Conflict in marriage
Relationships, Self

How to manage conflict effectively

Conflict is a fundamental part of communication, and one by which we reaffirm our boundaries, beliefs and sense of self. We grow through disagreements, but they can be uncomfortable and hard to manage. A critical part of becoming a successful, and well-rounded adult is learning how to fight fairly, and do it in a way that allows everyone to win.

When we learn how to drop the petty tactics and start fighting fair, we unlock a secret power within ourselves which empowers us to form stronger relationships and move more easily through both our personal and professional spheres. Learning how to fight as equals is a critical skill, but it only comes through practice, understanding and a few simple but reliable techniques. Master your conflict style and start forming better bonds with your friends, business partners and even your spouses and partners.

If we’re going to fight, we have to fight fair.

Every relationship has its low points, and conflict is an unavoidable part of life. Since we can’t avoid disagreements, the best thing we can do for ourselves (and our loved ones) is learn how to handle those disagreements with integrity and respect. Through these means, we can find the common ground we need to compromise without giving away too much of who we are or what we need to find fulfillment. Fighting fair matters, and when we don’t fight fair, our relationships suffer.

Failing to give one another the space we need to express ourselves maturely can undermine not only our happiness and confidence, but the confidence of our spouses, friends and family members in ways that can be hard to overcome. When we engage in underhanded or belittling conflict styles, we actually caused our loved ones to disengage and that’s something that hurts on a number of levels.

Disengagement most often manifests in the form of lower intimacy levels, more neuroticism and poorer communication and a deterioration of relationship satisfaction. Rather than opening up about what’s hurt us or caused our emotions to hit a high — we fight both defensively and offensively, resorting to the techniques that best allow us to avoid the discomfort of honest confrontation. The problem with this, however, is that the only way out of the discomfort of a disagreement is through it. Fighting fair is the best way to manage these conflicts and the best way to grow through the things that injure us and threaten our relationships.

The common ways we injure our relationships through conflict.

Fighting dirty isn’t anything new. As a species, we’ve been fighting dirty for centuries and it’s gone a long way to undermine our happiness and our personal and professional relationships. From red herrings to the classic straw men argument, fighting unfair is one of the quickest ways to destroy the things that mean the most to us.

Red herrings

A red herring is a distraction, that detracts from the actual issue at hand while forcing you to focus on something relatively unrelated. For example, when you confront a friend or partner about the way they blow you off, they turn the conversation around and bring up that one time you did something different to them a few weeks (or months) earlier. It conveniently distracts from the subject at hand, while shifting blame squarely (and fully) on your shoulders, rather than theirs.

Dismissive blanket statements

There are certain types of blanket statements and dismissals which severely damage our relationships and affect our conflict styles. Statements like, “You’re crazy” are dismissive and toxic, leaning into the territory of gaslighting and placing all the blame on one party, rather than on both. These types of statements can often be signs that an argument is becoming illogical and impossible to resolve in the current moment.

Veiled threats

The veiled threat is a classic staple of dysfunctional conflict. Veiled threats most commonly sound something like, “Agree with me, or else”. While nothing specific is ever mentioned, the threat of an emotional conflict hangs always in the air. It’s a sign that something is amiss in your communication styles and that one side has wrangled all the power from the other. Partners who are subjected to continual threats will only distance themselves over time, leading to further breakdown.

Appealing to heavy hitters

While our friends and family can be important support systems, there are certain aspects of our relationships they should take no part in. Appealing to an authority figure, and then using their decisions to dictate the course of your conflict (or the other party’s part in it) undermines your power. It is also likely to leave the other party feeling aggravated, shut out or unheard.

Straw men

The straw man technique is used frequently by malicious partners who want to discredit an argument by distorting it. This type of arguing also pushes the conflict out into the bounds of illogical, by placing it in the realm of ridiculous with statements like, “Oh, you think I’m doing x? What’s next? I’m not allowed to breathe?”.

False dichotmies

False dichotomies are all about extremes and fallacies like, “You’re right. I’m the devil and you’re just an innocent angel!” It gives only two options — neither one accurate — which are diametrically opposed and exagerrated. It’s a falsely vindicated argument, and one that can turn sinister in nature the longer it’s allowed room to operate in our conflicts.

