As an adolescent and family therapist in Washington DC, I support a lot of parents and teens who are working through conflicts at home or with peers. Managing conflict can be a challenge at any age, and doing so effectively is crucial in our relationships. Disagreements can bring up intense emotions, resulting in reactive and aggressive behavior; yet avoiding a disagreement can cause resentment, anxiety, and a sense of disconnect in a relationship. As I talk through relationship dynamics, communication skills, and healthy ways to approach conflict for my clients, certain lessons have come up time and time again and so I’m sharing them in list form below as a cheat sheet for handling conflicts:
- Pick your battles. This one is obvious and yet we all find ourselves picking on little things our loved ones do that irk us. Pause to think through how much an issue means to you, and determine whether something is simply annoying to you versus at odds with your values or crossing a boundary. Consider the pros and cons. If you’re mid-argument when you realize that it wasn’t worth starting, feel free to communicate this and de-escalate rather than seeing it through simply so that you can win.
- Enter mindfully. If something in a relationship is bothering you, think through what the problem is and notice how it is making you feel. Be mindful of what you might be contributing to the problem, and think about what you’d like to achieve by confronting it. If you can’t consider the issue thoughtfully and be mindful of your own behaviors and feelings, chances are you’re still feeling very emotional about it. You’re allowed to express those emotions, but it is useful to calm yourself first in order to communicate effectively and have a productive dialogue.
- Know what your goal is. With your partner, your friends, and family, remember that the goal is to be close, not to be right. Closeness in spite of conflict involves healthy boundaries, understanding and hearing each other, respecting differences, and remembering caring feelings even in times of frustration.
- Respond don’t React. Responding and reacting are very different, and the key factor is taking a moment to think before you act or speak. Lower your defenses- it helps the other person do the same. Breathe, think about what you’re doing and saying; it only takes a few seconds, and it could be the difference between saying something useful and something you’ll regret.
- Listen and validate. If you want to be heard, you have to also listen. Don’t think about your response while you listen; focus on what you’re hearing and what feelings are underneath the words, and then reflect that before you say your piece. This doesn’t mean agreeing with or condoning something that you disapprove of. When your child is angry that you won’t let them stay out past curfew you can respond, “You’re angry at me- you really want to stay out later with your friends, and you can’t stand having to come home by curfew” – this helps them feel heard, even while you hold a firm boundary. You don’t change their curfew because they’re mad- but you can respond in a way that changes how mad they feel towards you.
- Say “And” not “But”. After you validate someone’s feelings, the natural urge is to say, “But …” or “However….” and then give your side of the argument. Unfortunately, that negates all of the understanding you just communicated before that one word. If you say “and” instead, you are allowing both your opinions and feelings to be honored at the same time.
- Take a break. Sometimes an argument can get heated, and it can be hard to step away once tempers start to flare, but chances are you’ll do more damage than good by staying engaged when a conflict escalates. Pay attention and avoid getting to your boiling point; if you can tell that you or the other person involved are getting highly emotional, take a break and let things cool down. Finish the conversation later when you’re both able to be calm and listen.
- Apologize genuinely. This one is tough for some people. Apologizing is not always about saying that you agree, or that you were wrong; it is often about showing that you’ve heard the other person, you honor their feelings, and you’re sorry if you’ve caused pain. Saying “Sorry you feel that way” while you’re still angry is not an apology – we’ve all heard it before, and it doesn’t feel good. On the other end of the spectrum, some people apologize quickly and constantly- this is more of a plea to to avoid a conflict rather than reaching a mutual understanding of each other’s feelings, and it is equally unhelpful. Talk through things, validate each other, and apologize when you own part of someone else’s pain.