Aftermath of a Conflict – Repair
Damn. Once again you’ve found yourself in the middle of a “heated discussion” with your partner. Who knows, maybe it will turn into the (not-so) fun game of “who can yell the loudest.” Or, maybe this time your partner will just shut-down and walk out of the room leaving you to stew in your thoughts and feelings. Either way, in this scenario, one or both of you is leaving the discussion upset. So, what do you do now that the conflict is over? Often, when I ask couples that question they tell me that they give their partner space and take time themselves to decompress and calm down. That’s a good response! You should absolutely take the time you need to calm yourself down after conflict! But, my next question is, “after you’re calm and collected, how do you talk to your partner about the conflict you had?” Most common answer I hear: “we don’t talk about it…”. Let me be the first to say, I get it. By not talking about the conflict we protect ourselves from subsequent harm. Here’s the problem with that though, choosing to ignore or not discuss the conflict still leaves you vulnerable for the future.
Think of it this way, you’re walking around the house barefoot and you step on a tack. First reaction pain and (if you’re like me) maybe a few expletives. After you’ve patched yourself up and look at the ground to find the tack, would you leave it there? Of course you wouldn’t! You’d pick it up and throw it away because that freaking hurt! When conflict happens, it’s like stepping on the tack. It hurts! But, choosing not to discuss the conflict after the fact is sort of like leaving the tack on the ground. You may avoid it for a while but eventually you’re going to step on it again and next time it might even go a bit deeper.
In a Nutshell
Once again I’ve brought back the “In a nutshell” category ensure that if you leave this article with anything you at least leave with this, revisiting and discussing conflict after it’s occurred can help repair any damage done and help prepare for future conflict.
When to Talk
The best time to engage in a repair conversation is soon after a conflict has ended. However, it’s important to take the time you need to decompress and regain your composure before jumping into this discussion – As I mentioned above this needs to be a conversation not “Round 2” of the title fight. Once you are both calm and collected sit down with your partner and discuss these five topics: Your Feelings, Your Perception, Your Triggers, Your Role, and Your Plan.
How to Talk: Roles, Rules and Structure
The roles during this conversation are simple, there is one speaker and one listener. The only rule is this: only one person can talk at a time. So, if you’re not speaking, your listening. You and your partner will talk through each of the five topics, one at a time, taking turns as both the listener and the speaker. The speaker’s job is to discuss each topic as it relates to themselves. The best way to accomplish this is by using I-Statements – I felt [x], I perceived [y], I was triggered by [z], etc. As a speaker, when you are finished talking about one of the topics, let your partner know. At this point the role of listener is to tentatively summarize what the speaker said. This tentative summary might start with, “What I think I heard you say was…” and end with “is my summary accurate?” Once the listener has provided a summary, it is the speaker’s job to confirm, modify or add to the summary. The goal in each topic is common understanding, so if you don’t feel your partner fully understands what you said, take the time to clarify.
*Remember, it may take a few attempts at either explaining and/or summarizing before you are both on the same page. *
Once the speaker confirms that the listener’s summary is correct, switch roles and let the original listener become the speaker in the topic you’re in. Follow this process through each of the five topics below, making sure that each of you has fully understood the other before moving to the next topic.
The Beginning: Feelings
Take a few moments and think back to conflict. What were some of the emotions you remember experiencing? Were you angry? Shocked? Afraid? Confused? All the above? Once you’ve identified how you felt, share that with your partner. At this point in time, do not explain why you felt the way you felt, just stick to the core emotion(s). As I mentioned earlier, keep things centered on yourself and remember to refrain from using “you” statements.
Good Example: “During the argument, I felt angry and upset”
After you and your partner have a clear understanding of the emotions involved in the conflict it’s time to move to understanding each other’s perceptions. This is arguably the hardest topic because perceptions are truth for people and we instinctually become defensive when we feel as if those perceptions are being attacked. When the speaker is ready begin describing your perception of the conflict. Try and focus specifically on what “you” saw, heard and felt. Stay away from inferring your partner’s thoughts and feelings – they’ll get their turn to talk when the roles are switched.
