Couples often struggle to resolve conflict due to an ineffective style of communication. Many conflicts feel like a courtroom debate because each person tries to convince their partner to agree with their own perspective. These courtroom debates are filled with accusations (“You don’t care about me!”), judgments (“What’s wrong with you?”), and defensive explanations (“I’m not guilty because you’re misunderstanding me”).
The following 6 tips are designed to help you step out of the courtroom style of conflict and step into a more respectful, open, and empathic interaction that leads to understanding and resolution.
Tip #1: Establish conversation roles.
If both people try to advocate for their own perspective at the same time, both people will feel unheard, misunderstood, and frustrated. Instead, focus on understanding one person’s perspective and feelings at a time. To make this clear, directly establish at the beginning of the conversation who will take on the Sharing role and who will take on the Active Listening role.
If both partners have concerns to share, it is best to allow the person who first initiated the conversation to take on the Sharing role.
After the Sharing partner arrives at a point of feeling deeply understood and heard, then both people can pick an appropriate time to swap roles.
The Sharing Role:
Tip #2: The Sharing partner should focus on sharing the emotions they feel related to the topic (e.g., sad, worried, angry, excited, disturbed, lonely).
Sharing partners are often tempted to address hurtful/disappointing actions by describing their partner’s behavior with evaluative labels or by assuming their intentions (e.g., “You don’t care” “You’re rejecting me” “You are so disrespectful”).
Evaluative labels and assuming intentions aren’t usually effective because they can easily be debated and tend to trigger defensive reactions from the Active Listener (e.g., “You don’t care, or else you would have…” “Well, I do care because…” “No, you don’t care because…” “But here is the proof that I do care…”
The Sharing partner will receive more empathy and understanding from the Active Listener when they choose a vulnerable style of sharing, which focuses on their own feelings about the situation.
Instead of evaluative labels or assuming intentions: “When you don’t call me, it shows you don’t care.”
Try vulnerable sharing: “When you don’t call me, I feel sad.”
The same approach applies to disagreements about decision making conflict, such as how to manage finances, how to raise children, how to interact with in-laws, where to live, how to spend tie together. Each partner should share what emotions and personal values are connected to their own preference.
Instead of evaluative labels or assuming intentions, such as, “Buying these airplane tickets is such wasteful spending, which shows you don’t value our future.” Try vulnerable sharing: “Reducing travel cost is important to me because I personally feel more safe and secure when we have more financial stability.”
Tip #3: Share your concern with specific examples, instead of making general statements.
Instead of a general statement: “Our house always looks terrible, but you’ve never cared about it anyway.”
Try a specific example: “Decorating our house makes me feel more relaxed and happier. Yesterday, when you said that can’t decorate, I felt disappointed.”
The Active Listening Role:
Tip #4: The Active Listener’s goal is to try to understand what emotions your partner is feeling, and why they are feeling them.
Active Listeners can view their role like a doctor or nurse who is approaching their partner’s bedside to soothe their partner’s “emotional wounds.” Active Listeners may also view their role as an “empathy detective” whose job it is to figure out all of the reasons why the Sharing partner feels this way. The key is for the Active Listener to put themselves in the shoes of their partner (e.g., “How does my partner’s family upbringing effect this situation? Do they feel upset because they cherish physical touch more than I do? Did my loud voice triggered my partner’s past negative memories?”).
The Active Listener should ask questions that help them understand why the Sharing partner feels the specific emotions they have named. For example, the Active Listener could ask, “What specific details about this situation triggered you to feel neglected? Was it my body language or wording?”
To be an effective Active Listener, we must let go of the temptation to correct parts of the statement that seem inaccurate or unfair. The Active Listener doesn’t need to agree with or condone everything that the Sharing partner says in order to truly understand their emotions.
For example, the Sharing partner might make accusatory or false statements such as, “I’m so mad because you care about the TV more than me. You don’t even give me any attention. Do I even matter to you anymore?!”
The Active Listener should first focus on understanding what their partner is feeling, and why, by saying something such as, “So when we are watching TV, and I’m not looking at you, you begin to feel lonely and hurt? Is that what you are trying to help me realize?”
A common roadblock for Active Listeners is the thought, “But I don’t think my partner should feel that emotion.” Even when your partner’s emotions seem irrational, inappropriate, or confusing, your goal is still to put yourself in their shoes. If your partner is human, then there will always a psychological reason for why your partner feels those specific emotions. Even when your intentions or past actions have been positive, your behavior can still trigger real pain or fear within your partner. It may help to explore together how past painful experiences have influenced your partner’s current emotional reaction.
Tip #5: After the Active Listener understands why the situation brings up certain emotions for your partner, then validate those emotions.
An example of validating your partner’s emotions may sound something like, “No wonder you felt… / it makes sense to me why you felt…/ If I was in a similar situation, I would similarly feel…” Remember that validating emotions does not mean that the Active Listener has also accepted everything that the Sharing partner has said or done, such as degrading and disrespectful behavior. The Active Listener can first understand and validate their partner’s emotions of anger by saying, “I understand why that would make you feel so angry,” but later on, they may raise a separate concern about the harmful ways that anger was expressed.
Tip #6: Healing happens when we compassionately make room for our partner’s emotions, not when we offer them solutions or explanations.
After Sharing partners explains their emotional wound, it is tempting for Active Listeners to explaining their own intentions or share a more positive perspective of the situation because it feels uncomfortable to sit with the with the pain that your partner is feeling. Apologies, reassurances to change, and explanations are mistakenly believed to be the key to conflict resolution, but in reality, they are only the final layer of icing on the cake. After the Sharing partnerfirst feels understood and validated they will become receptive to apologies, explanations, reassurances, or practical solutions.
The true power of healing happens as both partners tenderly create space and validation for the emotions of the Sharing partner. As the Active Listener validates and tenderly “sits with” the emotions of the Sharing partner, the Sharing partner may begin to feel soothed, truly seen, and genuinely cared for.
After the person in the Sharing partner confirms feeling understood and validated, then it may be appropriate to offer an apology, offer a comforting hug, and collaboratively decide on a resolution.
These healthy forms of conflict resolution become difficult to use when emotions become very intense- to the point of yelling, name-calling, defensiveness, and shutting-down. If emotions reach intense levels, it is essential to call a temporary “time-out” cool off period and then try again at a more emotionally stable time.
Summary of the Resolution Conversation:
Sharing Partner: “When you said (or did) ________, I felt (name your emotion) _________.”
Active Listener Reflects: “Let me see if I understand you right. Whenever I (name behavior) ____________, then you feel (name emotions _____________?”
When the Active Listener asks questions to understand why their partner feels those emotions, they should offer validation and empathy: “It makes sense to me why you feel (name emotions) _________ because __________.”
Once the Sharing partner feels genuinely understood, the Sharing partner might offer a practical request:
“In the future similar situations, it would feel helpful (or healing) to me if you would _________”