15 ways to manage conflict
Discussions and debates are part of life and relationships but when those turn sour and become full-blown arguments, the effects can become quite destructive. Dr Maeve Hurley explains how to moderate and reduce these conflicts
Conflict is an inevitable and sometimes necessary part of life, and all close relationships will encounter conflict at some point. It is often unpleasant, but there are ways to ensure it is not destructive, especially when it comes to its impact on children. Below are 15 ways for couples to manage conflict.
1 Remember, Conflict is normal!
Conflict is a normal part of relationships - at home, at work, in families and with close friends. It’s how we manage it that matters, both for our own mental and physical health, and for the mental and physical health of others that may be affected by our conflict, such as our children.
2 Be aware of your conflict style
We react to conflict situations in different ways. The first step towards managing conflict is recognising our own pattern of reaction and how we behave when we feel under threat. How do you behave when there is a conflict? Do you fight, take flight or freeze? A fight response would be to shout. Taking flight may involve leaving and walking out. Freezing may involve withdrawing and being silent or sulking.
Think about how you react to conflict directed at you. This pattern is often predictable and can lead to a ‘dance of distress’ where the conflict escalates and it’s difficult to exit. Think about your conflict style and how it might affect those around you. Do you fly off the handle and say hurtful things in the heat of the moment? Do you become defensive or sarcastic? Do you bottle things up and then eventally explode? Talk to your partner about how you both handle conflict and how you react to each other’s conflict pattern.
3 Recognise your argument patterns
Some 69pc of argument subjects are repetitive. As a couple, the majority of things you argue about are going to keep coming up. The top five things that couples argue about are housework, sex, money, balance of power (i.e. who gets to make decisions) and friends/family. Recognising that there are areas that will keep coming up and lead to conflict and arguments can be either reassuring or disheartening. The key is in how we manage these topics. Don’t be afraid to lighten the mood with humour or affection. Humour and affection are important tools in bringing about a resolution, even a temporary one.
4 Choose your time
When we’re stressed and wound up, we are more likely to misinterpret what others are saying and read into things negatively. Similarly, if an issue is brought up at a time when you don’t know how your partner’s day has been or what other issues they are facing, it can lead to more destructive arguments. This can occur when arguments start as soon as they walk in the door, or if they’re on the phone. If an issue needs to be addressed with your partner, pick a time to do it where you will both be relatively calm, not overly tired, and free from distractions.
5 Explain your position
When you need to raise an issue, start by explaining how you feel, without blaming or criticising the other party. Tell them what you are upset about and what you need. Avoid starting sentences with ‘you’ or ‘you always’, and avoid accusing your partner as much as you can. Instead, talk about yourself and how you are feeling, why you are feeling that way, and what way you would like things to be.
6 Check the response
Be aware of how the other person is reacting to the issues you have raised. Are they becoming defensive? If they are, reassure them that you’re not attacking them or unreservedly criticising them: rather, something is bothering you and you want to sort it out.
7 Ask for their point of view
Use open-ended questions and give them time to respond. You may have been prepared for this discussion, but remember that they may not be. Ask them how they feel about what you said, what they think about it and how they see it. Try to avoid yes/no questions.
8 Listen – properly!
Your partner is entitled to their response. Let them speak and listen to them properly — listen without thinking about how you are going to answer or what you’re going to say next. Though it can be easier said than done, do your best to stop, remain calm, and listen to everything they are saying with an open mind and an open heart. Check you have understood their point of view by repeating it back to them in your own words.
9 Say what you agree about
Finding common ground can be very useful as it helps to pinpoint exactly where the difference of opinion lies. Start by talking about what you agree on and take it from there, moving onto the areas in which you don’t agree. It does not have to be about who is right and who is wrong. Try and keep the conversation positive by working out a solution you’re both happy with — you may need to give a little to meet each other halfway!
10 Know when to stop and take the spotlight off conflict
There may be elements of an argument where the best thing to do is agree to disagree, or there may be a point at which you realise you can’t agree. In these circumstances, or if the discussion is becoming heated, it can be better to end the discussion and leave it for the time being. Take the spotlight off conflict — remember the other more positive aspects of your relationships, such as affection, intimacy and emotional support.
11 Be kind
It may sound obvious, but it’s something far too many relationships don’t have enough of! Kindness and empathy towards your partner goes a very long way. Communicate in a way that is positive and respectful. Share humour and show interest in each other’s day. Tell them what you appreciate about them. If one partner is feeling down or has had a bad day, be kind and show support, even if you think their ‘bad day’ was not that bad!
12 Think about how your conflicts affect others
Children, in particular, can be very negatively affected by conflict. Children can become very distressed when exposed to destructive conflict, such as verbal or physical aggression, silent treatment, or intense arguments about them. Children exposed to badly managed conflict are at risk of poorer physical and mental health, failing to reach their potential at school, sleeping difficulties and trouble getting on with peers. Being aware of the potential impact on your children, whether parents are living together or not, can help you to manage conflict in a way that helps them rather than harms them. Explain, reassure and try to manage your conflict better.
13 Focus on the present
Constantly bringing up the past so you can ‘win’ an argument can often be a futile exercise; leading to resentment, lack of forgiveness, and an overwhelming sense that an issue will never go away. Try to focus on the present as much as you can. This is not to say that past events don’t matter, as of course they do. Try to focus on the relationship and its importance to you rather than on past events.
14 Understand the need for conflict at times
Conflict stems from difference. Your partner has a different upbringing, different background, and different set of life experiences to you, all of which means they see things differently and react to scenarios in a different way to you. Those differences can create conflict, leading to disagreements and sometimes debate. In a commited relationship, conflict provides a vehicle to air these differences respectfully so they can be acknowledged, understood and addressed. Conflict can be constructive, and can lead to resolution. Children do not need to be shielded from all conflict, as it is a part of life that they too will have to face.
None of us are perfect. You are not perfect, and nor would you want your partner to be perfect. We are all capable of error, but we are capable of forgiveness too. A culture of forgiveness is a very healthy thing to have in a home, as it allows people to admit fault, express regret and say sorry. It allows people to learn from their mistakes, and strive to do better. Forgiving means that all parties can move on with freedom and a lack of resentment. Forgiving does not mean sweeping issues under the carpet or not dealing with them; it means dealing with the issue, moving on and not bringing that issue up again in the heat of debate.
÷ Dr Maeve Hurley is Founder of Ag Éisteacht, a charity which supports frontline workers in the health and education industries in their communications and interactions with clients and patients. Dr Hurley worked as a GP in Ireland and the UK for 16 years.
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