Every single relationship is also a bit of a power struggle. Most often the struggle is very subtle and goes unnoticed. These are all the times when you’re making small compromises, looking for common ground, gently testing the boundaries and exchanging superficial thoughts and opinions – selecting a place to eat, a movie to watch or gossiping about a third person.
But from time to time, the power struggle escalates. At the end of the day, you can’t agree with everyone on everything and you can’t always find common ground. The bigger the differences in goals, opinions, beliefs, interests, values, ideas, motivations or desires, especially the ones that are very important to you, the fiercer the conflict usually is. Conflicts become especially strong when you take something personally or when relationship boundaries are seriously breached.
If that happens to you often, don’t assume you are the unlucky exception. Conflicts, big or small, are a normal part of every healthy relationship. If there are no (properly managed) conflicts in a relationship, the relationship is definitely a superficial or toxic one.
So thinking about how to avoid or run away from every single conflict isn’t the right strategy. It not only prevents a relationship from developing more dimensions, it also hinders your relationship assertiveness and proactivity. It makes you a coward.
The right direction is to develop superior conflict resolution skills instead. It’s one of the best skills to have to enjoy healthy relationships. If you have no such skills, a conflict can quickly be mismanaged, and a relationship can get seriously damaged.
On the other hand, if you develop good conflict resolutions skills, every conflict becomes an opportunity for strengthening the bond between two people and making the relationship even deeper; because you open up. Think about how unique and deep make-up sex can be.
My whole life has been spinning around conflicts and power struggle. In my family home, when I was managing a VC fund, dealing with politicians and in numerous cases when I decided to kick things out of the status quo a little bit (I love to do that a lot).
So I’ve learned a lot about conflict resolution and in this blog post, I want to share with you my thoughts and experiences that may help you improve your conflict resolution skills as well and consequently develop deeper bonds with the key people in your life. Because I may deal with conflicts a lot, but I also always enjoyed really deep relationships in my life.
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Your options after a fight are quite limited
After a big fight, you don’t have many options. Actually, there are only five options to choose from:
- You can decide to terminate the relationship or at least put it on hold (termination)
- You can pretend that there is no conflict and become more and more passive-aggressive (lying to yourself and others)
- You can openly punish the person and pour gasoline on fire (competition, fight, avoidance, ignorance)
- You can fawn and yield to the other person and betray yourself
- You can try to fix the relationship as soon as possible (collaboration, compromise, negotiation)
If the fight was too big, if someone violated the relationship boundaries really bad, you have every right to terminate the relationship. Sometimes that’s the best thing to do, especially in cases of toxic relationships where the same damaging patterns are repeating themselves.
You have every right to terminate a relationship that isn’t working. If you do that, there is no need for conflict resolution. Just don’t confuse avoidance and ignorance with terminating a relationship and letting things go.
The second thing you can do is to fight. You can decide to compete, to overpower and go for a win-lose situation. Sometimes that is necessary. Sometimes going for a fight is what you have to do.
I saw that numerous times when the second or third employee in a business left the company and started a competing business. Again in such cases, there is no need for conflict resolution, you just have to make sure that you win. It’s kind of a similar situation if you decide to yield and kneel, you just don't fight but submit and so there is no need for conflict resolution.
But cases where terminations, submissions and fights are the only options are quite rare. They do happen, people can do all kinds of unbelievably damaging things, like cheating, stealing, being abusive etc. (actually, we all behave stupid from time to time), but they aren’t a part of everyday life; as long as you aren’t living in a war-zone, prison, toxic family or any other kind of hostile environment and if your relationships are healthy at least to a certain extent.
The most often scenario in interpersonal conflicts is the one, where you should successfully solve the conflict as soon as possible, but you rather play power struggle games. Punishment games.
That’s when conflict resolution skills are really needed, because any kind of punishment destroys trust in relationships. It’s the opposite of successful conflict resolution. It’s a big waste of time, energy and it destroys the relationship’s “wealth” or value. So the best option you have, when there is no need to fight or terminate a relationship, is to try to resolve the conflict as soon as possible.
Any kind of punishment destroys everything you’ve built in a relationship
Every relationship is like a mutual bank account. By doing something good for a relationship, you put money into the bank account. By doing something bad for a relationship, you withdraw money from the relationship bank account.
Every relationship bank account can be full of money, barely above water, in negative numbers or even bankrupt. A lot of “money” or “wealth” means relationship happiness, low numbers lead to low quality of the relationship.
