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A Peek Inside My Brain: 9 Steps to Effective Conflict Resolution

Several years ago during a couples’ counseling session, a client asked me how my wife and I went about resolving our conflicts. What were the steps we took to ensure a positive outcome?

Honestly, the question shocked me a little. I hadn’t really thought about it before. Our pattern of conflict resolution was, as I assume it is for most couples, just something that had quietly evolved over almost two decades of being together. But we did do a good job of resolving things, so I decided to try to tackle my client’s question.

I came back to the client at the next session with a list of  6 Questions for Conflict Resolution that I use in my head to help direct the conversation in a positive way.

Since then, many couples have found this list helpful, and have used it to help them resolve their conflicts more effectively.

Recently, however, I realized that while I am using these 6 questions, there is a lot more going on in the background of my mind.

So, in an effort to itemize my mental process as I work my way through these questions, I have come up with the following 9 things that I am trying to do in order to answer these 6 questions effectively.

Please note that if I am so angry that the adrenaline is pumping like a marching band through my veins, I cannot do any of these steps or answer any of these questions well. Therefore, in order for any of the following things to be done in a mature and loving manner, one must calm down to the degree that he/she is willing to listen to and work with their spouse, instead of arguing with them.

I hope that as I quickly list the 9 steps below they will assist you in resolving your conflicts effectively with your partner as well.

1. Identify the issue

This sounds easy, but it really isn’t. Most of us assume we understand the issue from the outset. But we really don’t. We only know what we think the issue is. To truly resolve an issue in a marriage, both partners must be willing to heal their spouse’s view of the issue, not their own. Therefore, you must temporarily put what you think to the side and seek to:

A) Boil down into one sentence how your partner defines the issue. Focus on how they are thinking about the problem, not to disprove them but to understand how they intellectually conceptualize what is the root problem.

B) Boil down what your partner feels about the issue into one word. It is of paramount importance that you reduce it to only one word. This will begin the process of moving you out of your head and into your heart. If you can’t think of many feeling words, click here.

2. Reflect these interpretations back to your partner

See if you are understanding their perception of the issue accurately. (If your spouse is trying to do this step with you but is just not getting it, you may make non-aggressive requests of them, so that they understand what you need. In order to do this effectively do not make demands and do not use “you” statements or ask “why” questions. This will decrease defensiveness and encourage dialogue.)

3. Find a memory

Once your partner says that you are understanding them correctly, find a memory in your life when you felt a similar feeling as your spouse is feeling at this moment. Allow that feeling to bubble to the surface and hold onto it as you go through the remaining steps. This should help you begin the empathetic journey you need to make towards your partner and increase a desire to heal the relationship, instead of just getting your way or proving your point.

4. Remind yourself that your relationship is more important than your pain or being right.

Use the emotional connection you have with your partner from step 3 to help you communicate to your partner that you are their ally, not their enemy in this process. You may not like or agree with what has happened but you want to preserve the “one flesh” union between you at all costs.

5. Own your part of the problem

Examine how you contribute to the issue your partner has identified and own it. Use an “I was wrong when…” statement to communicate responsibility for your part in the problem.

6. Identify the ideal

Define how the two of you want the relationship to work. Discuss the ideal way you want this problem to be resolved in order to define a target you can work on together. Having a common goal is essential to good teamwork and should not be neglected in this process either. However, these ideals cannot be situational or behavioral changes alone. Therefore:

A) Go back to 1b and find the opposite of your partner’s original negative feeling about this issue in order to identify what your partner desires. Remember, arguments are not only about a difference in opinions but are also about unmet emotional needs. Their emotional desire for this issue, therefore, is of the utmost importance so that you can help move the solution in a direction that provides this positive feeling for them.

B) This desire will also be only ONE word. Without identifying it in this way, you will most likely pursue fixing an idea, opinion, or belief, but not a feeling. And feelings must be resolved. Without understanding how your spouse’s heart is wounded and working hard to provide the emotional need that they desire, you will continually have the same argument over and over again, just in different situations. The emotional desire must be met in order to keep this from happening.

7. Identify which strategies you are willing to implement to make things better

A) Go back to 6a and ask “How can I help my partner feel what they desire to feel?”

B) Remember, your goal is not to make them happy. This only leads to you trying to placate them so that you can get out of trouble. Such behavior is only fueled by fear. Rather, let your actions come from a position of love so that what you do expresses how much you value them.  This will most likely produce happiness (without happiness being the goal) because it will show you are more invested in protecting their heart than your rear end.

8. Actively follow up on these strategies to ensure that you follow through.

If necessary, create a structure that keeps you accountable to yourself, because promise without continuation and completion is not only personal failure but may also be interpreted by your partner as lying, placating, cowardice, and rejection.

9. Continually evaluate progress, both on your own and with your spouse.

No one gets anything right the first time they try to make a change to themselves, and all of us have blind spots to areas of ourselves that prohibit us from seeing how to heal the whole issue. For this reason, we must go outside of ourselves to receive feedback. We must make ourselves vulnerable to our spouse and be willing to be influenced by them by asking the hard questions, such as (but not limited to) “How am I doing?”, “What do you see that I’m not seeing about how this issue affects me?”, and “Is the work I’m doing helping you feel more (insert feeling from 6a here)? If so, how? If not, what could I do better?”

This may be a completely different way of approaching conflict than you have ever done before, because it forces you to focus on helping your spouse, instead of helping yourself. If we can each take a selfless approach in disagreements, we will find that we never have to feel like we are being torn apart, creating disconnection, or having to fight for our unmet emotional needs. In other words, we don’t have to argue. We can just discuss things and resolve them in a way that loves the other person as much as we love ourselves.


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