[Image description: Two people are having a difficult conversation.]
Every relationship — whether it’s between family members, friends, romantic partners, or coworkers — faces moments of conflict. Having the skills to manage conflicts effectively can determine whether they turn into major blowups or opportunities to resolve miscommunication and strengthen your relationship.
Here are some tips to remember the next time you find yourself in a disagreement that feels like an impossible standoff:
- Take a pause. If the conversation is getting heated or you’re starting to feel angry, take some deep breaths, a few minutes alone, or even a day to cool off. When you return to the topic, take a calm, positive approach. It may help to think of the situation not as an argument, but as a genuine effort to understand each other better.
- Listen actively. Avoid interrupting, criticizing, or laying blame. You’ll each feel heard if you take turns being the speaker and the listener. Be mindful of your body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions.
- Use “I” phrases. Describe how the problem affects you. Use statements like “I feel frustrated/sad/angry/worried when _______,” rather than criticizing the other person’s actions. This can prevent the other person from becoming defensive and allow for a more constructive conversation.
- Identify what you’re really responding to. If you find yourself overreacting to a situation, it may be because it unconsciously reminds you of a conflict from your past. This is called “transference,” and it’s something our brains do unconsciously. So, if your reaction seems out of proportion to the issue at hand, reflect on previous situations or relationships that could be driving your current response.
- Expect different perspectives — and look for areas of agreement. Your opinion or view of the situation will be informed by your background and experiences, while the other person’s perspective will be informed by theirs. Both viewpoints are valid. Try to find common ground to defuse some of the tension around the disagreement. For example, you may find your end goals are the same, even if you disagree on how to achieve them.
- Look for a mutually agreeable solution. Once you’ve each expressed your perspectives, try to identify ways to move forward that address both your concerns. Be willing to compromise and negotiate. Then commit to making those changes. If the conflict is about a sensitive or highly charged topic, you may simply need to agree to disagree. In that event, move gently to a topic you do have in common to demonstrate your relationship remains intact.
- Apologize if you’ve caused pain. Even if you don’t think your actions were wrong, acknowledge that you caused the other person pain. Affirm that you care and you are sorry. Taking responsibility for the impact of your actions can help the other person feel they’ve been heard and understood, which can restore harmony to your relationship.
If you’re at an impasse or see repeating patterns of conflict, it may be time to seek professional help. Depending on the nature of the relationship, this could be a marriage and family therapist or other counselor. It could also be a clergy person, mediator, or human resources representative. Working with a professional can help you de-escalate disagreements, identify possible perspectives or action steps you may have missed, and help you build better conflict resolution skills.