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How to De-escalate Conflict


Oct. 9, 2020 Psychology Today

And while conflict isn’t bad per se–talking through the issues that will inevitably arise is probably a good idea–there are ways we can do it better, so each of us isn’t left sulking in the corner until we find a vaccine. 

When things get tense, here are five ways to deescalate conflict and salvage your relationships: 

Accept Influence: Couple’s therapist John Gottman’s conducted groundbreaking studies that predict which couples will get divorced. His findings? Couples were more likely to stay together when, during times of conflict, husbands accepted their wife’s influence. Accepting influence looks like the opposite of defensiveness; when the other person has a complaint, instead of telling them why they’re wrong, tell them why they’re right. Share “you have a good point” and look for things to agree with them about. When you accept influence, you’re not out to win the conflict. You’re out to find a solution that works for both of you. 

Take a Break: To understand why taking a break helps, let’s visit psychiatry professor Dan Siegel’s concept of the window of tolerance. According to Siegel, we all have a “zone of optimal arousal” at which we are functioning at our best; we’re able to think rationally and consider others’ perspectives. However, when we’re stressed–like when our toddler upchucks on our new shirt, or when our dog starts humping our leg during our zoom work meeting–we exceed this optimal zone. We may be hyper-aroused (feeling on edge; ready to fight or run) or hypo-aroused (shut down; feeling numb). Siegel argues that when we’re outside our zone of optimal arousal, our goal is not to keep arguing, because that will be futile or even damaging. It is to calm ourselves down. One great way to do this is to take a break. Returning to the conflict when we feel calm will lead us to blame one another less and listen to one another more.

Affirm One Another: Another gem from the couple’s researcher John Gottman is the concept of “the magic ratio.” Gottman found that couples that last have a 5;1 ratio of positive to negative comments. More generally, Gottman’s couples therapy technique addresses not only working through negative experiences between couples but also building up positive ones. When we find ways to affirm others around us, we’ll be better prepared when disagreements inevitably arise. We start preparing to have healthy conflict before the disagreement happens by weaving a safety net of love and respect for one another. Expressing fondness and appreciation, sharing compliments, and showing admiration are all ways to do this. 

Name the Underlying Emotions: Research finds that the simple act of naming emotions deactivates our amygdala, the part of the brain activated when we’re angry or stressed. We can use this to our advantage in conflict by trying to name the emotion the other person might be feeling during the conflict. Instead of responding to the content of their message, we can state the feelings behind it. So for example, if your roommate says “I can’t think because you’re so loud during your zoom meetings,” instead of defending yourself, you might reflect, “So you’re saying you’re feeling stressed out and unable to focus?” 

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