If a couple wants to solve a solvable problem, then the most popular conflict resolution method is to “put yourself in your partner’s shoes while listening intently to what he or she says, and then to communicate empathetically that you see the dilemma from his or her perspective. It’s not a bad method – if you can do it.”
But many folks can’t do it. By studying the happily married couples in his lab, Dr. Gottman came up a five-step process for conflict resolution.
Step One: “Soften Your Startup” – Approach a subject you want to solve with humor; avoid criticism, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling. Be gentle with each other. “Discussions invariably end on the same note they begin,” says Dr. Gottman. So, if things start off defensive and nasty, the conflict is unlikely to end any better.
A harsh startup is more likely to happen if you let things store up; bring up issues as they happen. Be clear, concise, polite, appreciative. There are many exercises in this section to help you learn how to make a gentle startup.
Step Two: “Learn To Make and Receive Repair Attempts” - This section talks about how to make repair attempts if the discussion gets off track and becomes harsh and defensive. There is also a large section on phrases that will help soothe yourself and your spouse under the headings of “I Feel,” “I Need To Calm Down,” “Sorry,” “Getting To Yes,” “Stop Action!” and “I Appreciate”.
Step Three: “Soothe Yourself and Each Other” - Less stable marriages have a hard time with conflict discussions because inevitably one partner or the other becomes emotionally flooded. If you are flooded, you cannot hear your partner and what they are saying. If you become flooded during a conflict discussion, then you may need to stop and take a break. Calming yourself down for twenty minutes or so before continuing the discussion can be invaluable. After that, it is good to calm each other down. Dr. Gottman notes that this is important: “Soothing your partner is of enormous benefit to a marriage because it it really a form of reverse conditioning. In other words, if you frequently have the experience of being calmed by your spouse, you will stop seeing your partner as a trigger of stress in your life and instead associate him or her without feeling relaxed.”
Step Four: “Compromise” - there are several exercises to work on this most important step.
Step Five: “Be Tolerant Of Each Other’s Faults” – Don’t focus on the “if onlies” but on the acceptance of flaws and finding common ground.