7 Practical Steps to Cool Down in the Face of Conflict-Cluff Counseling, Marriage & Family TherapyWe have all had conversations where we started to talk calmly about something inconsequential with our partner, but find ourselves in a boxing match where the viability of our relationship seems threatened.  To aid you in staying out of the boxing ring, try these seven ideas to diffuse conflict.

In last month’s post on relationship health, I posted about how to stay connected during conflict. Conflict between two people is unavoidable. We are bound to disagree when we are in a relationship simply because we have opinions and preferences. The problem arises when disagreements define the communication in the relationship. The solution is not to avoid all topics that could cause an argument (because that is impossible), but rather to change how you react in the face of conflict.

When we do not feel connected, it is much easier to lose our patience and to assume our partner is trying to push our buttons and offend us on purpose. A lack of connection can cause escalation–where a simple misunderstanding explodes into a full-blown argument.  Escalation means a rapid increase in the intensity or seriousness of something. In relationships, this looks like a conversation beginning over something simple but instead of calmly conversing about our preferences, we make accusations and blanket statements, and suddenly the argument is about our unsatisfied sex life or unmet emotional needs. And it all began over which way we squeeze the tube of toothpaste!

How and why do we escalate conflict? The underlying reason is because our expectations are not being met. Maybe our partner does not know or realize that we are feeling a lack of emotional or physical connection; thus the deeper need manifests itself through something small and inconsequential.  Escalation is often a sign that there are unmet needs in your relationship. I will have a future blog post dedicated to voicing needs and expectations.

Aside from the true underlying reason  we escalate conflict (unmet needs) there exists a secondary reason for why we escalate: because we are not practicing self-awareness or effective communication in the fact of conflict. There are specific, practical, and actionable things we can try to do, say, and think today that help keep those massive arguments over toilet paper and toothpaste at bay. It will take time and effort to not overreact during arguments, but I can assure you it is possible to do if we make a few tweaks to our verbal and nonverbal communication. I would like to suggest the following 7 practical steps to cool down, become more self-aware, and communicate effectively in the face of conflict:

  1. First, Use the “Three A’s to Get Past Anger” Acknowledge your partner–this can even be with a nod if you are afraid of opening your mouth. Then ask for more information; this helps your partner feel heard and more understood. Finally, add your opinion.
  2. Relax. Take deep breaths. Shake the shoulders. Roll the neck. A calm mind will follow a calm body. Wait out the chemical reaction that may be taking place.
  3. Find a distraction. Choose to think about something else, snuggle a pet, inhale aromatherapy, take a walk, write your feelings, turn on soothing music.
  4. Use humor.There is nothing like some Jerry Seinfeld to diffuse an argument!
  5. See the good.Speak to each other’s positive intent; point out the good in your partner even though you disagree with him/her. For example, “I appreciate that you want to save toothpaste by squeezing from the end of the tube. I admire your economic attitude.” And then work from there to…
  6. Encourage solutions.It is so easy to point fingers during an argument, but this gets us nowhere. Ask your partner, “What would make this situation better?” or “How can we fix this situation in a way you believe will work for us both?” Be proactive instead of perpetuating the all-too-easy cycle of the blame game.
  7. START OVER.Catch yourself in the beginning of a disagreement. Research has shown that the first three to five minutes of a conversation lays the foundation for what is likely to follow. Say, “This is going in a bad direction. Let’s start over.”

Step one is a powerful and important place to start; if you only ever try step one, you are sure to make leaps and bounds of progress in conflict resolution! Those three A’s are absolutely fundamental to avoiding escalation. Even if your blood is boiling and your fists are clenched, acknowledge that you heard your partner so he or she does not think you are ignoring him or her. If you need a moment to gear up for options 2-7, try a shortened version of the “Time Out” that I wrote about in a previous post. To review, begin by clearly telling your partner you need a Time Out; take a few moments to soothe before identifying your primary emotions; and then rejoin the conversation. When you make your way back to your partner, acknowledge him/her, ask questions about his/her perspective, and then add your thoughts. Step one in and of itself is an incredible tool for practicing effective communication…2-7 are just bonus options!

It is always so much easier said than done. Conflict resolution is difficult, yet so necessary in literally every single relationship in our lives. Prepare yourself with the self-awareness and communication skills listed above. I can assure you that these positive habits will impact every relationship you have in your life. If you are in a relationship that is defined by arguing, contact me or set up a session today for more individualized, one-on-one guidance. Together we can redefine your relationship to include a little more effective communication and a great deal less arguing. I am always here and happy to help!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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