Shouting couple resolving a tough conflict

Successfully Resolving Tough Conflicts

When you're in a relationship with another person, sooner or later you'll experience your fair share of conflicts.

But how do you successfully work through the tough conflicts? In this article, we'll

  • talk about intense conflict;
  • examine how your expectations and attitude influence your behavior in conflict situations;
  • delve into why it's so hard to behave constructively during conflicts; and
  • discover the best way to deal with tough conflicts (along with action steps you can take to increase your chances to put that conflict behind you).

Recently, a tradesman showed up at our house.  He wanted his money.  There was just one little problem.

He had done some work for us, and I thought it was really substandard.

So I wrote him an email telling him my concerns, and that I'd like him to fix the issues before I paid.  He didn’t answer.  I wrote another email, slightly more incensed.  No answer.

I ended up writing him ten (!) emails which were all ignored. Eventually, I just came to expect we'd never hear from him again.

So when he just showed up the other day—out of nowhere, with no announcement he was coming—I lost it.

What possibly might have been some kind of rational discussion ended up in a shouting match.

I felt I had good reason to be super-pissed-off at him.  He seemed to believe he had reason to be equally angry at me.

Sure, he was wrong.  So wrong!  What a jerk!

Your attitude and expectations influence your behavior during conflict

The problem is that the mental set with which I went into that unfortunate encounter—that I was dealing with a total jerk—ensured that nothing would get resolved.

And of course, nothing did get resolved.  We are both just even angrier than we were before.

If blow-ups like this one happened just with the stray tradesman, we all would be pretty lucky.  But we all know that’s not the case.

They can happen with anyone, including (and particularly with!) people we love—even our intimate partner.  And those heated arguments almost never go anywhere.

I’m embarrassed to say that my own research of some years back told me exactly how to handle the situation yesterday.  I knew what to do.

I just didn’t do it.

The research was on styles of conflict resolution. Our series of studies showed three consistent results:

  1. People do have fairly consistent styles for resolving conflicts.  For example, some people resort to physical violence; others to economic retaliation; others to verbal abuse; still others to pretending the conflict does not exist; and yet others to seeking to involve third parties.
  2. The styles differ greatly in their effectiveness.
  3. One style was almost always the most effective.  This third finding was the most compelling in the series of studies.  The best course of action was almost always the same.

Your solution for almost all conflicts: the step-down style

The style that most often maximized conflict resolution was what I called a “step-down” style.

A step-down style has a number of features that make it so effective:

1. Put your emotions aside

It means trying to reduce the heat—putting the emotion aside and doing one’s best to discuss things in a cool, rational, and balanced manner.

Yes, in many cases this first step is also the most difficult one.

If you already know that you have trouble keeping your cool in conflict situations, make a plan now so that you're prepared when the time comes.

Here are some ideas to get you started. If you're too upset to have a constructive conversation, tell your partner and take a time out. To calm down, you can

  • breathe slowly and count from 1 to 10 (or 100, or however long you need);
  • call a friend or loved one who can help you calm down;
  • close your eyes and imagine yourself in a happy situation or a beautiful place;
  • take a walk or do some physical exercise;
  • tell yourself that being upset does not help resolve anything;
  • distract yourself with a physical stimulus - splash some cold water in your face, hold an ice cube in your hand or put an ice pack on your arm.


2. Look out for your own needs as well as those of your partner

You seek to be wise—you balance your needs with theirs.

We often assume that we know what our partner wants and needs, but we're just as often wrong in our assumptions.

Make a point of asking your partner about their feelings, needs, and desires. In-depth conversations about feelings and needs often get lost in the hectic events of everyday life.

You may be surprised at what your partner has to say. Give it a try!

3. Aim to find a win-win solution

Don't worry so much about who is “right”—you both think you are right!

Instead, think about how you can reach some kind of middle ground that will make no one very happy but everyone at least somewhat happy.

Try to balance interests rather than focusing on proving who is right.

Instead of trying to win by beating the other person (or people), you seek to win by working with the other person (or people).

How do you find a compromise? Here are some pointers that may help you along:

  • Make sure you've listened to each other (see above);
  • discuss your options and
  • stay respectful (!);
  • try to see the situation from your partner's perspective;
  • thing long-term;
  • keep in mind that your decision has to work for both of you but doesn't have to be your most favored compromise;
  • and most of all, stick with your decision!

Why is it so hard to get things right in the middle of an argument?

Why don’t people just do this automatically? A few reasons.

First, once your anger is all aroused, you have to let go to resolve a conflict successfully; that’s hard to do.  You want to hit harder, and instead you have to stop hitting altogether.

Second, you probably won’t get all you want.  You are seeking a solution that is at least minimally satisfactory to all parties but that likely is not thrilling to any of them.

Third, you don’t get revenge—you don’t get to keep telling the other person what a loser they are.

Finally, it doesn’t always work.  Usually, it does.  But if you are dealing with a narcissist, a psychopath, a Machiavellian, someone driven by vengeance, someone who is truly stupid, or someone who is just an ordinary jerk, they will see your stepping down as a sign of weakness and try to take advantage of it.

Hopefully, your romantic partner is none of these.  In that case, step-down will, nine times out of ten, be the best path to solution of a conflict.  You each give something up to accommodate the other.

Karin and I have our disagreements and even our conflicts.  I don’t think we do so consciously, but we almost always end up resorting to the step-down strategy for resolving our conflicts. It works for us.

Chances are nine out of ten it will work for you too. Try it!

If you're interested in reading more about the  role of mindfulness in conflict resolution, check out this article here.

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