Fearless You

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The 4 Steps You Should Take Before Dealing With a Conflict

Discover the "CALM" system for relationship troubles.

Do you leap right into potentially challenging conversations with your partner? Or do you avoid discussing topics that could lead to conflict? The best approach may be a combination of choosing your battles and waiting until you feel internally secure before raising those issues.

This four-step CALM system could help you approach such challenges:

C = Center yourself first.

Dr. George Pransky’s Relationship Handbook (Pransky and Associates, 2013) discusses the disruptive role of insecurity in communication. He suggests that you refrain from any difficult conversations when you are feeling insecure. Instead, wait until you know you'll be able to welcome whatever response your partner or spouse offers.

How do you calm yourself? Start to familiarize yourself with effective methods to shift out of unhelpful negative emotions that interfere with effective communication, such as rage, hopelessness, shame, and panicThe REBT Super-Activity Guide (Garcy, Createspace, 2009) offers training exercises to change your underlying philosophies about yourself, others, and life, leading you to become more effective in your relationships. Strategies such as relaxation training and mindfulness are also proven methods for self-calming, and combine well with shifting your internal philosophical stance.

Self-calming and mindfulness also allow you to increase your awareness, empathy, responsiveness, and connectedness to your partner. Those who are more sensitive to emotional bidding, Dr. John Gottman writes in What Makes Love Last (Simon and Schuster, 2013), tend to have less conflict and are less prone to divorce.

A = Appreciate your partner. 

Before a possible conflict, take a moment to notice what your partner has been doing right or well. Even if you do so only silently, it will help you to recognize your partner’s efforts and decrease what Dr. Albert Ellis identifies as the derivatives of toxic and demanding thinking: awfulizing, low frustration tolerance, and people-rating.

If you are truly calm and express your appreciation openly, it serves as positive reinforcement for your partner’s beneficial actions. People sometimes stop themselves from openly expression of appreciation in such situations because they believe doing so allows their partner to "win" an argument. But this is about building a relationship that is fulfilling in the long-term, and not about short-term victories which feel good in the moment (short-range hedonistic benefit) but erode overall relationship functionality (long-range hedonistic cost). 

Researchers have found that couples have two primary concerns during a conflict: perceived threat and perceived neglect (Sanford et al., 2010, Psychological Assessment, 2010; 22 (2): 288). Expressing appreciation may be a strategy for diffusing these perceived threats for your partner. In addition, researchers have found that people are less aggressive when they perceive happiness (Penton-Voak, et al., Psychological Science, 2013).

Finally, everyday expressions of gratitude tend to serve as a “booster shot” for romantic relationships, according to Algoe and colleagues (Personal Relationships, 2010). Attending to the positive allows your attitude to become more optimistic and happy, thereby opening your partner up to listening to you, and ultimately leading to more effective problem solving.

The moral: Prior to discussing a challenge, spend some time in sincere appreciation, admiration, and gratitude for your partner.

Also, remember to take time to affirm and appreciate yourself before approaching a challenge. This will help you to lower your stress level and be more creative. Creswell and colleagues found that even brief self-affirmation could reduce the harmful effects of being stressed and improve your creative problem solving (PLoS ONE, 2013). 

L = List. 

Putting pencil to paper may allow you to have greater working memory, the RAM of your brain. The more available memory you have to think with, the more effective your analytical problem solving (Wiley, et al., Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(4), 2012). Consider listing the problems that you and your partner are struggling to solve. Then focus on those you think you can solve together, prioritize the list and have a problem-solving meeting with your partner on your top concern. Limit problem solving to only one problem per week, brainstorm solutions and select the best outcome together.

M = Manage your agreement, not your partner. 

Although not about couples' relationships, Steve Chandler’s The Hands-Off Manager (Career Press, 2012) describes one of the keys to getting along with another person: managing your agreements with him or her, rather than your expectations. This principle applies surprisingly well to personal relationships, as it considers the positions of both people and keeps you in problem-solving rather than finger-pointing mode.

Your expectations are your ideas about what is supposed to happen in your relationship, but they are often unexpressed. If you have not clearly communicated what you want, or have made a request that your partner hasn’t agreed to fulfill, and you then behave as though there was a clear agreement on the expectation, you’re likely to be very disappointed.

To avoid disappointment, check yourself by asking, “Did my partner and I form a true agreement on this, or am I only assuming we did?” Revisit your discussion and confirm that both of you not only truly agree to do your part but also have methods for fulfilling the mutual agreement. When you manage your agreements, make sure that you create a plan that will lead to success for both of you.

Pamela D. Garcy, Ph.D., serves on the faculty of the Texas School of Professional Psychology at AU-Dallas.

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