Communication Inside and Outside of Conflict

June 16, 2021

“We need help communicating.” This is the most frequent issue that couples open with in counseling. But what does healthy communication look like? It may be so easy at first, when two people are in love, that they do not notice what they are doing right. What most people do recognize from experience is that good conversations occur when the conditions are right. But, for the most part, what those conditions are remains a mystery. More often couples are better at identifying what went wrong than what went right. More painfully, individuals take steps to correct the situation only when they realize that they do not like what they have become in the relationship, when the constant arguments impact what they think and feel about themselves.

So, what are the ideal conditions that make for a good discussion about difficult issues and that help individuals to become who they want to be in a loving relationship?

The most obvious factors relate to what partners say and how partners speak to each other during conflict itself. But the most important things couples can do to manage conflict is what they do outside of the conflict discussions. Here are some key ideas the emerge from the research of John Gottman and colleagues. What these ideas illustrate is the fact that an intimate relationship is actually an ongoing conversation in which it is not really possible to separate the communication that occurs within conflict and problem-solving from the communication that constitutes the entire relationship. Additionally, it is not easy to separate ‘I’ and ‘We’ in the patterns of communication that make the relationship what it is. By participating in the patterns of the relationship we shape ourselves and each other into the kind of people who have this kind of relationship.


Start Positive

As we might expect, the end of any conversation is determined by its beginning. When we start out feeling aggressive, we inevitably find ourselves attacking, which proves our partner to attack, which escalates our attack, and so on. A harsh beginning spirals into a brawl. Starting the conversation with a positive tone gives the conversation a fighting chance of being a good one. Admittedly, few people look forward to a tough conversation, so setting off on a positive footing may be a lot to ask. But luckily, we don’t have to aim that high. Think Switzerland. A mix of positivity and neutrality at the start can lead to a very good outcome. It enables one or both partners to make repair efforts during the conversation that avoid escalation by interrupting the negative cycle and to get the couple back on track. Whoever begins will have the best chance of being heard by adopting a neutral to positive tone.

The best way to introduce a delicate subject is to begin by talking about one’s own feelings and not blaming the other. If you really want your partner to hear what you have to say, start by taking some ownership of your own part of the issue. Admitting even the tiniest bit of responsibility for the problem will leave an opening for you partner to do the same. Now you are not fighting but collaborating on a common problem.

Complain, Don’t Criticize

Airing grievances is crucial as the alternative is to stew on a complaint until it boils over into an attack. How couples bring up issues is vital to the outcome of the conversation. In short, complaining is good and criticizing is bad.

A complaint is a statement about a behavior that affects a person in a negative way. The focus is on feelings in relation to a specific behavior. For example, “I felt really hurt when you …” “I felt so sad last night when you…” “I get lonely and miss you when…”

Criticism moves from complaint to blame and character assassination. The complainer has a chance of being heard and getting some empathy. The critic has no change of getting a hearing and will win no sympathy.

Diffuse the Tension

Another great way to increase the odds that your partner will hear you and understand your point of view is to sprinkle the conversation with gestures that keep the temperature down. Some of the best ways to reduce tension in both your partner and in yourself include validating, empathy, reassurance, and, of course, humor.

Validation By far the best tactic is validation. This means, stating your agreement with something (anything) your partner has said, and acknowledging the validity of your partner’s complaint or perspective even if you do not agree with it. Admitting that you understand why the other person thinks or feels that way keeps both of you in the game and cooperating.

Empathy Like validation, empathy is a statement of understanding. Empathy acknowledges the other person’s feelings. Validation acknowledges why a person feels a certain way. Empathy acknowledges what the person is actually feeling right now.

Reassurance For many couples, conflict escalation is accompanied but a feeling that the whole relationship is doomed and that this is the fight that finally ends it all. Relational despair colors how one person feels about this conflict and about the other person. A sense of catastrophic doom makes it harder to listen, harder to understand, harder to validate, and brings out the inner critic. A well placed, “We’re Okay” statement at the beginning and at the end of the discussion decreases the negative tone and increases the positive tone of the conversation. Reassurance can create intimacy and promote trust even in the midst of conflict.

Humor Everyone knows that humor is a great way to reduce tension and to bring down the temperature in a discussion. But it can go wrong or not be received well. A person who is feeling very negative may perceive the humor as dismissive. With all efforts to keep the conversation civil and to repair missteps, one person’s efforts may not succeed if they are rejected by the other person.

Time-out and Safety Words

When all else fails, taking a time-out to cool off prevents an escalation. Calling a halt can be difficult and the couple must have a plan for how to stop, what to do during the time-out, and when to return to try again. It is important to avoid some of the most common mistakes. Just walking away without ever discussing the time-out technique can lead to feelings of abandonment and anger. Stopping the argument only to rehearse the most important points and one’s own counterarguments will only keep the negativity alive and not lead to a cooling off. Finally, stopping an argument but refusing to come back to the topic is just stonewalling and will trigger defensiveness in the other.


The time and attention that couples give each other outside of conflict discussions pay excellent dividends when things get heated. When couples feel connected it is much easier to begin on a positive note, to keep things from getting out of control, to mutually regulate each other’s negative emotions, and to remember that the other person is a loved one and not an invading army.

