How to Clash with Love: Some Conflict Resolution Basics

Some people suggest that good relationships don’t or can't involve conflict.

That's just plain wrong.

Conflicts happen in human interactions, and certainly in ongoing relationships. People are often in conflict, especially in small ways. To more accurately gauge how okay and emotionally healthy we and our relationships are, we need not look at whether there is conflict. Instead, we want to look at how we deal with it when there is conflict, both alone and together.

Unfortunately, many people aren’t schooled well when it comes to conflict. Whether we’re talking about at home, through media, at school, or with peers, many of our models related to conflict are substandard, at best. So much of what we learn is usually a lot of avoidance or some backward idea about how not resolving conflict is somehow noble. (How? Beats me. I just don't understand that idea at all.). It’s also common for us to learn to either explode or bottle up when conflict arises rather than to accept, deal with, and resolve it with care.

How many friendships have you seen or experienced that have been swiftly and suddenly destroyed or deeply damaged because of a conflict and someone—or everyone—utterly flipped out⁠ ? Probably at least a few, especially if you attended middle or high school. Sometimes the only way people can resolve conflict between them is to part ways—some conflicts are just too great and otherwise unsolvable for people to stay together. But just as often, if not more so, a conflict can be resolved and a relationship⁠ not just salvaged but also strengthened if conflict is managed. And even when people decide to separate, when they deal with conflict well together, the separation is rarely the kind of nuclear end that so often happens otherwise.

Resolving conflict also delivers a nice self-esteem and personal growth bonus: handling conflict like a pro feels so much better than losing it or swallowing it all, can teach us or remind us about our best qualities, and gives us tools to better relate to others as well as ourselves. It’s something that can give us a real feeling of control and mastery over our lives and feelings. When so much of life as a young adult can feel out of control and it’s so easy to feel clumsy or lost, that’s a megabonus.

Resolving conflict in healthy ways also strengthens our relationships and makes them more resilient to the myriad flotsam and jetsam of life that often present relationship challenges. There may be some conflict you find you just can't resolve to everyone's mutual satisfaction when you try, or that you just don't want to try and resolve, choosing instead to just end a relationship or interaction.  Either of those things are okay.  These skills are for when you and others do want to try, or so you can try some approaches with an ongoing conflict you haven't yet, or when a new conflict arises. And in the event you ever try things like this for a while, find they don't seem to be working, but you really do want to keep trying, it may be time to seek out a counseling pro, be that someone just for you,  a couples or a family counselo.

Resolving interpersonal conflict is the subject of many a book. There are different ways to approach it, but more to the point, more nuance in doing so based on more specific kinds of relationships and other unique or narrow contexts.  The bare basics are usually similar no matter what, though, and what's listed below is all pretty easy to remember and use as a touchstone to start with. What's less easy is learning how to always start doing and stick with these things, but the sooner your start practicing, the sooner the doing of conflict resolution can start to come easy.

A crash course:

1. Take a minute (or, even better, a few): If we’re hurting or upset with someone, commonly we feel a strong urge to just react to them or the situation immediately, like we just want to get those hard feelings out of us before we implode. Sometimes whether we react doesn’t even feel within our control—but it always is. Exploding isn’t any better than imploding, especially when someone else is in our direct line of fire. Just figure you want to try and avoid all kinds of splody here. Instead, when conflict arises and you’re running hot, quickly just center yourself: take a few breaths, remind yourself of who you are and who you want to be at your best. Cool down your upset at least enough to really think and feel totally in control of your emotions and behavior. If you can slow it all down even just a little bit, you’ll be able to start resolving conflict instead of simply reacting to it, and that is more likely to make things better instead of worse.

2. In before out: To even get an idea of how we feel about something and the best way to deal with it so as to move forward to solving the conflict, we’ve got to talk to ourselves before we talk to anyone else. Sometimes, we have hours, days, or even weeks to process on our own; in other situations, the conflict happens right now, in our face, and we need to respond pronto. Whatever the circumstance, we want to do what we can to check in with our feelings as well as our thoughts, and check ourselves before we wreck ourselves or anyone else.We can always ask the other person to give us a minute and can even step outside or away for a little bit to get that space. If anyone refuses you time or space and tries to force you to stay in a hot conflict or stirs things up more, they aren’t ready to resolve the conflict but only want to create or increase it. It’s time to run, not walk, to get the space you need.

Self-care is part of both #1 and #2 there, both some kinds you and others can do on the fly and that take only moments, and larger self-care over time, especially if, as if often the case with bigger conflicts, resolving conflict is a process you're in for not minutes or even an hour, but for days, weeks or longer. Experiencing and managing conflict can take a lot out of us and feel upsetting even when it's going well, so make sure you're making time and saving energy to take extra good care of you throughout.