Examples of investments in the relationship bank account are spending time with somebody, going on a nice trip together, doing somebody a favor etc. Examples of withdrawals from the relationship bank account are all the things like cheating, lying, not keeping your promises etc.
Even if it might seem so on the first glance, conflicts aren’t withdrawals yet. Mismanaged conflicts turn into withdrawals from the relationship bank account. Properly managed conflicts can be an investment, assuming that relationship boundaries weren’t seriously breached.
That’s because properly managed conflicts can deepen the relationship bond. They present an opportunity to open up and forge a deeper bond. And conflicts that get out of hand (aka when severe punishment is happening) always cause destruction in relationships.
- Aggressive reactions – physical or verbal abuse, explosiveness, loss of temper
- Passive-aggressive reactions – silence, creating distance, becoming unreliable, rejection, isolation
- Devaluing relationship – sarcasm, cynicism, criticizing, shaming, focusing only on the negative
- Revenge, eye-for-an-eye thinking and similar destructive behaviors
Here is the thing. In the relationship bank account, the same rule applies as it does to the money one – it’s so easy to spend money and it’s so hard to save it. It's so easy to punish someone or lose temper and so hard to invest energy into successful conflict resolution. But at the end of the day, that’s what makes the difference between wealthy and poor people in whichever context, the money or the relationship one. Wealthy people do the hard things.
So when you want to do additional damage in a relationship with punishment after a fight, ask yourself, why would you further destroy something you’ve been building (for months or years), why would you destroy the key wealth and value you have in your life? Relationships are one important part of the wealth you have, so chose the hard path, the asap resolution path.
You don’t just throw the computer out of the window when an error occurs; because you know it has value. The most important relationships in your life are even more valuable. So do the opposite from any kind of punishment. Decide to resolve a conflict as quickly as possible.
Well, fast doesn’t necessary means too fast. Resolving a conflict as quickly as possible has certain limitations, because you don't want to do it superficially. Here are the exact steps to follow, which will absolutely lead you to successfully resolving a conflict:
- Avoid all-or-nothing thinking
- Wait for the emotional charge to neutralize
- Really understand what’s happening behind the scenes
- Forget mind reading, honest communication is the key
- Decide to show respect to the other person
- Don’t preach and make sure that the conversation is balanced
- Focus on a specific behavior that bothers you and your feelings
- Take a timeout if things get heated again
- Sometimes you have to agree to disagree
- Some conflicts simply can’t be resolved
Avoid all-or-nothing thinking at all costs
My personal biggest obstacle in successful conflict resolution in close relationships was always all‑or‑nothing thinking. For me, relationships were either perfect or nothing.
I was so happy and thankful for having someone in my life when things were perfect, and then after a small quarrel, the value of the relationship went straight to zero. Then things went back to perfect again after the conflict passed and soon back to zero, and so I was oscillating on an emotionally heavy roller coaster.
It took me quite a while to understand that life is never black and white. That all-or-nothing thinking is a very toxic cognitive distortion. There is no perfect relationship. If you want to have a healthy relationship with anyone, you have to accept turbulent times as well as happy times.
There is, of course, a line to draw where there is no going back or when there is just too much drama, but you still have to make sure that your emotional reaction in a quarrel is not out of proportion and that it doesn’t lead you to damaging the relationship even further.
Therefore, before we even go to successful conflict resolution, have realistic expectations regarding relationships. You can’t properly manage conflicts if every disagreement you have in life takes a relationship from everything to nothing.
Neutralize the emotional charge
If you want to successfully resolve a conflict, you have to first neutralize the emotional charge – on your side. Actually, it has to be neutralized on both sides. Take your time to calm down. Go for a walk. Take a few deep breaths. But that doesn’t mean you can’t immediately mitigate potential damage.
Agree with the other person to take time for emotions to calm down, but also agree to meet and resolve the conflict as soon as possible. Show your good intentions that you want to keep the relationship alive and that everything will be okay, things just need to calm down and then you’ll talk about it.
Humor is a good way to neutralize the emotional charge. Try to squeeze a small smile out of yourself, even though you are drowning in negative feelings, and explain the plan – let’s take a day or two for things to calm down and then we’ll have an honest talk. If you don’t do that, mind reading will come into play on both sides, and mind reading usually makes things much worse.
Forget about any mind reading
If you don’t immediately agree that you will both put the energy into resolving a conflict, mind reading games will take place. And trust me, your mind can take you to some very dark places – from fantasies about worst case scenarios and exaggerating about how the other person is feeling, to dreaming about potential revenge options and magnifying all the negatives and minimizing the positive aspects of the relationship.
