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5 Ways to (Finally) Resolve Conflicts in Your Relationship

3. Discover the problem beneath the problem. (There almost always is one.)

“So I’m thinking of inviting my parents over for dinner this weekend,” says Ann.

“Really? Again?” sighs Jake. “Weren't they just here a couple of weeks ago?”

“Actually it was three weeks ago. What’s the big deal? I like seeing my parents. You never even talk to yours.” (Ann is getting ramped up)

“How about you don’t start, OK?” snaps Jake. "The last time your parents were here, they…”

You can probably already tell that this discussion is not going to end well.

Bernd Leitner Fotodesign/Shutterstock
Source: Bernd Leitner Fotodesign/Shutterstock

If you’ve ever worked with a good salesperson when buying a car or an appliance, there were two things that made them effective at their job. The first, which you probably noticed, is that he or she listened to what you were saying and asking for, so they could steer you in the right direction.

The other thing the salesperson probably did, which you may not have caught, was stay in lock step with you. When she mentioned that a particular car was a few hundred dollars more, but came with a side view safety feature, and saw you shake your head ever so slightly, she probably stopped and asked what you thought about this safety feature, or pointed you toward a car without it in your price range.

The art of selling involves getting positive responses from the customer all the way through the negotiation and pitch. Any potential objections that go unnoticed or unaddressed can result in a customer saying, “I’ll think about it,” when it’s time to close the deal.

Staying in lock step—to be able to counter resistance as it arises—is important when doing what is called non-sales selling, such as trying to persuade your partner to help out more with the kids at bedtime. Or, in a situation like Ann's, to push her spouse to accept that her parents are coming over for dinner.

There’s a lot of talk in the therapy world about content vs. process. Ann and Jake are getting into trouble doing what most of us instinctively do: When you sense some resistance, your next step is to ramp up your evidence (content), and as your emotions ramp up as well, you stack up even more and more facts to make your case. The problem is that the other person is now getting upset as well and stacking up his or her own set of facts, which neither of you are able to process because your emotional brains have shut down your rational ones. Instead, in this situation you should focus on process—not the what but the how; the emotion and the flow of the conversation.

Here's how to do this in five steps:

1. Stop as soon as you encounter some resistance.

As soon as Jake says, "Aw...." and heaves a sigh, Ann should know that there is a problem in the room, and that the issue is no longer parents and dinner but Jake’s emotions. Ann needs to resist the urge to change his mind by becoming more insistent and emotional herself, and stacking facts. The primary objective should be to put out the emotional fire that is starting.

2. Ask and listen.

For example:

"Jake, it sounds like you think this is not a good idea. What’s bothering you about this?"

"Your parents were just here."

3. Discover the problem beneath the problem.

The negative reaction you're hearing is the outcome or bad solution, not the problem. Your next step is to find out the problem beneath the problem. Here a salesperson may say, "I just noticed you shaking your head. What’s bothering you about this? Is it the price, or are you not sure you need this feature?"

Ann can do the same at home: "What’s bothering you about my parents coming again?" Here she may find that Jake has other plans for the weekend, that he is upset about something Ann’s father said the last time, or maybe that Jake resents Ann seeming to control their weekend time. If Jake has a hard time opening up, she can ask leading questions such as, "Do you have other plans for the weekend?"

4. Talk about how to fix the problem beneath the problem.

This is the logical next step. If Jake has other plans, can they work around them? If Jake's father-in-law hurt his feelings, does he need to say something about it before he seems him again? Or is there some way Ann can help with this? If it’s about Ann seeming to be in control of their time, can they have a conversation about it? This is not about Ann or Jake giving in, but about the two of them reaching a mutually satisfying agreement.

5. Control your voice and emotion.

This is key and should be done throughout the conversation—but it is also admittedly the toughest part. It’s our non-verbal signals, including the way we sound, that usually trigger other people's anger. So, sound calm. If you are getting upset and can’t rein it in, stop and take a break. Only try to solve problems when you’re calm and not emotional.

Your takeaways

Put out the fire of emotion by listening and not fueling it with facts. Stay in lock step and address objections as soon as they arise. And don’t move forward until you get a solid yes.

I know what you're thinking: This is easy to say and hard to do. But good communication is a skill that can be learned. If it is difficult to do this with your partner because you easily push each other’s buttons, start by practicing the techniques with easier challenges—people at work, your kids, or salespeople. Try to focus on process, not content, so that you don't get lost in the details and making your case.

It’s all a matter of practice.