3. “I” statements: That term sounds corny, I know, but it’s really important during conflicts to stick to our thoughts and our feelings and to own and express our experience of things rather than to focus totally on the other person or to assign them motives. So, for example, say, “I have a hard time feeling heard when you talk at the same time I do” instead of “You don’t listen to me.” Instead of “You make me feel so jealous,” swap out for something like “I’m really struggling with jealousy over your friendship with her.” Sometimes conflict is simply one person not getting the impact of their behavior on someone else, so now and then an “I” statement can solve the whole issue.

4. Where and when: Resolving conflict, especially the kind that’s got someone really upset or scared, is difficult and takes real energy and focus from everyone involved. So, pick environments for working through conflict that make room for that fact. Trying to resolve conflict through texting or other similar tools, with a bunch of other people watching or involved, when someone is in the middle of something else, or when you’re really tired — or all of the above! — isn’t the way to go. As much as you can, pick mediums where no one has to shortcut or be multitasking. (I said not in text messaging or tweets already, right? It’s such a recipe for disaster, so let’s just say it twice.) Set things up so everyone involved has the time, energy, and ability to pay very close attention to each other.

5. Patience, grasshopper: If both people are doing their best to resolve it and be cool with each other, a minor conflict can often be squared away in one talk, sometimes even within a couple minutes. The big or harder stuff, not so much. When a conflict is major, complex, or requires more negotiation or when someone involved is really struggling with managing it, resolution is often an ongoing process and project that we work on over time, with a series of talks and agreements, not just a chat, a hug, and a “No worries, we’re cool.” If even with a lot of time, resolution just feels impossible, then consider calling in reinforcements (like someone you both trust to help mediate or your favorite perspective-givers) or having a different kind of talk.

6. Accountability is magic: Taking responsibility, clearly and earnestly, for our own stuff usually goes a very, very long way in resolving conflict. Acknowledging life history stuff that has nothing to do with the other person but that is bogging us down, ways we may have intentionally or carelessly created the conflict, or areas we know we’re not good with conflict and need to work on is a type of accountability that can put you and someone else in a space where you’re ready to solve the conflict. So often we just want to feel seen, heard, and respected, even when we don’t agree or we really aren’t happy with someone else. Even the outcome we usually want the least—not being able to resolve conflict and having to end or massively change the nature of a relationship—hurts a whole lot less when everyone involved clearly own their own stuff instead of piling on the blame. You might not be able to resolve all conflicts, or resolve conflict with certain people.  For one, resolving conflict usually takes cooperation, so if one person is working to resolve conflict but the other is going splody in some way, you may have limited or even no success. As well, sometimes someone doesn't want to resolve conflict so much as just get themselves away from the conflict or the person they have it with and stay away: to get gone and stay gone.

It hopefully goes without saying that abuse⁠ is no part of conflict resolution or a healthy relationship.  Resolving conflict in healthy ways cannot be abusive in any way -- physically, verbally, emotionally or otherwise.  If you aren't safe with someone, don't feel safe, or do not feel you can be safe for someone else yourself, it's more important to do whatever needs be done so everyone can be and stay safe than it is to resolve conflict. Sometimes that can even mean avoiding conflict instead or saying things are fine when they aren't so you can get to a point where you can just leave. That is okay.

Don't forget about setting, holding and respecting healthy limits and boundaries, especially when there's conflict. Setting boundaries and having them respected is a big way we can all feel safe enough to do the emotionally-precarious and vulnerable work conflict resolution can often be.

If you already know about some basic limits or boundaries you have or need when in conflict, put 'em out there clearly before you dig in to try and start working through something. Ask the other person involved about theirs and invite them to do the same. Calmly remind them about what you've set throughout if needed, and if someone keeps ignoring or dismissing your boundaries even though you do that, hold your own lines by just walking away from them and this if you can. If things come up as you go, it's okay to add, remove or adjust limits and boundaries as you go, too.

If someone can't even honor your boundaries -- or can, but won't because they just don't want to -- you're not going to be able to resolve jack with them. That can be a big cue that now either isn't the time to try, or it might be that you need to just get and stay away from them, period⁠ , if possible. The same is true if it's the other way round: if you can't or won't respect and honor their limits or boundaries, you should own that and make choices accordingly. Maybe that means asking for some space and time so you can calm down, think, or do some of your own work on yourself before trying to work together; maybe it means just parting ways altogether.

Conflict resolution can feel awkward or clunky at first, especially if any or all of these ways of interacting with people are new to you and aren't how you've usually seen people deal with conflict.  But like with sex⁠ and a whole lot of other things in life, the more practice you get with this, the more comfortable you'll feel, so the easier it'll get to do. The more you do it with someone in particular, the better you'll usually get at doing it together. And the better you get at doing it together, the more often it can actually help prevent or limit conflict in the first place, and make having conflict feel a lot less scary.

(The content of this page has been excerpted and adapted from S.E.X.: the All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through Your Teens and Twenties (Second Edition), available at both bookstores and public libraries.)

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