Skills and Spills Along the Path of Relational Conflict

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Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University ...Read More

Whether in a marriage, between parents and children, or among friends, conflict is an inevitable part of any ongoing relationship. The question isn’t if there will be conflict but how you will navigate the conflict when it occurs. Here are three skills you can practice to enhance your conflict-resolution and two to avoid.

Skills to practice


1. Empathy

Empathy is a feelings-oriented response which conveys sensitivity and understanding. When one or both people have strong negative feelings it can become a barrier to communication. Empathy can diminish those feelings. Empathy is accurately tuning in to what the other person is feeling at the time. It implies listening beyond the words and reflecting the feelings.

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You want to listen for the emotion and what it might be connected to. A helpful formula to use when attempting to reflect back what you hear the other person saying is: You feel (emotion) because of (circumstance, situation).

Empathy examples:

  • You’re feeling discouraged because this behavior you see in me keeps repeating.
  • You’re offended and angry at my attempts to “fix” you.
  • You’re excited about your new opportunities at work.
  • You seem pleased that others recognize your abilities.

Empathy is a powerful skill that can communicate that you are really listening in for the emotion, which is the core of what most people want you to understand. Well placed empathy along has the potential to repair a damaged relationship.

2. Probing

Probing seeks to ask questions in order to gain more information about what is going on. Open questions focus on the other person’s general situation, thoughts, reactions, and feelings. They tend to go beyond empathy to help you understand the larger context of what might be contributing to the conflictual feelings. Closed questions focus on specific facts or aspects of the others situation, generally evoking “yes” or “no” answers.

Probing examples

  • Do you think I am being stubborn about this decision? (closed)
  • You tell me I am stubborn. How does my tendency to be stubborn affect you? (open)
  • Do you want to talk or not? (closed)
  • I sense that you may not want to talk. Can you tell me what you’re feeling right now? (open)

Open questions are recommended for exploring a broad topic. Closed questions can be interspersed to get to specific facts or can be used to cut off long, irrelevant explanations. In either case listening to the answer and responding with sensitivity is vital to the questioning process. Caution is needed with asking “why” questions, such as “Why are you always so negative?” This will often put the other person on the defense and may also express disapproval or criticism.

3. Self-disclosure

Self-disclosure shows your attempts to give others insight into who you are. It is sharing something about yourself that relates directly to the conversation: your personal beliefs, attitudes, values, or an event from your past. Self-disclosure can reduce anxiety by reassuring your spouse that he or she is not alone in their feelings or fears.

Self-disclosure examples

  • When I went through a period of depression, I also had a hard time doing even the simplest things.
  • Like you, I never felt as if anyone accepted me for the way I was.
  • When I was a child, others frequently made fun of my weight, the clothes I wore; I know what it is like to stand out in a crowd.

Self-disclosure is useful in connecting with your spouse or anyone who struggles with similar problems or life concerns. But, overuse of self-disclosure is not helpful because it focuses attention on you instead of the other person. It can be viewed as an attention-getting device. Use sparingly for the best effect.

Unhelpful responses amid conflict

These are responses that typically occur during conflict that you want to avoid.

1. Analytical approach

The analytical response is an attempt to explain, analyze or interpret the other person’s behavior and feelings. It goes beyond what your spouse says and tries to add something from your own thoughts, feelings, values, etc. It implies that you are wise, you know more than the other person. Under most circumstances the analytical response leads to resentment in others.

Analytical examples

  • The reason you are having so much trouble is that you are exactly like your father, whom you hate.
  • You often come to bed late, because you really don’t want to be close to me.
  • You see me as an authority figure; that is why you don’t respect me.
  • You are lonely because you are afraid to risk getting involved with people.

The analytical approach is a poor response to use in confronting your spouse or anyone because it assumes you know more than they do.

2. Advice-giving

Advice giving is usually unproductive. It implies that you are in a position to know the reasons for the other person’s struggles and know what is best for them. It often is perceived as an attempt to “fix” the problem. It is far better to listen, empathize and encourage them to talk out their feelings rather than to bandage it up with advice.

Advice-giving examples

  • If I were you, I’d stop complaining about how much you hate your job and work toward getting a new one.
  • You need more sensitivity in the way you go about handling conflict.
  • You should apologize to your friend for the way you behaved.

Telling people what to do takes away their responsibility for decisions and problem solving. Advice often arouses resistance and resentment, even when there is outward compliance. Giving advice, even when requested can, foster dependency.

Keep Reading By Author Gary Gilles, LCPC
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