Conflict Management Skills For Your Relationship
Over the years, I’ve worked with countless couples and families in conflict. I’ve learnt what works and what doesn’t, and I’ve been informed by the best research available. Time and again, I am reminded of three core conflict management skills that will never fail to dramatically enhance any relationship they are applied to. Here are my essential three:
Skill #1 - Let Go
My first career was acting. I had no idea, as an ambitious, New York theatre student, that my Improvisation for Actors class would form the foundations of my work as a Relationship Coach.
Acting without a script is a bit like climbing without ropes or cooking without a recipe. In the absence of the supports we rely upon for our perceived safety, we are forced to connect with something else.
The climber tunes into her body and its relationship with the rock-face. The cook trusts a collaboration of senses to formulate sublime combinations. And the actor learns to trust in her relationships with fellow actors to invest in each moment they discover together.
They all share two fundamental experiences: The fear and the liberation of letting go of what we think we know, to discover something greater. And if you ask them about this experience, they will agree that there is so much more to be gained from letting go than will ever be lost.
When I sit with clients for the first time, we are all invited to let go. Me, of my models and frameworks, and assumptions about who you are and what you might need. You, of your fears and doubts about the process, and the beliefs you hold about yourself, your partner and your relationship.
It is a well-used analogy that an empty vessel is ready to receive in a way that a full vessel cannot. When we use conflict management skills effectively we begin to let go of the old judgements, beliefs and defences that are holding us back, we begin to empty ourselves in preparation for receiving new, updated stories, that may better serve our relationship today.
Skill #2 - Listen Deeply
In the management of relationship conflict, listening means so much more than being silent. But that’s a good place to start. We can use our silence to practice an awareness of everything our partner is saying. From words chosen to hand gestures or tone and pitch of the voice. We just need to be quiet enough to see and hear it.
And if we manage to let go of our judgements, criticisms and defences, for long enough, we may be ready to truly listen.
The concept and practice of Deep Listening – Dadirri – comes from the Ngan’gikurunggurr and Ngen’giwumirri languages of the Aboriginal peoples of the Daly River region, in the NT. Senior Australian of the Year, 2021, Dr. Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr Bauman AM, describes it in this way:
To know me is to breathe with me, to breathe with me is to listen deeply, to listen deeply is to connect.
We are so accustomed to filling silence with words or actions. And at times of relationship stress we often sweep awkwardness and discomfort under a rug of explanation or defensiveness. There is good reason that actors are trained with the maxim: Don’t just do something, stand there!
As you begin to allow deep listening into your life and relationships, you will experience the benefits: A slower pace, increased calm and the gradual rebuilding of trust.
Skill #3: Turn Towards
Conflict avoidance is just self-preservation, right? I mean, why would you willingly step into a place you perceive as threatening?
But research by relationship expert, Dr. John Gottman, shows us that turning towards our partner, rather than away, is a strong predictor of relationship success.
It is a tragedy of so many relationships that the trials and traumas of life can erode our intimate connection at times when we most need it. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Even at times of great stress, Dr. Gottman tells us, it is possible for us to make small ‘bids’ for reconnection, which represent turning towards rather than turning away.
Bids for reconnection can be as simple as a warm smile or a gentle touch. They can also be calm words that invite positive interactions, however small.
Making bids to stay connected with your partner at times of stress may feel like dragging yourself out of bed to go for a run on a cold morning. But the more this is practiced, the more it becomes a positive habit.
Turn Towards, and Repair
It can be particularly challenging to turn towards one another when we feel hurt and emotionally bruised by our partner.
But our ability to initiate repair with one another, after conflict, is a powerful predictor of continued relationship success.
It will take vulnerability and emotional courage, but it is far more likely to result in a stronger connection than avoiding conflict in the first place.
A bid for reconnection after a fight – whether five minutes or five hours later – tells our partner that we care and have not given up.
Make The Commitment
Sometimes it just takes a mental shift, that takes you in one direction or the other. A Momentary realisation that you really do want your relationship to survive, to thrive, to grow. Maybe reading this article has prompted such a shift.
Successful relationships are built on small, regular actions that choose love over fear, connection over disconnection.
Maybe you are ready to make that commitment and you just need a little support (and don’t we all sometimes). Then relationship coaching may well be just the support you are looking for.