How to turn conflicts into opportunities to strengthen your relationships

I am continuously on the lookout for skills that are so rare in our modern world, yet so useful, that they can be called "superpowers." Thus far, I've identified three such skills:

In this article, we'll explore another "superpower", one closely related to the above. This is the ability to skillfully resolve conflict in relationships.

This third and final article was developed largely from information found on The Gottman Institute website. The first article discusses the importance of understanding other people's "bids for connection," i.e., identifying and responding effectively to their spoken or unspoken, conscious or unconscious, requests to us for support.In my opinion, the first is the most important. If we maintain a full emotional bank account by responding often and positively to the other person's bids (requests for support), serious conflicts will be less likely to develop. This article may be most useful when the relationship is not strong or the issue is potentially divisive.

The second article sprang up from the great wealth of information I uncovered at about how to deal with conflict. In this article, we'll discuss how to apply the principles and frameworks we discussed in that one.

To do so, we're going to build on those frameworks. Next, we'll look at an example of a potential conflict and see how we can use what we've learned to produce better outcomes. But first, let's start by reversing the mistaken beliefs I listed in my last post.

Flip the script

Belief #1: I should never ever feel hurt by someone who cares about me.

Fact: There will be times when I feel hurt by those who care about me. This does not mean they intend to harm me. I should feel free to ask them to stop or to take a break for a while. But if I can avoid getting overwhelmed by what another person says or does, I'll have the chance to address it in a productive way.I like the way Peter Bregman worded it: "If you have that hard conversation, you might have to feel their anger or you're hurting them or shame, or that weird passive-aggressive thing that happens when you give someone feedback and they go, thank you so much. I really appreciate that. And then they don't talk to you for three weeks. Like you have to be willing to feel that stuff. And if you're willing to feel everything, if you're willing to feel the shame and the embarrassment and the anger and the path, if you're willing to feel everything, you can do anything. ... someone said to me recently, I don't want to hurt you. And my answer was, hurt me. Like, that's okay. I could be hurt. Like, it's okay for you to hurt me. I don't, I don't need to live a life in which I don't get hurt. I'll be responsible for that. If you're hurting me too much, I might tell you to go away. Right. But it's okay, we're going to hurt each other in this world. And so to be able to not let that overwhelm us, but to actually be able to engage in conversation around it, it feels like it's the most important thing."

Belief #2: It is my duty to be brutally honest.

On the other hand, that doesn't mean that I should feel free to hurt the other person. If I am gentle and patient with them, I will be more effective. Being "brutally honest" will always do more harm than good (unless the other person has the superpower of accepting criticism, which is highly unlikely). I'm hurting both the relationship and my chances of achieving my goals.

Belief #3: I shouldn't talk about how I feel. It will only make things worse.

Fact: My feelings about the situation are very important. But I need to recognize that the other person is not responsible for my feelings and emotions. Before I can have a meaningful conversation with the other person, I need to have a handle on my emotions. In understanding what I'm feeling and why, I can express this in a non-threatening way to the other person, and this will move the relationship forward.For an example of just how powerful this step can be, see How Being Nuanced with Your Emotions Enhances Your Well-Being: An Interview with Susan David, Ph.D, Part II. Susan David asked a man one question that had such a powerful effect, his wife later said, "I don’t know what you said to my husband, but it has completely changed the relationship."

Belief #4: The world will end unless I get my way.

I may feel very strongly about how the situation will turn out. But I should not fool myself into thinking I know everything. There are probably many ways to solve this problem that I haven't considered. The obvious solution to any problem is often not the best. Our relationship will be stronger if we approach this problem as a team and put my own desired solution on hold for now.

Belief #5: I know what's going to happen.

I should take time to consider my objections to the other person's position. Am I just annoyed, or am I truly fearful that something terrible will happen? Before talking to the other person, try to list all the possible outcomes that you fear. (While you're at it, try to think of good outcomes as well.) How likely are these outcomes? Be prepared to talk about your fears openly.

Belief #6: I know exactly why I want this.

Think about possible reasons why you want to see or avoid seeing a certain outcome so badly. Has something from your childhood manifested itself in this new situation? Has an old insecurity risen to the surface?Find more exercises like this on at the following pages: What are Your Core Beliefs and Needs? (and why it’s important to identify them)Assignment: Turning Towards, and The Workplace: How Your Past Influences Your Connections with Coworkers.

Let's make a plan

Let's put together what we've learned and create a step-by-step plan for solving problems.

  • Start with yourself:
    • Uncover the fundamental complaint. What is really at issue?
    • Recognize the emotions:
      • What impact does this have on me? What do I feel as a result of the other person's actions or inactions?
      • What other emotions are hiding beneath the big one?
      • What do these emotions tell me about my needs? Where does this come from?
  • Have a brainstorming session by yourself. First, list as many options as you can think of for solving the problem.
  • Now try to view from the other person's perspective.
  • Ask, what do I know about their view of the issue?
    • What do I not know?
    • Do they recognize that it's a problem?
    • What are the positives I know?
    • What are the possibilities that are positive?
  • What is the most direct way to express my need?
    • What makes it difficult for me to do so?
    • What am I afraid of?

Now, ask yourself, How can I give the other person some control over the conversation? (Where, when, and how) How could I frame it in a way that it will matter to them?

