The first post in this series explored how couples react to conflict. In that post, I argued that good understanding + good communication + emotional self-control means that you’re three quarters of the way towards resolving your conflict well. Maybe more.
But when it comes right down to it, what exactly are those good communication strategies that can help us when things heat up? How, exactly, should we be trying to control our emotions?
This post covers seven simple strategies that will help you address and resolve conflict more effectively. As you read, think about which of these strategies you’re good at, and which could use some practice.
Don’t stop reading! I know, I know, you rolled your eyes when you saw this subtitle. The phrase is so over-used it’s almost a cliché. However, I couldn’t leave it out because taking a deep breath is really important.
Why does taking a deep breath help?
In his book Why Marriages Succeed Or Fail, noted relationships researcher, John Gottman, explains what happens physiologically when we fight.
During an argument (or when we’re not outwardly arguing, but we’re upset with someone) our heart rate speeds up. Once our heart rate exceeds a certain level (about 10% above our resting rate) we get “flooded.” The adrenaline and other stress chemicals that pour into our system make it difficult to think calmly, focus on what our partner is saying, or appreciate their point of view. The higher our heart rate, the more stressed, angry, defensive, and anxious we will feel.
If our heart rate exceeds 100 beats per minute, Gottman claims, it is virtually impossible for us to absorb what our partner is saying, and therefore to have a productive discussion. It’s during these times that we are most likely to engage in unproductive fighting or running away from conversations we need to have.
Taking a deep breath helps counteract this stress reaction. Breathing deeply and slowly sends a “calm down” message to our bodies and helps reverse the stress response. Sometimes, however, a couple of deep breaths won’t be enough. That’s when it’s wise to take a break from the conversation.
2. Take a break
When we feel really upset or “flooded”, often the best thing we can do is take a break until we feel calmer.
So, how long should you take a break for?
Most people guess that it takes them about five minutes to calm down after they get flooded during an argument. However, Gottman’s research suggests that once you get very worked up it will probably take closer to twenty minutes for you to really calm down.
Twenty minutes is a long time. It’s often quite some time after we think we’ve fully calmed down. In fact, most people believe that they have calmed down completely when their hearts are still beating significantly faster than normal.
3. Explain why you’re taking a break
If you need to take a break in the middle of an argument, try to let your partner know what’s going on for you. Don’t just walk out (or disconnect) and leave them hanging.
Try to say something like, “I’m really overwhelmed right now. I do want to discuss this with you but I need some time to think first. Perhaps we can talk in a couple of hours?” This will help your partner understand where you are at instead of just leaving them feeling dismissed and ignored.
Assurances along the lines of “I’ll talk to you about this later, just not right now” are especially important in long distance relationships. Fighting (or knowing your partner is upset or frustrated) is never fun, but it can be especially taxing and unsettling when it happens on the phone. While you’re far apart, make extra efforts to communicate what you’re thinking and feeling during these times. This will help your partner feel safer and make the issue easier to return to.
Now, when you are ready to discuss things with your partner, here are three strategies for making those difficult conversations more productive …
4. Explain what you’re thinking and feeling, and why
As best you can figure out, explain what you are thinking and feeling about the issue in contention, and why. As you do this, try to avoid blaming statements like “you always …” or “you never …”.
One strategy I’ve found useful in the past is the “When you … I feel …” structure. For example: “When you don’t pick up your phone or text me back when we’d agreed to talk, I feel hurt, and I start to wonder how important this relationship is to you.”
5. Ask questions
When in doubt, ask questions!! If you’re confused about something your partner has said or done, ask questions to clarify what they meant. Even if you think you know exactly what someone means, it never hurts to ask questions to make sure you understand them correctly. I guarantee that if you practice asking questions you will sometimes be surprised by just how badly you have misunderstood each other.
When you ask questions, your partner will generally also feel more respected, heard, and understood. Here are some phrases that might come in handy:
- When you said _____, what did you mean by that?
- Can you tell me more about what you meant when you said ______
- So what I hear you saying is _____. Is that about right?
- If I’m understanding you correctly, you want _____. Is that right? Can you explain more about why that’s important to you?
6. Listen carefully
You may have noticed that all of the phrases I suggest above require you to first listen carefully to make sure you understand what the other person is trying to say, and then ask specific questions to clarify.
If you practice listening well and paraphrasing what people are saying back to them, you’ll be surprised at how far this skill gets you (in love and in life).
7. If something’s not feeling quite right, address it directly
If your partner seems flat or distant and you don’t know why, ask them what’s going on and whether there’s something they’d like to talk about.
It’s often easier to just ignore the situation and hope things get back to normal, but reaching out and being proactive can pay off big time. If there is a problem or something your partner is upset or frustrated about, you have a better chance of catching it early and and addressing it before it becomes a major problem.
However, I do have one caveat related to this. If it’s late at night or you know you’re especially tired or stressed, don’t start conversations about very serious or complicated issues with your partner. You can always come back to it the next day.
There you go, seven simple strategies to try.
Which of these strategies are you good at? Which ones need work?
What would you add to the list? What have you found helpful in resolving conflict i your long distance relationship?