The best ways to manage conflict and confrontation.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to master the art of fighting fair. Coming to a conflict as equals is an easy process when you learn how to apply a few techniques and keep them in focus every time you find yourself in a disagreement. By de-escalating, embracing the rockiness and discomfort of disagreement and figuring out how to deliver your message without screaming or belittling — you can master the art of fighting fair and strengthen the relationships that matter most in you professional and personal spheres.

1. Embracing the art of conflict

Conflict is a natural part of the human existence, and the most common way by which we overcome issues in order to become better aligned with our internal and external environments. Arguing with other people is not only important, it’s natural. But you have to get comfortable with that fact and learn how to embrace conflict (efficiently) in order to thrive in the real world.

Drop the passive aggressive tactics and face up to your feelings. Don’t stop around or make snide remarks in the hopes that the other person will take the hint or handle the conflict for you. The only way out is through, so start accepting that conflict is necessary in order to get all the bad feelings out.

A part of learning how to embrace conflict is learning how to also embrace people who who and what they are. We’re not meant to get along with everyone, and everyone isn’t meant to be our Best Judy for Life. If you’ve got something to say — say it — and stop holding back because you’re afraid of fessing up to the things that are bothering you or preventing you from being happy.

2. Always aim to de-escalate

Learning how to de-escalate conflict is one of the most important aspects of fighting fair, though it’s often the hardest to accomplish. De-escalation can often go against our stronger natures, and can also insult the sense of justice that we’re seeking. If you truly want to fight fair, you have to learn to stop going from 0–60, and learn how to de-escalate instead.

Drop the below-the-belt tactics and stop looking to blame the other person. Rather than interpreting, labeling, psychoanalyzing, diagnosing or otherwise demoralizing, ordering or threatening — make a sincere effort to drop the negativity and aim for the calm middle-road instead. We can give in to our emotions or we can rise above them. One direction holds success, while the other holds escalation.

You can still express your feeling of injustice or pain without raising your voice or seeking to injure the other person. Drop the stomp-off’s and use humor if you can. By refusing to engage in non-productive forms of conflict and disagreement, you can help calmness to prevail and get to a common ground faster and more efficiently.

3. Don’t downplay or dismiss

Avoiding conflict can often cause us to downplay issues or make them appear more insignificant than they are. Because the emotions that revolve around confronting other people are so unpleasant, we’ll often do anything we can to avoid dealing with those emotions (which can mean burying issues that would be better off brought to the light) especially if we’re the victims of emotional abuse. If you want to become a master of fighting fair, you have to learn how to stop downplaying the issues and start getting honest about what you need and how you feel.

Only one of you needs to feel off-put for their to be a problem in a relationship. It has very little to do with the other person and very much to do with you. Be honest about what’s bothered you, and be clear and firm when you give the reasoning behind that hurt. Ignored issues don’t go away. Face-up and fess-up and address the grievances you have when you have them, and don’t shy away from the more uncomfortable aspects of those grievances.

Our problems — no matter how small — often just need some validation in order to receive the resolution they need to be put to bed. Just sharing how you’re feeling might be enough to put your problems to bed, but you’ll never know until you air out what’s going wrong and make some moves to put it right. You don’t have to agree with one another, but you do have to listen and be honest about how you feel and why.

4. Avoid multi-topic confusion

A fundamental cornerstone of learning how to fight fair is learning how to stick to one (current) topic at a time, leaving the issues of the past in the past where they belong. Quite simply, adding layers of issues only serves to muddy up the waters of the right-here-and-now. If you want a fair fight, you need one that is clear and focused; something which only comes from sticking to the problem and avoiding the tempting pitfall of bringing up the past.

Stick to the single topic at hand and avoid bringing up things from the past. Drop all those irrelevant details and stick to the facts and the facts alone. The only thing that matters is how you feel, how they feel, and what happened. Everything else is superfluous. Don’t bring up the past to make a point in the present. Avoid multi-topic confusion and stick to one issue at a time.

Fighting over different things will only lead to confusion and greater miscommunication between both parties. Learning how to fight fair means learning how to stay on the topic at hand, without falling for the easy trap of guilt-tripping over things that happened yesterday, last week or last year. Pinpoint exactly what is going wrong, and stay there. Don’t let your argument wander, lest it wander into the realms of “better left unsaid”.

