Last week we talked about the “why” behind resolving conflict. Why do it? Why’s it important? What’s the point? This week, we’re going to get practical and discuss the “how,” and acknowledge some of the the big questions you may have. HOW do my spouse and I do this? What does it LITERALLY look like to put the concepts of the gospel into practice? HOW do we glorify God during conflict? What skills do we need? Let’s now look at HOW to resolve conflict efficiently and effectively. After all, knowing you should do something is only half the battle. Knowing how to do it is where the rubber meets the road. So, let’s get started.
“How” do we resolve conflict?
As stated earlier, conflict isn’t wrong…but it CAN be destructive. It is important to recognize unhealthy ways of resolving differences. Here are some examples of destructive conflict:
- Blaming (consistently using “You” statements)
- Getting out of control—Yelling, threatening, becoming physical, demanding, intimidating, using foul language
- Name calling, belittling and using sarcasm
- “Hitting below the belt”—attacking areas of personal sensitivity
- Making accusations
- “Kitchen sinking”—opening old wounds, or referring to past mistakes and incidences
- Focusing on “winning”
- Changing the rules
- Ignoring your spouse
- Making comparisons to other people, stereotypes or situations
- Game playing—not being straight with your feelings; playing a victim or martyr
- Talking about divorce
One of the goals of resolving conflict is to slow down the process and fight fairly. Disagreements and arguments can often escalate to an “ugly” place quickly. Typically, we have a knee jerk reaction to something our partner may say that pushes our buttons. The intent of healthy conflict resolution is to have a frank and open discussion of our differences. To learn to “Fight Fair”—to be respectful, peaceful, and find a mutually agreed upon solution. Here are a few practical guidelines for “Fair Fighting.”
1. Ask your spouse or partner if he or she will agree to talk about the problem you are having. If he or she is not ready to talk, that’s OK. Agree on a time in the near future that works for both of you to have a serious discussion.
2. Remind yourself that you have a choice to serve your spouse while you trying to resolve the conflict. Pray for wisdom, patience and strength. Even in the middle of conflict—ESPECIALLY in the middle of conflict—we can choose to serve lovingly and respectfully. If you are full of resentment, intent on getting your own way, feel like you want to punish or hurt your spouse or partner, or you just want to prove your point and “win” the argument, it is NOT the time to have the discussion. Take some time to get refocused on having a servant attitude when you begin your discussion.
3. Agree to common ground rules when you are discussing your problem or concern:
- Remain calm—avoid getting out of physical control and overreacting
- Stick to one issue—no “kitchen sinking”
- Avoid destructive behaviors—blaming (“YOU” statements), sarcasm, accusations, belittling, name calling, threatening, using foul language, etc.
- No “hitting below the belt”
- Have the discussion privately, and not in front of the kids
- Avoid making comparisons to other people, stereotypes or situations
- No game playing—be straight with feelings (“I” statements) and not play the part of a victim or martyr
- No interrupting
- No talking about divorce
- No leaving or walking away without agreeing to needing a time out.
4. Be specific about what is bothering you. Use “I” messages—say “I feel mad when_____________” vs. “You make me angry.” Describe the facts and avoid blaming.
5. Listen. Jesus took time out to listen to the woman at the well—even when he knew everything about her! Being an active listener conveys respect and that you care about your spouse. You may want to jump in and counter what your spouse says, but by waiting your turn to talk, you are demonstrating putting the needs of your spouse above your own. When a person listens intently and respectfully, we feel understood, cherished and loved.
6. Prevent escalation. There are three things you can do to prevent escalation:
- Watch nonverbal behavior—voices getting louder, threatening gestures, a shift from sitting to standing, pointing fingers, clenching fists, a book slammed down or other objects tossed around or broken, fast pacing, shoving, etc.
- Breathe deeply to slow down the pace of the exchange. As soon as you notice that you are getting excited, stop talking and take a deep breath. Inhale deeply through your nose and release the breath slowly out of your mouth. Suggest that your spouse/partner do the same to calm down. You are literally “taking a breather.” It calms you down and buys time to think about the rules of fair fighting.
- Declare a “time out.” If taking a breather to buy time doesn’t work, call a formal “time out.” Time out has very specific rules:
- Agree in advance on a signal, such as the “T” sign that professional sports referees use to call time out during a game.
- No last words. As soon as one person calls time out, you both stop talking immediately.
- Leave immediately. The person who called time out leaves the room or, ideally, the house. If you’re in a car or some other place you can’t leave, stop talking for a set amount of time. A time out should last about an hour. Stay out of each other’s presence the whole time.
- Always return when time’s up.
- Don’t use drugs or alcohol during time out.
- Don’t rehearse what you should have said or are going to say. This will just keep you upset. If possible, get some physical exercise during your time out.
- Check in when you get back. See if this is a good time to resume the discussion. If either of you is still too upset to continue, set a time in the near future to talk again.
7. End in agreement, a counter proposal or a postponement. Some fights end in simple agreement: You state your case, propose a change, and your spouse or partner says okay. More often, there is further discussion, and your spouse makes a counter proposal for a change that is more acceptable. You talk over the counter proposal and perhaps reach a compromise. Or perhaps not … Many a successful fight ends with no agreement beyond the promise to fight fairly again. And, that’s okay. There are many issues that cannot be resolved immediately.
To wrap things up…What is the key to resolving conflict? Know and rely on the gospel. Practice the beliefs found within it. God calls us to resolve our differences, and marriage is a major vehicle for the gospel’s remaking of your heart from the inside out. When we are in conflict, we have the PERFECT opportunity to put the concepts of the gospel into practice.
All of us at Cornerstone Christian Counseling are available to partner with you and your spouse in order to learn more about the “Why” and “How” of conflict resolution. We will help you to practice the skills listed above to manage conflict effectively and efficiently. These skills really do work! And it would be an honor for any of us to serve you during your time of need. Click here if you’d like more info on how to get in touch with us.