3 Ways to Better Resolve Conflict (and really see your partner)

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One thing I’m beginning to understand about relationships is that conflict is inevitable.

It doesn’t matter how strong the relationship is, or how many years you’ve been together. At the end of the day a relationship is comprised of distinct individuals with different needs, different expectations and different experiences of reality.

And this often results in miscommunication, arguing, disappointment, frustration, and well, conflict.

This is normal. Conflict that is resolved easily and calmly can be beneficial in a relationship and bring two people closer together.

The problem is when the conflict starts to escalate — when it results in yelling, defending, blaming, stonewalling (shutting down) and hurt.

If you’re anything like me, this is the moment you stop seeing your partner. The moment you stop trying to understand, empathize or accept them, and instead focus on defending, punishing or blame.

And the more you do this, the more damaging it can be to a relationship because it reinforces unhealthy dialogue and behavior over time.

This is why conflict resolution — the ability to resolve conflict respectfully, to really see, understand and work through a conflict with your partner — is so crucial.

This article outlines 3 ways to resolve conflict escalation in your relationships. It’s based on an amazing lecture by Rabbi Mordecai Finley.


Understanding Conflict and Conflict Escalation — What is Conflict?

Before we delve into conflict resolution, it’s important to distinguish between conflict and conflict escalation.

Interpersonal conflict involves someone not doing what someone else wants them to do (i.e. not agreeing with them or seeing things their way).

  • Demanding (Partner A): Expresses a need/desire, tries to get their way, tries to persuade the other person to see things their way.
  • Defending (Partner B): Doesn’t want to do that. Doesn’t want to see things Partner A’s way and begins to explain and defend.

Conflict Round 1

Conflict Round 2

This is how most relationship conflicts go. Partner A expresses a need, Partner B expresses some resistance, Partner A expresses their need again and Partner B agrees.

This is an example of a conflict that is a positive interaction. It hasn’t escalated. There was no fighting or defending or criticizing involved.


The Problem — Conflict Escalation

The problem arises when the conflict starts to escalate. When it transforms from being constructive (positive interaction) to being destructive (negative interaction).

Conflict Round 1

Conflict Round 2: The Always/Never Spiral

90% of the time, the conflict goes into never/always territory.

This is a sure sign that the conflict, instead of being resolved, is about to escalate.

It’s about to turn into a negative interaction.

Instead of focusing on a specific incident, each partner is defending THEMSELVES. It’s become more important to prove a point than to resolve the conflict.

And before you know it: chaos.

This is just one example of conflict escalation, there are many.

Now of course sometimes it’s good to blow off steam, sometimes you can’t help getting out of control. That’s fine. That’s normal.

The point is to know your relationship and understand that too much conflict escalation is damaging. It sucks the energy out of you, your partner and your relationship.

Therefore it’s important to deliberately work to reduce conflict escalation in your relationship.


3 Ways to Minimize Conflict Escalation

1.Be Specific — What Exactly Do You Want?

This has been a game changer for me. It’s the process of understanding and articulating your specific needs. This applies to you and your partner.

Remember, most conflicts arise from an unmet need or expectation: You want your partner to do X. He/she doesn’t understand. You get upset.

Yet, most of the time we express a vague need/request:

  • I want you to respect me more
  • I want you to be more loving
  • I want you to be nicer to my parents

This usually doesn’t work. It’s not specific enough.

The reason is because we don’t mean the same things. We all use the same words (‘love’, ‘respect’, ‘nice’) but we name completely different things and have different expectations.

The solution?

Be specific about what you want: State exactly what you want, when, how much, and under what kind of circumstances. Describe the behavior you want.

The same goes for a colleague — you’re annoyed because they’re micromanaging. That’s not enough, try to give a specific example of what you mean. What do you want them to do less or more of?

The hardest part about being specific is that most of the time we have NO IDEA WHAT WE WANT.

We usually don’t take the time and energy to describe our needs, and the behaviors we expect.

Why? Because it’s hard work. Because it takes energy to fine-tune and articulate our needs.

And so we settle for generalities and then get upset when the other person doesn’t act in accordance.

Therefore it’s critical to demand from yourself AND your partner to be clear about your needs, and the behaviors you expect.

For example (based on the example above):

  • General: I want you to respect me when we’re out with friends (too vague)
  • Be specific: I want you to ask for my opinion more when we’re out with friends (specific)

This step doesn’t need to happen at the same instant that a conflict arises. Sometimes it’s better to take a break from the conflict, think about what exactly you need, and then share it with your partner.

2. Have a Police Report Ready — Pay Attention to your Partner

Now that you know what you want, it’s important to gather evidence — i.e. specific examples to back up your claim.

Oftentimes we’re stuck in our story, in our interpretation of reality. Gathering evidence is a way to ‘check in’ with what is actually happening.

This requires you to observe your partner (and yourself), to take ‘notes’ and pay attention to how they’re actually behaving (and not the story you have in your head).

If you don’t have specific examples then the argument will go like this:

  • Partner A: You don’t respect me
  • Partner B: Yes I do.