Turning Toward Throughout the day individuals reach out to each other for connection and are rewarded when loved ones turn toward these bids for connection. They are hurt and alienated when loved ones ignore or turn against these bids. Inevitably partners will mistakenly step on each other’s toes, or even deliberately ignore or reject connection for one reason or another. Inevitably a conversation will start out wrong and get out of control or it will start out well enough but deteriorate before either partner knows what happened. Couples who are good communicators and who behave themselves in conflict discussions also have a 5 to 1 ratio of these positive and negative interactions over the course of a day. Anticipating missteps, false starts, and a host of minor injuries, a great way to achieve that desired ratio of 5 positives to 1 negative is by making a conscious effort to express admiration, respond warmly when a partner reaches out for connection, hold hands or cuddle, or do something both partners enjoy. These practices outside of conflict strengthen the quality of the friendship in the relationship and allow partners to be present to each other as they would to someone they loved. Couples with a healthy balance of positive feelings find it easier to maintain a positive perspective at the beginning of and throughout a conflict discussion.

Curiosity A person’s love map refers to the cognitive space one partner reserves for the other. Building a rich love map begins by being curious about a partner. When a couple first meets, each is spontaneously curious about the other, in part, because they are trying to decide whether to commit to this person. Later the motive for being curious may have faded into the background. It takes deliberate effort to tap into that stream of curiosity and begin again to wonder about the inner world of the other. Individuals who feel understood and cherished by their partners are more inclined to make an effort to reduce the temperature of a discussion. They are also more inclined to respond positively to the other person’s efforts at empathy, reassurance and humor.

Rituals of Connection It is a good idea to create a space on a regular basis to discuss important issues and take time to understand each other. This way issues do not fester and finally explode or boil over. These rituals also serve as a concrete reminder that “We’re going to be Okay.” Such rituals include the family communion or eating dinner together, celebrating milestones with a trip to the ice cream parlor, family game night, or simply a hug or kiss at parting or coming home.

Processing Injuries Dr. Gottman frequently refers to a quote by William Faulkner, “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” A regrettable event, or an unresolved relational injury, is an open wound. It sits in the psyche as unfinished business that cannot be forgotten precisely because it is unfinished. Couples are understandably reluctant to bring up old issues for fear of re-igniting the fight, except, of course, when they are reaching for the kitchen sink in a brawl. Learning how to process regrettable events and practicing, with a professional, if necessary, are vital to the development of strong connections and good communication.


An intimate relationship is an ongoing conversation. Conflicts do not occur in a vacuum but emerge from a pattern of interaction whose history embraces the whole day, week, and year. It is the conversation that has been going on since the individuals first met. That conversation has an arch and a momentum of its own apart from the individual intentions and behaviors of the conversation partners. It is structured and driven by recurrent patterns which have been characterized by psychologist Dan Wile as Aggressive versus Collaborative Cycles.

An Aggressive Cycle occurs when both partners are in attack and defend mode. The “inner logic” of the cycle determines how each partner behaves and what each says to the other. The goal of the cycle is individual survival in a zero-sum contest. And the momentum of the contest carries the individuals along, often enough willingly, but sometimes unwillingly and despite their best intentions, and almost always regrettably. A Collaborative Cycle occurs when each partner takes some responsibility and makes a frank admission of his or her own part in the process. When couples are collaborating, they are curious, empathetic, and capable of higher-level thinking and creative problem-solving. The “inner logic” of the collaborative cycle brings out the best in each, calls forth their higher natures, and aims at mutual enhancement. Of course, in a difficult negotiation, nether may get the individual objects each desires for him or herself. But both get the more valued prize of a healthy relationship of which they can be proud, in which they obtain for themselves many other good things, and by which they establish their identities as ‘this kind of person’ who has ‘this kind of friendship, marriage, or family’. It is in relationships constituted principally by Collaborative Cycles that we find ourselves and grow in authentic self-identity.

Human persons exist as part of a concrete “we” prior to living as individual “I’s”. Developmental psychologists study the emergence of an infant’s sense of self out of the primordial world of mother-child. But even as adults persons establish, modify and develop their individual selves in dialog with others. We do not do so by examining and selecting among alternatives ways of being. Rather we enact meanings and values which we later come to understand and accept or reject in conversation with loved ones. These meanings and values that shape the recurrent patterns in a relationship are often hidden from view or bigger than we can imagine. We are unlikely to know or to understand fully what those meanings are but we value them just the same. In this sense, love is often blind. As the theologian Frederick Lawrence wrote in The Fragility of Consciousness, those whom we love “speak a language with their lives”, and “The eyes of being in love bring one to appreciate the implicit or explicit meanings and values that make the beloved ‘tick’”. As time passes, partners find themselves accepting the meanings, facts, and values that are constitutive of the couple’s identity. We are motivated to do so “because of what can only be described as the beauty of the lives inspired by” those meanings, facts and values. In loving each other we love what makes the other and the relationship itself ‘tick’ without being able to say exactly what that is. Often enough, what we can understand of the meanings and values embodied in our loved ones and enacted in our relationships, we come to understand by becoming ‘just like that ourselves’. We awake to find who we are, that is, who we have become in this relationship, and thereby come to know the one we love.


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