Our Greatest Conflict Mistakes

We can learn to do conflict more effectively. The reality is that many of us don’t have great role models in our family or history.

What we know from Gottman’s research, is that the first thing to think about is how we start a conversation about something that’s upsetting us.

The window of opportunity to have a conversation starts with the first 180 seconds. In fact, according to Gottman’s in ‘Fight Right’ that is how long we have to get off on the right foot. After this, the trajectory of the conversation may be impossible to correct. Depending on our words, our tone, and our body language, we can influence whether the outcome of the conversation is greater understanding or deeper misunderstanding and hurt.

Conflict Mistake # 1 – Harsh Start-Up

The Gottman’s reviewed over 4000 couples through their love labs and they came to a stark discovery. They could predict, with 90% accuracy, whether a couple would stay together or end in divorce, within the first three minutes of a conversation. This is incredible.

The first three minutes are so critical to a conflict conversation. It can determine the outcome. This means that we can have a huge impact on the outcome if we work on those first three minutes. When we start our conversations with a ‘harsh start up’ we are setting ourselves up to fail.

A harsh start-up has a couple of key traits:

  1. We begin with criticism – Why are you such a slob? Can’t you just put the clothes in the basket?
  2. We describe the person and not ourselves or the behaviour – – You always leave your clothes all over the floor. It takes ten seconds to put them in the basket.
  3. We pile on other resentments we’ve been harnessing – ‘plus you never care about helping out with the kids, you always forget to arrange the pick-ups and you can’t even bother to message me when you’re away. You are such a bad husband’.

The solution – getting off on the right track

Being able to start a conversation with a soft or gentle start-up will change the trajectory of the conversation. It allows our partners the opportunity to reflect on what we are saying without immediately needing to defend themselves. We are more likely to get what we need from the conversation, empathy and greater understanding.

What is a gentle start-up?

It has three parts:

I feel X

The problem is Y

I need X.

We need to make sure we can share how we are feeling with feeling words like “I feel sad”. This is an opportunity for you to express yourself and your feelings.

We then need to describe the problem ‘when I don’t go to the cinema as we’d planned. Describing the problem, our experience, and not the other person. Finally, we express what we need ‘I need to know that we can stick to our plans’.

Voicing our complaints with a gentle start-up will allow our partners to listen to our feelings, our concerns, and our needs. It will help avoid the inevitable defensiveness which occurs at the feet of our harsh start and set off a cascade of criticism and defensiveness interactions that lead to deeper divides and disappointment.

Inevitably, there is no guarantee that our partner won’t still react defensively when we use a gentle start-up. However, the odds are reduced.

Conflict Mistake #2 – Needing to persuade

Often conflicts unravel when we are invested in persuading our partner to see things the way we do. Instead, we want to approach conflict as an opportunity to deepen our understanding of our partner’s perspectives.

We do this by following what our partner is saying like a train on its track. We park and put aside our perspective on the situation instead invest all our attention and energy in listening to our partner and understanding how they came to form these ideas and perspectives. We interrupt the impulse to prepare a response (often defensive) and lean into our curiosity.

Instead, we work on becoming great listeners

When we are in the listener role, as in, we are listening to our partner’s experiences or complaints, we want to:

  1. Postpone our perspective and just listen. This is not your time to speak about what you think or how you feel. You will get your chance.
  2. If you don’t understand something, be curious. Ask questions. But be mindful that these are not to influence or persuade. They are just to deepen your understanding of their perspective.
  3. Make sure you summarize your partner’s feelings, the problem, and their needs. Do this regularly until your partner says that you have understood them.
  4. Offer validation – the icing on the cake. Share how you understand their perspective. How it makes sense. Knowing what you know about them, their history, and their values, this would feel this way.

The more you practice using the gentle start-up and being a good listener the deeper your understanding of each other will be.

If you want more help learning how to do this, reach out to one of our couples therapists.