You don’t know how the other person feels and what the other person thinks. Don’t try to be a fortuneteller and read minds. It doesn’t work. You are only assuming and you can be assuming wrong.
So you want to open honest communication as soon as possible, not base your actions purely on your assumptions. Wrong assumptions are the mother of all fuckups and if you act based on them, you can only make everything worse.
When you immediately agree to resolve the conflict somewhere in the nearby future, there is nothing to fantasize about, because you already know what the next step will be – finding a solution and getting back on good terms. If you manage to do that (and it does take some guts) the conflict already hit the bottom and things can only go upwards after that.
Really understand what’s happening behind the scenes
There are two types of conflicts –intellectual and emotional. Intellectual conflicts almost always have an obvious root cause. One person thinks A and the other person thinks the opposite or sees things differently in some way. Then you have to make compromises, find out-of-the-box win-win scenarios and new solutions, or at least develop empathy towards different opinions.
Emotional conflicts almost always have a deeper meaning. Usually you are fighting about one thing, but the root cause of the problem is something completely else. For example, in an intimate relationship you are fighting over whether the toilet seat should be up or down, but that is rarely the true reason for the conflict. Usually the real reason is that somebody feels neglected or some other deeper needs aren’t being met.
You can analyze with 5 Whys what really upset you or the other person so much, and make sure that you really understand what’s happening behind the curtains of the conflict. Look for changes in relationship patterns, like:
- What could be the person afraid of or angry about?
- Is there any big change that is causing stress (moving to a new place or offices, changing a job, illnesses, changes in market trends etc.)?
- Which things are different in a relationship than they were a week or month ago and how (how much quality time you spend together, are there new people present in social circles, are there new interests and desires that you are aware of etc.)?
- Are there changes in how much you or the other person is investing into the relationship?
- Were there any wrong assumptions present in the relationship from one side or the other or was something not communicated clearly?
- Is there a transference, projection or emotional flashback happening?
The first step is to take the time for an emotional charge to lose its power. Then you analyze what could be the real issue and what the fight is all about, while you avoid any mind reading. Please be careful about the difference. Mind reading is your mind going crazy and acting purely out of your ego assumptions.
A thorough analysis is something completely different. It’s a reflection about potential issues that are causing the conflict, while being aware of which parts of the analysis are only your assumptions and what are the facts. And even more, an analysis is about finding the right starting points for an honest talk. Following up on the honest talk should be your next step. But there are a few rules of how to have an honest talk.
Always show respect to the other person
The emotional charge should be gone by now, but you still might be a little bit angry, sorrowful, upset or hostile. Thus you have to consciously agree with yourself that you will show respect to the other person no matter what.
You must have an active constructive approach to the honest talk. That means no name‑calling, sarcasm, cynicism or labeling. You have to follow the basic rules of good communication. There is no quality relationship without mutual respect. That’s your start.
Always respect basic human rights. Everybody has the right to be treated with respect, to make autonomous decisions and to not listen to your advice or overtake your values. Everyone has the right to their own beliefs, values, opinions, preferences and feelings. As do you. Be tolerant and respect that.
Challenge yourself to find the good and beautiful thing inside of everyone. It’s there. It’s your job to find it. Not their job to show you. Mark Manson
Don’t preach, let the conversation be balanced
I love to preach. I love to judge, aggressively explain my convictions for hours and argue how I am right (fortunately, I’m doing that less and less). But here’s the thing. Nobody likes to be preached to. Even if people pretend that they are listening and agreeing with you, they are usually not. That was a big epiphany for me one day, and you won’t believe where – in a church.
I was raised as a catholic. And I always loved reading and listening to different views and opinions. So I always listened to priests preaching and then thought about what they were saying, why they were saying it and if it made any sense.
After the mass, I always wanted to debate with people what was the sermon all about. And I figured out that nobody really listened. Nobody had a clue or they had at most a vague idea of what the priest was talking about. I provoked dozens of people, young and old. Same response. Huh?
People don’t like to be preached to. So explain your view, emphasize especially how you feel and why you feel like you do (explain your values), make sure you are understood and then listen. The conversation must always be balanced. Don’t preach and don’t interrupt the other person.
When solving a conflict, focus on behaviors, feelings, values and solutions
During the honest recovery talk, don’t criticize the person and avoid “you” statements. Successful conflict resolution is not about playing the blame game, but about directing energy towards potential solutions. So focus on a specific behavior that bothers you and explain your feelings and experience connected to it.
