chances of your success.

Helpful Tips for Handling Conflict 

  1. Identify your feelings first

Conflict brings out intense emotions like fear, worry, even panic. Getting defensive, wanting to be right and blaming the other person creates a win/lose mentality that destroys any chance of a resolution.

Knowing how you feel helps to identify what to do next. A good rule of thumb is that if you’re not able to listen, you shouldn’t be talking. The emotions are too high for you to have a productive conversation.

  1. Take care of yourself first before initiating the conversation

Let your feelings be your guide. There is no rule that says you have to respond immediately. Instead, find ways to soothe yourself like using timeouts, vigorous exercise or journal writing to calm down. 

Factors like being tired, hungry, or irritable influence the outcome more than you think. Make sure that you’re in the right frame of mind because that makes a huge difference in your ability to communicate effectively.

  1. Write out a script to get clear on your focus

Planning ahead for a potentially difficult conversation improves the outcome. When you jump into an argument without thinking, the tendency to blame and get defensive will increase.

Writing out what needs to be said helps you stick to the point. This script helps you stay on track and avoid getting lost in your emotions.

Creating a script: 

  • Name your concern in a neutral way
  • Ask for what you want
  • Be willing to hear their side of it

Example: “I’m really upset that you talked with mom behind my back. I need you to talk to me directly.”

You may need to have more than one conversation in order to talk things out completely. 

  1. Use I statements to keep out of blame

Share how you feel rather than accusing others of making you upset. Take responsibility for how you feel. Focusing on what they did to you makes it difficult to stay calm.

According to The Gottman Institute, research shows that the first 3 minutes of a conversation predicts its success. Starting off with an “I statement” rather than a “You statement”, keeps the conversation less defensive.

I statement: “I feel hurt when you don’t respond to my texts.”

You statement: “You’re making me so mad.”

  1.  Seek understanding before resolution

It’s not realistic to think that conflicts should be resolved immediately. Often, it takes several conversations before reaching a conclusion and having unrealistic exceptions can be a set-up for frustration.

Most people focus on achieving resolution, but the first step in healthy communication is to understand each other. Listening is an essential part of that.

To listen effectively summarize what’s being said and ask if you heard it correctly. This takes time and patience but it works. Adjust your expectations away from a quick fix and move towards a mutual understanding. Without that step, communication disintegrates fast.

When you understand the other person, you feel more empathy towards them. You become more motivated to seek a middle of the road solution rather than getting your way.

  1.  Use time outs to avoid losing control

You have to know when to leave an argument in order to stay safe. Being able to identify emotions before they escalate makes conflict more manageable. When you know your own dance of anger, you’ll know when to leave.

The most common signs of anger include muscle tension, rapid heart rate, irritability, clenched teeth, shallow breathing, sweating, raised voices and negative thinking. When you notice these signs, stop and take a break. 

That’s when taking a time out is imperative. There are two main reasons that some people don’t like the idea of a time out. First, they assume that if you don’t talk it out right now, it won’t get resolved. Second, they fear that their partner will use timeouts to avoid dealing with the conflict altogether. To ensure a healthy use of time outs, here are some suggestions.

Healthy time outs include:

  • Agreeing to a specific amount of time (usually 20-30 minutes)
  • Picking a safe place to go 
  • Sharing your time out plan with your partner
  • Negotiating a time to talk after returning
  • Talking only when both people are ready

Time outs fail when:

  • You leave without letting your partner know
  • You refuse to set a time to continue the discussion
  • You don’t leave the house so the fight starts up again
  • You make unhealthy choices like driving or using substances during the time out 

Utilizing the tools for success

A successful resolution requires some prep work. Diving into a conversation impulsively doesn’t end well. You say things you don’t mean and continue to hurt each other. Preparing a script keeps the focus on what’s important, not trailing off into unrelated topics. 

Your focus should be on expressing yourself clearly without blame. When you understand each other’s point of view, you don’t take what’s being said personally. Reactions don’t flare because you’re not going past the point of no return. 

It takes effort, but when you’re able to stay calm and communicate clearly, you’re setting a powerful example for others to follow. Conflict resolution takes more time than most people think. The benchmark of success is not always resolution but knowing that you conducted yourself with integrity. That’s success!

Michelle Farris is a marriage and family therapist who specializes in helping people heal codependency and manage anger effectively. She’s a therapist who “walks her talk” and supports others in making small but significant changes that make a difference. She also writes a blog on how to create healthy and happy relationships by learning the power of accountability.  Michelle offers online classes on anger and codependency for additional support.

About Sharon Martin, LCSW

Sharon Martin is an emotional wellness speaker, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Her San Jose based practice specializes in helping over-stressed, high achieving adults and teens learn to embrace their imperfections and grow happiness. Her personal journey of overcoming perfectionism and people-pleasing traits, inspired her passion for this work

©2017 Michell Farris, LMFT.
Photo from Unsplash.

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