5. Keep calm, resolve on

When emotions are at a high, it can cause us to lash out and act out; engaging in theatrical behavior that is both undermining and self-defeating. Being confronted by someone can make us stomp out, storm out and shutdown completely. Perfect elements if you’re looking to cultivate more conflict and unhappiness in your life. Fighting fair requires us to drop the theatrics and focus on techniques and solutions that can bring us the resolutions we desire.

Withdrawing from a fight before the other person has had a chance to come to a resolution with you is immature and dramatic. What’s more, it doesn’t give the other person a chance to listen fairly or express their own opinion, something that’s critical when it comes to resolving conflict.

Like withdrawing, chasing after another person who has stormed out in the middle of a fight is self-defeating and dramatic. Chasing after someone who has exited an argument only gives them power over yourself and the situation. It reinforces the juvenile behavior and tells them — in no uncertain terms — that they are not responsible for clearing the water and coming to common ground with a person they are supposed to care for as equally as themselves.

6. Open up about what you need

Part of the reason we so frequently find ourselves at odds with those around us is because we don’t do a great job of communicating our needs, desires or boundaries — leaving others lost as to how to treat us. Without clearly being openabout what we need we leave people guessing, and this can lead to major conflict and heartache. Getting happy means getting clear, and learning how to communicate our needs and boundaries effeciently.

None of us is a mind reader (sorry, Ms. Cleo’s ghost). Disagreements most frequently occur because we expect something of someone, without making those expectations clear. When that happens, we withdraw, and become hurt, angry and closed off in ways that make it hard to communicate efficiently. Start opening up and start being clear about what you need.

Communicate your boundaries and communicate what you need from others in order to have the ability to relax and be comfortable in your environment. Consider their feelings too — of course — but don’t be afraid to draw your own hard lines where it counts. Only when we start being open about our wants, desires and boundaries can we begin to communicate the expectations that form the basis for both our personal and professional relationships.

7. Don’t engage in yelling

Our emotions are funny things. When you’re sad, you cry, and when you’re anxious or withdraw. Anger is a unique emotion all its own, however, and one that can take over in the climax of our disagreements if we don’t learn how to manage it efficiently.

If you engage in yelling in an argument, you only encourage the other party to do the same and undermine and logical or rational discussion that might take place. When we yell, we hand over our power to our anger, and give it the reins when it should be our brains that stay firmly in control of the situation. Yelling doesn’t serve a purpose, and it won’t make you feel better. If you really want to get through to the other person, you’ve got to keep it level.

Start your engagement, but have enough sense to call things to a stop if you can only revert to raised voices. Suggest a break, and come back to it when you aren’t feeling so out of control of your anger. One really great way to get in touch with your anger and take charge of it (thus preventing yelling during conflict) is to figure out your anger archetype. This knowledge to hand, you can culivate new forms of communication that work better for your style.

8. Avoid absolute language

Absolute language — when used in the midst of conflict — can be a sign of overgeneralization or certain dismissals that undermine any sort of real resolution. When we turn to absolute forms of language like, “always” and “never” we close our own minds and shut the door on any kind of amicable, mutual understanding. Truly tying up a buildup of tension requires staying away from this line-drawing langauge.

Rather than turning to phrases like, “You always do this,” or “You never listen to me,” get specific about what’s going wrong, and get specific about what’s bothering you. Focus on the way the behavior is making you feel and reach for less absolutist and accusatory statements like, “When you go out with your friends, I feel like…” or “When I’m sad, I don’t feel like you’re there for me.”

Generalizations make it seem as though there are no exceptions, and there always are. When we’re in the midst of a heated conflict, it’s important to stay specific and avoid blame-game language that only escalates the situation. Only facts matter when it comes to arguing, and its only those facts which hold true to our own experience that are relevant when it comes to confronting someone fairly.

9. Become an active listener

Because conflict is such an uncomfortable experience, we can often be tempted — even in the midst of a heated argument — to turn to distractions that allow us to “check out”. These distractions, however, take away from finding real common ground, and are likely to wound or insult the other person who has an equal right to address your grievances and be heard.