*Helpful Tip* When describing something you heard make this statement, “I heard you say,” rather than “You said.” This leaves room for your partner to correct anything misheard or misunderstood.
Good Example: “When I walked into the kitchen I saw dirty dishes piled on top of each other in the sink. I immediately felt overwhelmed and frustrated. At that time, I really needed support. I then turned around and saw you on the couch and asked if you could help do the dishes. What I heard you say was ‘that’s not my job.’ I then walked out.”
Once the speaker has finished detailing their perception the listener should summarize what they heard (as mentioned in roles, rules, structure) but additionally, they should attempt to validate their partner’s perception. I should note that you don’t have to agree with your partner’s perception but you should be able to validate at least a part of their experience. This could be accomplished by saying something like, “You know, I can see now why you were upset and I understand now what you needed from me.”
Whether we’re consciously aware of the reasoning behind them or not, we all have triggers. Triggers are those little buttons that, when pushed, take us from 0 to 100. During this topic, you and your partner will discuss what aspects of the conflict pushed those buttons. Additionally, you’ll take time to understand how those buttons came to exist. This starts by explaining what you felt triggered you during the conflict in question. Once you’ve explained this, think back to other times where you experienced the specific trigger(s). Share those memories to help your partner get a better understanding of where that trigger comes from and why it exists. These memories don’t have to specifically involve your partner. In fact, that can go back as far as the origin of the trigger.
Good Example: “When I saw you turn around during the middle of our argument and go in the other room I felt abandoned and that really triggers me. I felt that way last week too when I thought that you had intentionally hung up on me.”
The more stories you share, the better chance your partner has at fully understanding why that trigger affects you the way it does. As a listener, as you begin to understand your partner’s trigger(s) provide validation. Let you partner know that what they’re saying makes sense to you.
At this point you’ve hopefully gained a deeper and clearer understanding of what your partner felt and why they felt it. During this topic, you’ll discuss your role in the conflict and how your actions contributed its beginning and end. Here are the two things to think about and to discuss. One, is there any part of the conflict that you regret? Perhaps you yelled, stormed out, insulted your partner or all three. Two, what actions do you want to apologize for? Maybe, you got defensive, became disrespectful or stopped listening. When your partner apologizes for their contribution to the conflict accept their apology, or if you’re not yet ready to do so then tell them what you still need before you can accept it.
The End: Plan
Here we are, the final stretch! At this point you’ve discussed a lot and by now you should have a greater understanding your partner, the conflict, and how it all came to pass. This final topic, shifts gears a bit and adjusts the conversation in two ways. First, from this point forward you and partner will be focusing on the future rather than the past. Second, the topic’s focus will shift from the conflict you’ve been discussing to the repair conversation you just engaged in. The goal of this topic is to develop at least one way that you and your partner can make these repair conversations smoother, and more manageable. This goal can be accomplished by answering three questions:
One, “What is one thing my partner can do to make this conversation about conflict better next time?”
Two, “What is one thing I can do to make this conversation about conflict better next time?”
Three, “Is there anything else I, or my partner, need to move forward and put this conflict behind?”
When both of you have discussed and answered those questions you’re finished! Now go take some time to relax and decompress and be sure to pat yourself on the back for making it through!
I want to thank you all for bearing with me on this rather long article. I know it’s a lot to take in, and I know it’s difficult on many levels, but I promise you it’s worth understanding and doing. As always, if you enjoyed it please feel free to “Like”, “Share” or “Comment” on it and be sure to check back here next month when I release my next article “Time: The Ultimate Luxury”.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate
Gottman, Julie Schwartz, John Mordechai Gottman, and Daniel J. Siegel. 10 Principles for Doing Effective Couples Therapy. New York: W.W. Norton, 2015. Print.
The 5 topics outlined is this article were derived from a couple’s intervention created by John and Julie Gottman of the Gottman Institute. I’ve provided the book reference below just in case you’re interested in learning a bit more!