7 Practical Steps to Cool Down in the Face of Conflict

7 Practical Steps to Cool Down in the Face of Conflict-Cluff Counseling, Marriage & Family TherapyWe have all had conversations where we started to talk calmly about something inconsequential with our partner, but find ourselves in a boxing match where the viability of our relationship seems threatened.  To aid you in staying out of the boxing ring, try these seven ideas to diffuse conflict.

In last month’s post on relationship health, I posted about how to stay connected during conflict. Conflict between two people is unavoidable. We are bound to disagree when we are in a relationship simply because we have opinions and preferences. The problem arises when disagreements define the communication in the relationship. The solution is not to avoid all topics that could cause an argument (because that is impossible), but rather to change how you react in the face of conflict.

When we do not feel connected, it is much easier to lose our patience and to assume our partner is trying to push our buttons and offend us on purpose. A lack of connection can cause escalation–where a simple misunderstanding explodes into a full-blown argument.  Escalation means a rapid increase in the intensity or seriousness of something. In relationships, this looks like a conversation beginning over something simple but instead of calmly conversing about our preferences, we make accusations and blanket statements, and suddenly the argument is about our unsatisfied sex life or unmet emotional needs. And it all began over which way we squeeze the tube of toothpaste!

How and why do we escalate conflict? The underlying reason is because our expectations are not being met. Maybe our partner does not know or realize that we are feeling a lack of emotional or physical connection; thus the deeper need manifests itself through something small and inconsequential.  Escalation is often a sign that there are unmet needs in your relationship. I will have a future blog post dedicated to voicing needs and expectations.

Aside from the true underlying reason  we escalate conflict (unmet needs) there exists a secondary reason for why we escalate: because we are not practicing self-awareness or effective communication in the fact of conflict. There are specific, practical, and actionable things we can try to do, say, and think today that help keep those massive arguments over toilet paper and toothpaste at bay. It will take time and effort to not overreact during arguments, but I can assure you it is possible to do if we make a few tweaks to our verbal and nonverbal communication. I would like to suggest the following 7 practical steps to cool down, become more self-aware, and communicate effectively in the face of conflict:

  1. First, Use the “Three A’s to Get Past Anger” Acknowledge your partner–this can even be with a nod if you are afraid of opening your mouth. Then ask for more information; this helps your partner feel heard and more understood. Finally, add your opinion.
  2. Relax. Take deep breaths. Shake the shoulders. Roll the neck. A calm mind will follow a calm body. Wait out the chemical reaction that may be taking place.
  3. Find a distraction. Choose to think about something else, snuggle a pet, inhale aromatherapy, take a walk, write your feelings, turn on soothing music.
  4. Use humor.There is nothing like some Jerry Seinfeld to diffuse an argument!
  5. See the good.Speak to each other’s positive intent; point out the good in your partner even though you disagree with him/her. For example, “I appreciate that you want to save toothpaste by squeezing from the end of the tube. I admire your economic attitude.” And then work from there to…
  6. Encourage solutions.It is so easy to point fingers during an argument, but this gets us nowhere. Ask your partner, “What would make this situation better?” or “How can we fix this situation in a way you believe will work for us both?” Be proactive instead of perpetuating the all-too-easy cycle of the blame game.
  7. START OVER.Catch yourself in the beginning of a disagreement. Research has shown that the first three to five minutes of a conversation lays the foundation for what is likely to follow. Say, “This is going in a bad direction. Let’s start over.”

Step one is a powerful and important place to start; if you only ever try step one, you are sure to make leaps and bounds of progress in conflict resolution! Those three A’s are absolutely fundamental to avoiding escalation. Even if your blood is boiling and your fists are clenched, acknowledge that you heard your partner so he or she does not think you are ignoring him or her. If you need a moment to gear up for options 2-7, try a shortened version of the “Time Out” that I wrote about in a previous post. To review, begin by clearly telling your partner you need a Time Out; take a few moments to soothe before identifying your primary emotions; and then rejoin the conversation. When you make your way back to your partner, acknowledge him/her, ask questions about his/her perspective, and then add your thoughts. Step one in and of itself is an incredible tool for practicing effective communication…2-7 are just bonus options!

