Conflict is an inevitable part of any relationship. We are all unique, so it’s no surprise that disagreements will arise when we co-exist.  However, one thing that separates successful relationships from unsuccessful ones, is how we navigate and resolve those conflicts.  Some couples and families just end up compromising to keep the peace, but that is not the best solution.

Let’s illustrate this with a story.

Imagine a couple, Jane and Steve who want to go on a holiday.  Jane says she wants to have a lavish holiday whilst Steve wants to spend the least amount of money possible, to put extra money into their mortgage.  Jane and Steve have been fighting over this for a while.  Neither is interested in hearing the other one’s perspective, all they want to do is convince the other one, why their point of view is the correct one. 

What often happens in situations like this, is after weeks of arguing, they both feel exhausted and settle on a “compromise”.  A holiday that is the mid-range in price and neither are very happy about.  Why?  Because neither of their needs have been met!

Let’s now take a step back and see how things could have been different, if they had taken a healthier approach to the conflict resolution.

Firstly, if they each reflected on what they wanted, they could have clearly communicated those needs to each other.  For example, when Jane says she wants a “lavish” holiday, what she really means is that she wants to stay at a five-star hotel.  She is quite happy to travel on a budget airline and eat street food on their holiday.  She would also like one romantic dinner at a high-end restaurant.

If she had clearly communicated these needs to Steve, he would have realised that the holiday she was wanting, wasn’t quite as expensive as what he had imagined!  However, Steve is still feeling anxious about interest rates going up and he really wants to pay off as much of their mortgage, as possible.  So for him, any extra luxuries are unnecessary, as they need to save for their future.

If they both listen and validate each other’s needs and concerns, they can work collaboratively to find a solution that meets both their needs.

So, in this example, say they both are happy to use a budget airline and they find a reasonably priced 5 star hotel that Jane is happy with.  When they calculate the difference in cost between this holiday and the one that Steve wanted, they realise that they are short $2000.  The question then becomes how can we find an extra $2000? 

They can brainstorm and come up with some solutions.  For example, selling unused household items on platforms like eBay and Marketplace, reducing dining-out expenses by eating out only once instead of twice a week.  They can also have their cleaner come less frequently and use that money towards the holiday. 

They soon realise that they can easily come up with the extra money to stay at the nice hotel (so Jane is happy) and they can still put the extra money into the mortgage (so Steve is happy).  This is an example of the collaborative problem solving.  Neither had to give us something they wanted.  Instead, they are both working towards meeting their shared goals as a couple.

So how can you use this in your relationship?  I have outlined below the 7 steps I teach couples and families to solve conflict in a healthy way.

  1. Self-awareness.  Define how the issue is impacting you.  Focus on the problem, not the person. 
  2. Find a suitable time to discuss this.  When you and your partner are calm and regulated. 
  3. Bring up the issue in a gentle way, describing how it is affecting you.  Refrain from making personal attacks.  Listen and empathise – Instead of focusing on rebutting each other’s arguments, actively listen to understand each other’s perspectives. Empathy builds connection.
  4. Brainstorm creative solutions: Allow everyone to share any and all potential solutions without judgment or evaluation. Encourage creativity and humour to help generate a diverse range of options.  Everyone needs to feel safe to share their ideas without fear of being ridiculed or analysed. 
  5. Evaluate and select the best solution that works for everyone. 
  6. Establish a trial period: Set a specific timeframe to try out the chosen solution to see how it works for everyone. This step is really important because it takes the pressure out of it.  No one is making a “forever” commitment to some change.
  7. Evaluate the results and renegotiate if necessary: After the trial period, assess how well the solution worked for everyone involved.   If the solution didn’t work as well as anticipated, or circumstances have changed, be open to re-negotiating and finding a new solution that better addresses the issue. 

I hope you found these steps helpful and remember that disagreements can actually serve as bridges towards a deeper understanding of one another.