Bring your body to the conflict and learn how to be present in uncomfortable moments. Leave the cell phone in the other room, and turn off computers, TVs and radios that might be nearby. Listen to what the other person is saying, and lean in to the moment, no matter how uncomfortable it might be.

Arguments keep going if we don’t face them bravely and get to the root of them as they’re live and taking place. When we allow ourselves to be distracted, we miss the opportunity to put things back together and we stop making the real issues the center-point of resolution. If you’ve been confronted by someone you love (or just respect), then have enough self-respect to be present and show up for them.

10. Accept your imperfections

As humans, we can be fickle creatures with more imperfections than strengths and a whole host of small anxieties and insecurities that make it hard to cope. If you truly want to find happiness or peace of mind in your personal and professional relationships, you have to start accepting your imperfections for what they are, and do the same in other people. Imperfection is a part of who we are. Embrace that, and understand that no one is capable of being faultless all the time.

Be open to hearing criticism and be willing to provide honest feedback when it’s your place to do so. Listen to the message your partner, spouse or loved one is giving you — even if it’s hard to hear. We all have our emotions for a reason, allow the other person to share theirs and accept them for what they are.

When it comes to giving your own perspective, be kind and understanding the person on the other side of your message might be just as hurt, just as wounded. Everyone we know is fighting a secret battle, so open up and be open to receiving them for who and what they are in the moment. Separate yourself from what you’re feeling and what you want in the moment and be open to the beautiful imperfections of the mirror that’s sitting on other side of you.

11. Tap into underlying emotions

When people are angry with us, it’s not a nice feeling and not one that is easy to face up to or stand in the spotlight of. Whether or not we’ve done something wrong, conflict isn’t something that is necessarily enjoyed by the great majority of people. Learning how to embrace confict requires embracing the truth of our emotions and how they lurk beneath our anger or indignation.

Anger is a secondary emotion. Though it is a strong one, and one that can easily overwhelm our greater interests or natures, it is most often the result of a mis-match of expectations, or a dissapointment that causes more pain than we’re willing to accept. If you really want to learn how to fight fair, you have to start taking a step back and digging to the root of your issues until you get to the truth beneath.

Only when we respond to the real emotion that’s leaving us at odds with others can we come up with real plans that equal real results. Feeling hurt, insecure or sad are normal parts of the human experience, and ones we have to learn how to embrace alongside our need for healthy conflict. All each of us really wants is to be seen. Start really seeing yourself (and the other person) by respecting (and accepting) the emotions that are really making you feel injured and angry.

12. Get to a middle place

Just because two people disagree does not mean they are doomed to forever be at odds. No matter where we find ourselves with someone else, it’s possible to find a middle way. Not all conflicts can be resolved, but we can find common ground — even if it means compromise.

If you’ve found yourself going around and around in circles, call things to a draw and try to round your disagreement out by finding the middle. Though you might not agree on all the facts or all the points made, you absolutely can find counterpoints that both agree on if you open up your minds and take an honest look at where you’re both at.

Common ground is like a silver lining; there’s always a little there if you have the courage to dig around and look for it. When we find common ground, we find a path to one another, and make it easier to put our differences inside in order to pursue the greater measure of peace. Compromise isn’t a loss. It’s a win for both parties. So, don’t be afraid to reach for the compromise when all else looks lost.

Putting it all together…

Our relationships are a formative part of our growth, and one of the ways by which we reaffirm our sense of self. A part of those relationships — be they personal or professonal — is conflict, whether we like it or not. While disagreements are uncomfortable, they are often the way by which we strengthen both our boundaries and our bonds; two critical components of a happy and fulfilled life.

If you want to get better at fighting fair, start by learning how to de-escalate and calm things down when it starts to get heated. Embrace conflict as a natural part of the process and don’t downplay the issues or muddy the waters by bringing up multiple topics that have nothing to do with the here and now. Avoid absolutist language and drop the theatrics, yelling, blame-games and belittling. All we each want from this life is to be seen and heard. Say what you need to say and be clear about what you need and want, but give the other party the room they need to do the same. Abandon storm-out tactics and shut-out refusals to find common ground. Everything we do in this life is compromise. Start accepting your own imperfections and the imperfections of others so you can get to the root of your emotions and thrive even in the heat of battle. No one controls your emotions and reactions but you.

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