Conflict Management: Four Parts

June 5th, 2010

There are four basic parts to good conflict management. This post provides a very brief overview of these four parts. The Couple Conflict Consultant provides an extensive bank of information for each of the areas listed below.

The first part of conflict management is being able to identify underlying concerns. When couples have conflict, underlying concerns are the real reason they feel upset. The concern is the fuel that keeps their conflict burning. This means that, if they resolve the underlying concern, they will have resolved the conflict. More often than not, couples are unaware of their true underlying concerns, and this makes it extremely difficult to resolve conflict. When you have conflict, do you know what your primary underlying concerns are?

My research has found that most conflicts boil down to only one of two basic underlying concerns. These concerns are called perceived threat and perceived neglect. A perceived threat is when you think that your partner is criticizing you, or blaming you, or trying to control you. A perceived neglect is when you think that your partner not showing enough commitment, or is failing to make a desired contribution to your relationship. To resolve conflict, couples need to be aware of their concerns and they need to find a tactful way to express them.

The second part to conflict resolution is being able to manage your emotions so that your emotions help your reach your goals. My research has identified three types of emotion that are especially common during conflict. I call them hard emotion (feeling angry) soft emotion (feeling sad) and flat emotion (feeling bored). During a conflict, each emotion motivates you to take a different course of action, and each emotion communicates a different message to your partner. It is easiest to resolve conflict, then, when you experience the best emotion for reaching your goals in a given situation. To do this, you need to be aware of your emotions and you need to be clear about your goals. Importantly, the point here is NOT to eliminate emotion. Indeed, humans are emotional creatures. This means it would be both unrealistic and foolish to ignore your emotions. Rather, the thing to do is to manage your emotions so they work for you rather than against you.

The third part to conflict resolution involves communication. To resolve conflict, couples need to express thoughts and ideas tactfully, and to carefully listen and understand what the other has to say. I call this type of communication collaborative engagement. In contrast to collaborative engagement, there are three types of communication that often add heat to conflict interactions. The most common is called adversarial engagement, where couples are critical, blaming, attacking, and defensive. The final two types of communication include retreat, where couples try to avoid conflict, and passive engagement, where couples use an indirect communication to address a conflict. It is important to note that it is normal for couples to use all four of these types of communication. Even the happiest couples use adversarial engagement from time to time. Moreover, each type of communication may have a time and a place where it is appropriate. On some occasions, passive engagement may be the best option. At the same time, if couples want to resolve a conflict, at some point, they will likely need to begin using collaborative engagement. Without collaborative engagement, conflicts are unlikely to reach a satisfying resolution.

The fourth part has to do with the thoughts couples have during conflict. When you have conflict, you are likely to have many thoughts running through your mind. There are three types of thoughts that are especially important. The first is called negative attributions. These include thoughts where you blame your partner for causing a conflict. The second is called negative expectancies. These are where you make a prediction that your partner will do something bad in the future. The third is called partner understanding. This is a positive type of thought where you see things from your partner’s perspective. All three of these types of thoughts can have a powerful force in determining the course of a conflict. So, it is important to be aware of your thoughts, to evaluate your thoughts, and to change your thoughts when you want to do so.

As you can see, there are several important parts to conflict resolution. It takes a substantial investment of time and effort for couples to learn about each of these areas, and to develop skills in each of these areas. But then, things that are worthwhile rarely come easily.

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