7 Ways to Make Conflict Healthy
The key to healthy conflict is feeling understood.
Posted September 15, 2016
Most research on conflict highlights how bad it is for relationships—couples who fight more are less satisfied with their relationships, fighting predicts divorce and domestic violence, it can impact the well-being of the children at home. But conflict is also inevitable in romantic relationships—you can’t navigate life with another person without occasionally finding yourself at odds with each other over issues big and small. So what are you to do? Is the solution to avoid conflict at all costs? No. Because it isn’t whether you fight, but how you fight that matters.
One way to fight constructively is to switch your perspective from getting your own point of view across to trying to understand your partner’s point of view. Conflicts come in any number of shapes and sizes, but at their heart, they are mainly about not understanding each other. Not understanding what the other person is trying to say. Not understanding why they feel the way they do, not understanding their point of view and why this issue matters to them. Which leads you both to not feel understood.
Bringing understanding into conflict has the power to transform conflict from a negative experience to a positive one. How do I know? Along with my colleague Serena Chen, I ran seven different studies to see what happened when people felt understood by their partners (Gordon & Chen, 2015). And I found in all of those studies that people felt less satisfied with their relationships after conflicts where they didn’t feel understood. But in those conflicts where people felt understood, there was no negative effect on their relationship satisfaction.
We found these results in a number of different ways: People who reported fighting frequently in their relationship but reported feeling understood by their partners were no less satisfied with their relationships than people who rarely fight. People who remembered a past conflict in which they felt understood were no less satisfied than those in a control condition, but those who remembered a past conflict in which they did not feel understood showed negative effects. People who reported on their conflicts every day for two weeks were no less satisfied on days when they experienced conflict compared to days when they didn’t fight with their partner if they felt understood that day. In a laboratory study, couples came into the lab and talked about a source of conflict in their relationship. People who felt understood during the conflict conversation felt more satisfied after discussing a source of conflict in their relationship than when they’d first arrived in the lab. If they didn’t feel understood, they were less satisfied after the conversation than when they’d first arrived in the lab.
Is it just that people are better able to find a solution to their problem if they understand each other? Understanding does aid in conflict resolution, but it turns out that understanding can even help those fights that will never be resolved. Those issues that may stem from political, religious or personality differences, or maybe just different movie preferences. Whatever their source, understanding can help for those fights too. In fact, understanding may be most important when you face issues that cannot be easily resolved, such as different religious or political views. In these situations, understanding allows you to “agree to disagree” when no amount of fighting is going to change your minds.
So what is it about feeling understood that helps alleviate those negative feelings that typically arise after conflict? We found that when you feel understood, it signals to you that your partner cares about you and is invested in the relationship. It also makes you feel like your relationship is strong and worth fighting for. And in the end, feeling understood, especially when your partner has a different opinion than you, just feels good, plain and simple.
So how do you increase understanding during conflict? Here are seven suggestions for how to think and act to maximize understanding during conflict:
- Instead of asserting your own point of view, try to take your partner’s perspective. Make it your goal to understand why your partner feels the way they do.
- Avoid the four horsemen of the apocalypse—criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.
- Give your partner the benefit of the doubt. Assume that their intentions are not malicious.
- Take a moment to reflect on your partner’s positive traits. You can even try some gratitude-inducing techniques.
- Think of you and your partner as a team, rather than opponents. Your goal is to figure out together why you do not see eye-to-eye and find a solution, it is not to win the fight and prove your partner wrong.
- Recognize that it won’t always be easy to follow these suggestions, especially if your partner isn’t playing be the same rules.
- Give yourself a mantra to repeat when you start feeling angry to help you remember your goal—even something as simple as “be understanding.”
Gordon, A. M., & Chen, S. (2016). Do you get where I’m coming from?: Perceived understanding buffers against the negative impact of conflict on relationship satisfaction. Journal of personality and social psychology,110(2), 239.