*end of discussion*

Oftentimes, we claim that our partner doesn’t do X, but when we observe them in real time we may see that it’s not true at all. That we created a story in our heads.

Or you may find out that wow, you’re right. Your partner really doesn’t do x, y, or z. That’s interesting. And now it’s possible to really address the issue, without your story getting in the way.

Either way, you’re now closer to seeing reality as it is.

3. Be Curious

Let’s imagine that you request something specific from your partner and they keep saying no. And they won’t budge.

Now you have a choice to stop and turn away or shift to curiosity.

This means asking WHY and meaning it.

It means prioritizing understanding your partner (really seeing your partner) over winning an argument or proving a point.

This is the hardest thing for me. I realize that when I ask why or try to ‘understand’ my partner or a colleague, I’m usually just waiting for them to finish so I can prove my point — which never helps the situation.

Doing this right entails 3 things:

  1. Genuine curiosity accepting your partner’s answer
  2. Working through ‘I don’t know’
  3. A willingness to take No for an answer\

Genuine Curiosity — Never Say It’s Not True

First ask WHY.

  • Partner A: Why don’t you want to go to my parents?

Then you listen to their answer and say THANK YOU. That’s it.

Most of the time we ask our partner ‘why’ but aren’t really interested in their response. We don’t really care where they’re coming from.

We just want to prove a point or use this opportunity to criticize, condemn or complain.

This is what usually happens:

  • Partner A: I don’t want to go to your parents
  • Partner B: Ok, but why?
  • Partner A: Because your brother doesn’t like me
  • Partner B: What do you mean he doesn’t like you? You’re crazy. That’s not true. You always do this.
  • Result: Partner A realizes that he shouldn’t say what he thinks. That expressing his thoughts/feelings just end in an ambush. So next time, he just won’t share.

Don’t do this. Don’t defend, explain, refute, try to prove your point or deny. Instead become a ‘validator.’ Let your partner know that you consider his/her emotions valid, even if you don’t agree with them.

This is important because oftentimes the person’s reasons have NO BASIS IN REALITY. In this case, you still don’t give your opinion. And you never say it’s not true.

Moreover, their reasons don’t need to be 100% true, they need to be true enough. It’s their experience of the situation.

Remember, you’re not asking if what they’re saying is true, you’re asking for the reasons for their feelings.

Now you have intel on what the real problem/work is, on how they’re perceiving the situation. This is important.

It’s now your turn to analyze the situation. Are they right? Can you collect more data to find out?

Now you say thank you for sharing. That’s it.

Example

  • Partner A: I don’t want to go to your parents
  • Partner B: Ok, but why?
  • Partner A: Because your brother doesn’t like me
  • Partner B: Wow I never realized that. Thank you for sharing. [now do the work and investigate the situation]. But now that I think about it, you’re 100% right. Is there anything I can do?

The magical thing is that most of the time all the other person needs is to be SEEN and UNDERSTOOD for their pain and resentment to go away.

Understanding ‘I don’t know’

Oftentimes when you ask someone ‘Why’ you’ll get the answer ‘I don’t know’.

This happens for 2 reasons:

  1. They really don’t know — When people say ‘I don’t know why’ they’re usually being honest. Most of us DON’T KNOW WHY WE FEEL HOW WE FEEL. AND WE DON’T KNOW WHAT WE WANT.

We feel something but we don’t know why.

So you need to be patient, and to keep trying to understand your partner’s reasons. Eventually if you create a safe enough space, they’ll share their reasons.

2. They don’t want to explain because they’re scared they’ll be attacked. Partner B says I don’t know because it’s the easy way out. They won’t be attacked or judged. This is why the genuine curiosity of Partner A is so important.

The important point here is that both partners need to do the work.

The partner who is requesting something needs to be specific and genuinely curious and the other partner needs to take responsibility for his/her feelings. To articulate and understand his/her motivations.

Be Willing to Take No for an Answer & the ‘Above 7’ System

This is important. Sometimes you can ask for something specific, and be genuinely curious and your partner will still refuse to do X.

In this case, you need to be willing to accept their No because the relationship is almost always more important than whatever is being discussed.

The ‘Above 7 System’: For example, my partner and I have an ‘above 7’ system. We assign a number to things based on how important we deem them.

Anything that we declare is an ‘above 7’ is very important to us. Thus, anything that we deem as an ‘above 7’ is usually done by the other partner. For example, if I deem visiting my parents an ‘above 7’ then my partner will usually give in. It’s just as important not to overuse the system.

This system requires respect and trust. Respect for the other person’s wishes and trust that the other person isn’t taking advantage of the system.

Now your turn:

  1. Observe the next time you and your partner have a conflict. Pay attention to what triggers it and how you interact. Does it escalate? Do you want to improve it?
  2. Now think of which of the 3 things listed above you can apply next time. Maybe you weren’t being clear enough about what you need? Maybe your partner didn’t validate your feelings?
  3. Practice: This work is all about practice. The next time you’re in a conflict situation, take a deep breath and try to apply the 3 principles listed above.