It is always so much easier said than done. Conflict resolution is difficult, yet so necessary in literally every single relationship in our lives. Prepare yourself with the self-awareness and communication skills listed above. I can assure you that these positive habits will impact every relationship you have in your life. If you are in a relationship that is defined by arguing, contact me or set up a session today for more individualized, one-on-one guidance. Together we can redefine your relationship to include a little more effective communication and a great deal less arguing. I am always here and happy to help!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.


How to Stay Connected During Conflict

How to Stay Connected During Conflict - Cluff Counseling - Denton Marriage TherapistSome degree of conflict is unavoidable in lasting relationships. Whether it is your partner, sister, roommate, classmate, coworker, family member, or friend, you are bound to disagree with those with whom you associate closely. The good news is there are ways to both hear and be heard in these tense moments!  Read on to learn more.

The majority of my couples tell me all they really want is to be heard and understood by their partner. When we are in a conversation, with someone we care about, and do not feel heard or understood, we often escalate by raising our voices, repeating ourselves, blaming or even name-calling. These behaviors can inevitably leave both people feeling disconnected and alone, instead of connected and loved. A simple disagreement can easily get out of control if a couple does not have a strategy to de-escalate and reconnect. I am going to present a strategy to you that will partners to stay connected when there is conflict, ultimately saving your relationship.

The idea of Time Out is not anything new, but I find it to be incredibly effective in my practice with my clients, as well as useful in my own personal life. The premise of Time Out is this: “I love you. Because I love you, I do not want to say or do anything that could hurt you. When I recognize that I am getting close to that point, I am going to call a Time Out.”  Time Out is essentially a way to regroup when you recognize that you are growing increasingly hot and bothered and could potentially do some damage to your relationship. Here is how it works:

  • Time Out is called by you, for you. This is not intended to be a way to punish your partner!
  • Call Time Out before it is too late. Tell your partner you need a time-out (for yourself) before you say or do anything that may hurt the relationship. Know your own warning signs so that you can call a time-out early in the process; you may feel flushed, begin crying, notice your voice rising, or begin crying. The longer you wait to call a time-out, the longer it will take to soothe and be ready to come back.
  • Your Time Out should be a pause… but not too long! Your partner may feel like you are walking out on him/her, so agree to reconnect in 30 minutes after a Time Out is called. If you find yourself needing more time after a half hour, communicate that need to your partner, and set a specific time when you will reconnect.
  • Use Time Out to soothe.  Calm yourself down and try to clear your mind so you can come back and communicate clearly and effectively. Ways to soothe include: focusing on deep breaths, going on a run, listening to peaceful music, taking a drive, cuddling a pet, or a participating in a creative outlet.
  • Write during Time Out. Some of us are able to work through our feelings by writing them down, which also enables us to convey said feelings to our significant others. Try using “I” statement to take ownership of your feelings to help you understand why you felt those feelings and needed a Time Out. “I” statements look like this: “I feel ______ because of _______”; or, “When you did ______, I felt _____.”
  • Come back! Come back to your partner once you have soothed, written down your feelings and have a plan on how to stay grounded when reconnecting with your partner. You each should then take turns reading your written-out feelings with your partner, while the other simply listens and then repeats back what they have heard. This is not a time for a rebuttal or to defend yourself!

When you use time-outs effectively, you will be amazed at how recurring arguments you and your partner seem to have suddenly disappear. You will find that you not only have deeper understanding of your partner, but you are also practicing healthy communication tools that will apply to and improve all aspects of any relationship. Remember that this kind of success is possible but will take time; if you do not succeed at first…keep trying!  I have helped innumerable couples with couple resolution, and am confident in my ability to help you and your partner communicate more effectively and peacefully. Should you find you need more immediate attention, please contact me today or schedule your first session for help tailored specifically to your situation.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.