Conflict resolution is certainly a broad topic. Let’s narrow it down a bit and go over a technique that has been researched and proven to work.
We’ll look at an example: A married couple is standing in the kitchen disagreeing about how to split the household chores. One partner says he is frustrated with all the work he needs to do at home and how little emphasis is put on having fun as a couple. What should the couple do at this moment?
Some couples therapists recommend a technique referred to as active listening. Active listening involves using “I” statements. For example, “I want us to invest in more fun as a couple” as opposed to “You never focus on having fun.” Active listening also involves mirroring what the other person has said. For example, “I understand you want us to have more fun as a couple.”
However, active listening is not often used in happily married couples. Active listening does not come naturally to us when we feel we are being attacked or in a heated conversation. Instead, we are more inclined to counteract negativity with a negative statement.
Active listening was first created by Carl Rogers, a relational psychotherapist, as a tool for therapists to use with their clients. Active listening usually works well when we are discussing a third party. For example, a client can have negative feelings towards his supervisor at work and the therapist can actively listen and engage with the client about the supervisor (the third party). But in a couple’s disagreements, usually the negative feelings are towards each other as opposed to a third party. So what works when you are in conflict with another person?
Dr. Gottman, a couples specialist located in the Seattle area, writes in his book The Marriage Clinic (1994), about the power of pausing. He conducted a research study where couples were monitored physically (heart rate, breathing, etc.) while in the heat of a disagreement. As the couples’ physical signs of distress began to escalate, the arguments began to escalate as well. At this point, the researchers asked the couples to pause while the researchers needed to adjust some of their equipment. Each person was asked to go to a different room, to relax, and read magazines. After about 15 minutes, the couples came back together and while their physical signs of distress were much lower, they were able to resolve their conflicts.
Taking a break in the midst of a heated argument can be extremely beneficial and practical. Perhaps, we don’t have 15 minutes to sit back and read a magazine. But even taking one minute to breath, monitor your feelings, and reconnect with your deeper intentions for the relationship can help you access your higher mind to resolve your problems.