Show your vulnerability. That’s how you create a safe zone for an honest talk. Explain your view through values and have radical candor. Suggest a few solutions and keep your mind open. That is the recipe for having a successful and honest talk that leads to conflict resolution.
It’s hard to achieve that. You have to open up and constantly keep your feelings in check. Your mind will try to slip back into the blame game, protecting your ego and minimize the value of the relationship. But you are stronger, you are smarter.
- You can turn anytime again against the other person (expressing your feelings in an unhealthy way)
- You can turn anytime against yourself (stifling your negative feelings)
- You can express your feelings in a healthy way and find a solution. Which one will it be?
Since it’s not easy to always keep your feelings in check, there is one more tool you need. The timeout. In case a discussion gets too heated, agree that anyone can call a timeout. When someone calls the timeout, you just have to agree when to continue with the conversation.
My girlfriend and I always use the timeout strategy when the negative emotional charge gets too strong. When one of us calls a timeout, we immediately stop with any kind of action, words or unproductive non-verbal communication. We wait for things to calm down and then we continue with conflict resolution.
If every sports game has a timeout to cool down the heat, you deserve to have a timeout in your relationships when communication isn’t going in the right direction.
Sometimes it’s okay to agree to disagree
Much like you shouldn’t have unrealistic expectations that relationships are only a bed of roses, so you shouldn’t have wrong expectations that after a conflict, you always have to find a position where you both completely agree with the new common perspective.
Sometimes you just have to agree to disagree. If that’s emotionally okay with both parties, it can be a “win-win” situation.
It’s not like one person is always right and the other person is wrong. You can both be right, or you can even both be wrong. Thus it’s sometimes completely okay to agree to disagree. The main point of conflict resolution is that the trust doesn’t get damaged and that there are no heavy emotional knots in the relationship, growing into big emotional balloons that burst sooner or later.
Some conflicts simply can’t be resolved
Last but not least, some relationship conflicts can’t be resolved; or it doesn’t make sense to resolve them. It takes around 90 – 120 days for a relationship culture to get established; assuming that two individuals spend enough time together in person. After that, every relationship unfolds more or less by specific patterns.
The longer a certain pattern lasts, the harder it is to change it. And in every relationship, there are healthy and unhealthy patterns. We can further divide unhealthy patterns into tolerable and intolerable ones. The main idea of a pattern is its repetition. So if an intolerable pattern starts to occur and can’t be stopped, any further investment in a relationship is probably futile or leads to even more damage.
Cheating, physical violence, verbal abuse, threats, drugs and many similar extreme toxic behaviors have a tendency to repeat themselves (much like good relationship patterns do). So you must be extremely careful to set very straight and strict boundaries in relationships.
Once they are crossed, or the second time they happen at most, think twice before resolving the conflict and repeating the same scenario again from the beginning. You aren’t here to save people in relationships, you are here to enjoy relationships.
Your toolbox for successful conflict resolution
Now you have the toolbox to successfully resolve conflicts. I’m completely sure that you already intuitively knew 90 % of the things discussed in this article; or even more. But it’s not about knowing it, it's about practicing it.
If you are currently in the middle of a conflict with anyone, you know what to do. Send a message, drop an e-mail or call the person to set a date to have an honest resolution talk. Assuming that deep down, you hope to resolve the conflict.
And if you aren’t currently in any conflict, you know what to do the next time you encounter one. Commit yourself to handle a conflict at least a bit differently, slightly more constructive than how you usually handle it.
There are many options how you can do that. To repeat them:
- Do the opposite from the aggressive, passive-aggressive or any other type of toxic action after a conflict occurs.
- Immediately agree to solve the conflict somewhere in the nearby future (it takes guts to do that, but it feels good) and take time for the negative emotional charge to pass.
- Don't let your mind take you into dark places with all-or-nothing thinking or fortunetelling.
- Practice empathy and try to analyze what’s happening behind the scenes. Use the 5 Whys technique, self-reflection, and analyze if you or the other person might be in an emotional flashback.
- Always show respect. That is your starting point. In intimate relationships, love is lust and respect.
- Let the conversation be balanced, don't preach, and focus on behaviors, values and solutions.
- If the conversation gets too heated, call a timeout. Also use the same tool the first time a conflict occurs, if things are going completely in the wrong direction.
- Look for win-win solutions, find new creative standpoints. If you don't find any of that, agree to disagree and continue to enjoy the relationship. The key thing is not to damage the trust, to open yourself, show your vulnerability and see a conflict as an opportunity to deepen any relationship.