Conflict isn't something we enjoy. And yet, it raises its ugly head at the most inappropriate times.
You've just woken up to what should be a relaxing and most enjoyable Sunday morning. The sun is shining brightly and the snow is sparkling through the window.
Your plan was to spend a comfy morning at home, lounging around and having an extended breakfast. In the afternoon you and your partner wanted to go check out the latest exhibition of figures carved in ice in the pedestrian zone of your town.
Before you are even really awake, you trip over your partner's clothes on the way to the bathroom. You catch yourself, move on to the kitchen, and find that there's no more coffee left even though you had put it on the shopping list. Worse, you hear your partner loudly slurping that last cup.
You try to gently point out that it was their turn to do the shopping, but a big fight ensues about chores and responsibilities in the household.
Your day is not even 20 minutes old and you're all ready to crawl back into bed and wait till the day is over. The last thing you feel like is spending any more time with your partner today.
Sound familiar? How do you usually react when you’re having a conflict with your partner?
I bet there is a common way in which you handle things. Maybe you’re the one who withdraws, or maybe you’re one to feel insulted and threatened easily and thus quickly move to a counterattack.
But is there a best way how to resolve conflict in relationships?
What’s your Style in Conflict?
There are five common ways in which people react to conflict. You can be avoiding, accommodating, competing, collaborating, or compromising:
You are afraid that the conflict will grow bigger or that you’ll say something that will offend your partner. Or maybe you’re worried that you won’t be able to keep your emotions in check. Maybe conflict with a loved one just feels overwhelming to you. So you withdraw and try to avoid the conflict altogether.
You’re afraid that the conflict you are experiencing might damage the relationship with your partner. Or perhaps you worry that standing up for your own interests will make you look selfish or overly aggressive. So you accommodate to your partner’s demands in order to end the conflict as soon as possible.
You feel wronged or insulted, and you want to ensure you’re being treated rightfully. You want to win the argument because you always want to win. Or you feel you have to fight because you’re afraid of the consequences if you might lose. So you fight until the bitter end, sometimes losing sight of whether the issue at hand is really worth fighting for.
You are trying to collaborate with your partner in such a way that both of you end up on top. This means you're trying to find a solution to the conflict where both you and your partner win. Typically, everybody ends up being pleased with a collaborative solution.
You try to solve conflicts by finding a compromise. A compromise appeases both partners to some extent but generally also leaves them dissatisfied with some part of the solution.
None of these five ways is good, bad or inappropriate per se. They all have their place. But which way of approaching a conflict is best depends on the situation.
Humans are creatures of habit. You have your own personal way of how you tend to handle conflict. You react the way you always react, instead of choosing the way that would be most appropriate in a given situation.
And this is where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness helps you deal with your emotions and make the best of any conflict situation - that is, deal with the conflict matter-of-factly while trying to solve it as quickly as possible in a way that makes both you and your partner as happy as possible.
A Word about Your Brain
Before we dive in, let me just state the obvious in case the obvious is not, in this case, obvious! We are all humans. We all feel emotional at times and experience a wide range of emotions when we’re facing a conflict.
This is normal.
But it is not necessarily helpful.
There’s always someone to blame, right? So who is it?
It’s your AMYGDALA! The amygdala is a part of your brain that triggers anger and is responsible for fight or flight responses. It can override your prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for logical thinking and reasoning.
It’s likely when you are in the middle of a conflict that you can’t think clearly. It’s not your fault; it’s just something to be aware of so you can deal with it adequately when it happens.
Mindfulness can help you calm down and make better decisions (or at least, avoid the worst) when you’re in the heat of the battle.
How to Use Mindfulness Techniques in the Middle of a Conflict
When you’re feeling very angry or distressed, it can be hard to calm down or focus. But this is exactly when mindfulness can be particularly helpful.
Use the acronym RAIN to remember the steps you can take. This acronym was first used by Michele McDonald, and it has four steps. It’s OK to tell your partner that you are really upset right now and that you need a little break before talking with them.
R — Recognize
- Pause first. Do not lash out.
- If you have trouble stepping back and pausing, try to concentrate on your breath, feeling how you breathe in and out and how your body moves with your breath
- Try to identify your feelings: Are you hurt or angry; do you feel insulted, embarrassed or humiliated? It can be helpful to give a name to your feelings. Sometimes, we have trouble identifying exactly what is going on. For example, at first you may believe you are angry, but at closer examination, realize that you are really embarrassed much more than angry.
- What are your thoughts and fears?
A — Allow
Allow for things to be as they are. There’s no right or wrong way to feel. Just take the moment as it is and let your feelings wash over you. Realize that those intense feelings will soon be gone again, and it’s OK to have them.
I — Investigate
You do not always need this third step. Often, just accepting your feelings and letting them flow through you is enough. However, when you are dealing with more complex situations like marital conflict, you might be well advised to investigate the issue and your feelings in more depth.
Ask yourself questions like the following:
- What event has triggered your reaction?
- Has the same kind of event triggered this kind of reaction before?
- Why do you experience that reaction?
- What are my feelings telling me?
- Is there another perspective on or interpretation of what is happening?
N — Non-identification
This is the last step in the process, and one where you do not have to do anything. It just comes naturally. Once you’ve gone through the steps before, you realize that, while you are experiencing a difficult situation, that situation is not you. You are not your feelings and sensations. They are just part of your experience, and your experiences are constantly changing. You are now able to stand back and see things in a less personal and involved way.
If you would like to try a RAIN meditation, you can find one here.
Once you are ready to speak, use the techniques we discussed last week for mindful speaking.
Some More Tips on Conflict Resolution
Since we’re talking about conflict situations, here are some additional tips to keep in mind for navigating the situation:
- Our research has found that, for tough conflicts, one particular style of conflict resolution works best. Find out how to use it here.
- Be open to the perspective of your partner. There may be other ways to interpret the situation. Often, people have different viewpoints, neither of which may be wrong. Try to understand the position of your partner.
- Stick to the facts - do not insult your partner
- Try to work together toward a resolution, and try to realize that solution together.
- And last but not least: Forgive. When you hold on to your anger and disappointment, everybody suffers: you, your partner, and your relationship. Carrying grudges does not help. We all make mistakes and at some point it is time to move forward.
This article is part of a series on mindfulness in relationships. If you liked it, also check out our introduction to mindfulness as well as our articles on mindful listening and mindful speaking.