How to Soften the Conflict in Your Relationship

Posted on September 21, 2015 by Shawn Friday, MEd, LPC, CEAP

How many times have you been in an argument with your partner, or witnessed an argument by another couple? How often did the conversation come to a satisfying conclusion?

Avoid Hard Starts

According to researcher and psychologist John Gottman, PhD, the vast majority of conversations couples have regarding a conflict will end the way they began. If started in a “hard” or contentious way, the likely outcome is more frustration and escalated conflict. If started in a “soft” way, the outcome is more likely positive. Many arguments begin because one party has escalated the conflict with a critical or contemptuous comment in a confrontational tone.If you have a concern you need to address, whether it’s with your partner, a coworker or a friend, Gottman recommends following these 10 rules for a softer start up and a more successful outcome.

10 Rules of Successful Conflict

  1. Be brief. Complaining that goes on and on will lead to the other person ceasing to pay attention. One or two examples are okay. More is not.
  2. Complaining is okay, blaming or criticizing is not. Complaints should be made with respect, specificity and clarity. Blaming and criticizing – for example, beginning statements with you always, you never, or you’re a jerk, slob, know it all, etc. – will be perceived as an attack.
  3. Start with something positive. This will make it far more likely your concern will be heard. For example, a statement like, “I like it when you look at me while I’m talking to you” will work better than, “you obviously don’t care what I have to say”.
  4. Use “I” statements rather than “you”. “You” statements will sound accusatory and practically guarantee a negative response.
  5. Describe, but don’t judge. Describe what you see happening without blaming or accusing. Be tentative regarding the accuracy of your perceptions; they may be wrong.
  6. Make requests for change, not demands. Be clear about what you need. Most people are not very good mind readers, so don’t expect they should know your wishes unless you say something.
  7. Be polite. It will go a long way in your relationship. Not being polite because you are waiting for the other person to do it first, or because you don’t believe they deserve it, will put you in the group of couples who have an increased risk of divorce.
  8. Don’t store things up. Waiting to bombard your partner with multiple complaints may feel good at the moment when you blast them, but it is highly damaging. Address issues as they arise.
  9. Express appreciation. This can be for things in the past you would like more of, or any positive action or trait. Most people feel good when hearing they are appreciated.
  10. Minimize expressions of anger or resentment. They are likely to result in your partner becoming defensive. Behind anger and resentment are softer emotions which are more easily heard by your partner. Speak about your feelings using these softer emotions, such as hurt, fear, frustration, sadness, insecurity, etc.

For more information on this concept and others, check out the Gottman Institute. Visit the VITAL WorkLife Blog and be sure to read next month’s post on communication in your relationships to learn how to avoid “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” blockers of effective communication in relationships.

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If you have concerns about your relationship, would like help developing healthy patterns of behavior or are facing a life-challenge of any type, take advantage of your EAP Benefit through VITAL WorkLife.


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