It's only at this point that you're fully prepared to bring up the touchy subject. But let's have a practice session first.

Putting it into practice

Let's use this to constructively decompose a complaint we might have against a friend or partner.

Using these principles can also be helpful when we are on the receiving end of a complaint. (In that case, the other three superpowers discussed above will be most helpful.)

I am using an example from Gottman's website. Let's analyze the problem and see how the steps above can help us.

Imagine you are disappointed that the person who used to take time to do adventurous things with you has been so busy lately and has put you off when you express interest in doing it again. The following is an ineffective way to resolve the issue:

"We never do anything fun anymore. I feel like you don’t care about having adventures with me like you used to.”

What are the unsaid messages?

This is the complaint hidden in the message: "I miss going on adventures with you."

Which emotions are present?

Perhaps I'm feeling disappointed. Since then, life has not been as enjoyable as it once was. I might be feeling frustrated, especially if this is not the first time I've raised this issue. Maybe I feel jealous because you are doing things with other friends and not with me. There's a possibility I feel angry as well. 

What do these emotions tell me?

You matter to me and I want to spend time with you. It's possible that I feel insecure because my other friends seem to be having more fun than me. Maybe I don't have any other friends. Maybe I'm worried about never experiencing the same good times again. It might be that I was abandoned by someone I cared about in the past, and this is triggering those feelings.

What are the alternatives? It's time to brainstorm.

Here are just a few. You can probably think of many more:

  • I could do fun things with other friends.
  • If someone is too busy to spend time with me, I could offer to help them with whatever is keeping them from doing so.
  • Perhaps my behavior has made them less likely to want to spend time with me lately.
  • We might be able to do adventurous things on a smaller scale than before. Sometimes life gets in the way.
  • Is it possible to experience the feelings of adventure and connection we felt at the time in other ways? 
How does the other person view the situation?

Be careful not to assume things about the other person that you don't know for sure.

In this situation, what do I know? Here's what I know for sure:

  1. I enjoy doing fun things with them.
  2. In the past, they enjoyed doing fun things with me.

Where's the positive there? They enjoyed spending time with me in the past, so they probably will again.

Expressing the first point makes me vulnerable. What if they no longer want to spend time with me?

At least I will know if that's the case. I could then look for other friends. (This is where self-esteem is important.) Even if my efforts bear no results, I will know one thing: By expressing myself the right way, I won't be pushing them away from spending time with me. There won't be any reason for me to feel guilty about it.

What will expressing this accomplish? It will show them I care. It's possible they weren't sure I still wanted to do fun things.

What else is possible? Most likely they will explain why they can't do it. Maybe we can come up with ways to solve these problems together.

Is it possible they want to do those things with me just as much as I do? In what way can I demonstrate my positive view of the situation and their willingness to act?

If they seem unwilling, try to find out why. Is it possible they are battling their own emotional issues in relation to this issue? What can you do to draw them out and listen to what they have to say?

Ask yourself:

  • Have I mentioned this before? If so, how effective was I? Did it come across as an attack? Did I bring it up at the wrong time? Are they aware of how important it is to me?
  • Have they responded negatively?
    • What do I know about their reaction? Is their initial reaction simply defensive, or are they completely resistant to change?
    • Am I assuming they are doing this on purpose?
    • Are there external factors influencing their behavior? 

The conversation

Now that you've thought this through, it's much less likely you'll say or do something that will worsen the situation. Your outlook is optimistic, and you're feeling confident that you can handle this and that the other person will respond at some point.

Right now the best question is, can I let this issue go? What exactly is it costing me? After considering your own needs and triggers, as well as putting yourself in the other person's shoes, you may realize it's not such a big deal after all. Be sure not to skip this step. When you forgive and move on, you can prevent many conflicts. Perhaps you even thought of something positive you could compliment them on. Your emotional bank account will grow as a result.

If you still feel you must make an issue of the problem, use the gradual escalation method. Start small. Remember to always treat the relationship more seriously than the issue.

Start with the positive. Talk about why you care.

Stop at the first sign of resistance. Avoid fighting.

The next time you have a good opportunity to bring it up, ask if they've thought about it. Then listen. Don't defend yourself.

Be vulnerable. Explain why this is important to you. Try to limit your discussion of emotions to "I" statements. "I feel like we never do anything fun anymore. It's been so long since we spent time together, and I miss it. I'm feeling frustrated because I want to do it and it seems like you don't."

If the issue is sensitive to the other person, you may want to ask if they are willing to discuss solutions. This step may take a lot of time and patience. Listen carefully to what they are saying and revisit the subject many times if necessary.

When deciding between options, don't look for the best one. Find the one that both of you are most likely to follow through on. This is what Bregman calls a "level 10 plan."

More practice

Here are some more scenarios where conflict can occur. Apply the process above to think about what you would say and what you would do in each situation. Then check your answers on Gottman's website.

  • Your spouse hasn't even offered to help you with the housework for weeks. It's exhausting, and they haven't acknowledged your efforts.
  • You frequently cannot reach the other person when you call.
  • When the other person comes home from work, he or she always wants to talk about their day and never asks about yours.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. Playing an instrument well might win you some acclaim, but learning how to resolve conflict effectively may earn you something even more valuable: A lifetime of relationships that pay high dividends.