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How to Deescalate Conflict During COVID

5 ways to bring things back down when they get tense.

Chris Sabor/Unsplash
Source: Chris Sabor/Unsplash

Pandemic life is stressful, and we're often taking it out on each other. Living in tight quarters and spending every waking moment with roommates, spouses, or kids seems like the perfect breeding ground for conflict. And while conflict isn't bad per se—talking through the issues that will inevitably arise is probably a good idea—there are ways we can do it better, so each of us isn't left sulking in the corner until we find a vaccine.

When things get tense, here are five ways to deescalate conflict and salvage your relationships:

Accept Influence: Couple's therapist John Gottman's conducted groundbreaking studies that predicted which couples will get divorced. His findings? Couples were more likely to stay together when, during times of conflict, husbands accepted their wife's influence. Accepting influence looks like the opposite of defensiveness; when the other person has a complaint, instead of telling them why they're wrong, tell them why they're right. Share "you have a good point" and look for things to agree with them about. When you accept influence, you're not out to win the conflict. You're out to find a solution that works for both of you.

Take a Break: To understand why taking a break helps, let's visit psychiatry professor Dan Siegel's concept of the window of tolerance. According to Siegel, we all have a "zone of optimal arousal" at which we are functioning at our best; we're able to think rationally and consider others' perspectives. However, when we're stressed—like when our toddler upchucks on our new shirt, or when our dog starts humping our leg during our Zoom meeting—we exceed this optimal zone. We may be hyper-aroused (feeling on edge; ready to fight or run) or hypo-aroused (shut down; feeling numb).

Siegel argues that when we're outside our zone of optimal arousal, our goal is not to keep arguing, because that will be futile or even damaging. It is to calm ourselves down. One great way to do this is to take a break. Returning to the conflict when we feel calm will lead us to blame one another less and listen to one another more.

Affirm One Another: Another gem from the couple's researcher John Gottman is the concept of "the magic ratio." Gottman found that couples that last have a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative comments. More generally, Gottman's couples therapy technique addresses not only working through negative experiences between couples but also building up positive ones. When we find ways to affirm others around us, we'll be better prepared when disagreements inevitably arise.

We start preparing to have healthy conflict before the disagreement happens by weaving a safety net of love and respect for one another. Expressing fondness and appreciation, sharing compliments, and showing admiration are all ways to do this.

Name the Underlying Emotions: Research finds that the simple act of naming emotions deactivates our amygdala, the part of the brain activated when we're angry or stressed. We can use this to our advantage in conflict by trying to name the emotion the other person might be feeling during the conflict. Instead of responding to the content of their message, we can state the feelings behind it. For example, if your roommate says, "I can't think because you're so loud during your Zoom meetings," instead of defending yourself, you might reflect, "So you're saying you're feeling stressed out and unable to focus?"

Find a Way to Laugh: A study of couples engaging in conflict found that when they used humor, they reported being more satisfied with the relationship, feeling closer, and having a better resolution following the discussion. Importantly, however, these results depended on the type of humor. Aggressive humor (such as sarcasm or comments to bring down or manipulate one's partner) was related to less closeness and satisfaction with the relationship. Affiliative humor (telling jokes or bantering to reduce tension) was associated with these positive outcomes. So next time tensions are building, crack a joke.

Deescalating conflict is about showing the other person that you hear them and value their perspective, even when they may be upset with you. We can do so by admitting our faults and the merits of the other's perspectives, taking breaks when things get too heated, showing we love and value one another all the time, reflecting the emotions underneath the content of what is shared, or finding a way to laugh to melt the tension. Using these skills will make our pandemic relationships, and our lives, a little easier.

Note: This article is cross-posted on my website where you can take a quiz to assess your friendship strengths.

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