Linda Wasmer Andrews

Minding the Body

Conflict in Your Relationship? Try Taking a Walk Together

Walking side by side may help with resolving interpersonal conflict.

Posted Jun 21, 2018

Max Topchii/Shutterstock
Source: Max Topchii/Shutterstock

Picture this: You and your romantic partner, best friend, or office mate have been bickering for days. Your attempts to sit down and talk things out have gone nowhere. Finally, you suggest taking a walk together.

As you stroll along side by side, you feel some of the tension from the last few days start to melt away. Without even thinking about it, the two of you begin to match each other's stride. As you start talking through your issues, your thoughts suddenly seem to be more in step as well.

Just a few hours ago, your efforts to end the conflict were at a standstill. Now, you’re finally moving toward a resolution.

This scenario has played out many times in my life. Researcher Christine Webb, Ph.D., a postdoc fellow in psychology at Emory University, says she has been there, too. In fact, that’s what prompted her to write a thought-provoking article about walking and conflict resolution for American Psychologist last year. “When you’re walking with someone, you just feel like your forward momentum is not purely physical, but also psychological,” Webb told me. “You begin to feel more connected to the other person.”

Moving forward together

Webb notes that the descriptive language we use for mental states can be revealing. In the case of a stubborn conflict, it’s often likened to a barrier to movement. We talk about “feeling stuck,” “not budging,” and “being at a standstill." Conversely, the resolution of conflict is often likened to forward movement. We talk about “moving on, “putting it behind us,” and “getting past” a disagreement.

Evidence suggests that these common expressions give rise to an important insight: When you’re mired in conflict with someone, going for a walk together may help the two of you get unstuck and make progress toward resolving your differences.

Walking shoulder to shoulder

One advantage of going for a walk — as opposed to, say, sitting across a table from one another — is that you’re standing side by side. “You’re facing the world together, and I think this position helps put people in a cooperative mindset,” Webb says.

Interestingly, that observation has also worked its way into our language. Merriam-Webster defines “shoulder to shoulder” as “united together to achieve a shared goal.” By comparison, face-to-face negotiation often takes on a much more confrontational tone, and Merriam-Webster defines “toe-to-toe” as “slugging it out at or as if at close range.”

Feeling in step

Studies show that people walking side by side naturally tend to synchronize their movements. In fact, this tendency is so deeply ingrained that even dogs will synchronize their activity when walking unleashed with their owners — moving when their human moves, stopping when their human stands still, and gazing in the same direction.

Research indicates that this kind of bodily synchrony can lead to more emotional or cognitive synchrony,” Webb says. Specifically, coordinating movements with someone else may promote feeling more connected and motivated to help, as well as liking the other person more. These feelings, in turn, set the stage for greater cooperation.

Now we’re getting somewhere

Walking has been linked to divergent thinking — creative thinking that solves a problem by generating multiple solutions and coming up with novel ideas. In one study, volunteers performed creative tasks while either standing in place, walking in a set pattern, or walking freely. Walking promoted divergent thinking better than standing still — and free walking was more effective than following a predetermined path.

Divergent thinking may help you and your walking partner come up with fresh ideas for resolving your conflict. At the same time, walking also helps increase positive feelings and decrease stress — two more ways it creates a mindset that’s conducive to getting along.

Tips for walking and talking

  • Take the first step by asking the other person to join you for a walk. If your invitation is accepted, you’re already making progress. “The person has agreed to do something together that’s outside the conflict,” Webb says. “This reinvokes the sense that you’re still a team.”
  • Pick a location where the two of you can walk in nature, if possible. You’ll have more privacy and less distraction. There are fewer obstacles to navigate around than on a busy city sidewalk, which makes it easier to match up gaits. Plus, there’s evidence that simply being out in nature may encourage a more positive interaction. One study showed that a 20-minute stroll through a park helped moms and daughters get along better than walking in a mall.
  • Keep the pace slow enough to allow for easy conversation. You can get your cardio workout another time. Webb says, “If you were running, you might be out of breath and physically exhausted. If you were dancing, you might need to concentrate on the next move. Walking is a really practical thing to do when you want to talk things out.”

Don’t hesitate to walk in companionable silence, however, if that seems more comfortable. “Many benefits of walking aren’t necessarily about the exchange of language,” Webb says. “They’re also about getting back in sync with one another, so just walking along side by side can be really beneficial.”

References

Webb, C. E., Rossignac-Milon, M., & Higgins, E. T. (2017). Stepping forward together: Could walking facilitate interpersonal conflict resolution? American Psychologist, 72(4), 374-385. doi:10.1037/a0040431