10 Calming Strategies for Managing Conflict

I’m sure you’ve been there: in a haze of hurt and resentment, you blurted out something cruel. You know that you didn’t really mean it, but, days later, your partner is still hurting from your unkind words. You wish you could time-travel back to that moment and clap a hand over your mouth, but it’s too late now. You can’t unring a bell.

It’s possible to avoid moments like this. It takes effort and practice to learn, but you can do it.

My goal as an educator and a couples therapist is to help you build the skills you need to have a more fulfilling and satisfying partnership. That’s why these past three weeks I’ve been sharing my strategies for managing your reactions to conflict.

Last week we talked about “timing out”, a method of preventing a fight from damaging your connection with your partner. When you start to get triggered, and can’t control your rising anger, “time out” is a great tool. But you can go further, and learn how to prevent yourself from getting completely triggered in the first place.

This week, I’m sharing my set of strategies for slowing down your stress reactions to conflict. This is a deeper practice than “time out”; it is preventative. Learning and practicing holding steady in a hard conversation will help you experience less pain and more connection. If you want a relationship in which both you and your partner feel safe sharing every part of yourself, these are the skills you need to build.

Start practicing these skills at the very first sign of trouble, ideally before you start getting upset. Maybe you notice you’re suddenly discussing a hot button topic. Start then. Or maybe you feel the prick of tears; start then. Maybe you feel like defending yourself. That’s also a good time to start.  If you catch your reaction soon enough, you may not have to “time out,” and you’re certainly less likely to say something hurtful in the heat of the moment.

  1. Slow down. When you first notice your stress rising, slow down your reactions. Pause and consider your next sentence before you speak, and take another long pause to consider what your partner says in response. As the conversation continues, hold to this pace–don’t let anger speed up your reactions.
  2. Breathe. Take a deep breath in, hold it for a moment, and then let it out very, very slowly. Make your exhale twice the length of your inhale, or even longer. This has a powerful physiological calming effect on your body and will help you stay in your thinking brain.
  3. Let your partner slow down. Slowing down yourself can encourage your partner to match your pace, which will help them calm down, too. So don’t get upset if they take a long moment to respond–use the time to breathe and talk yourself down. You can do this.  
  4. Get grounded, literally. Sit down, put your feet on the floor, and feel the stability of your position. Let it in. You are ok.
  5. Look around. See that there’s no danger. Calm yourself by using the classic trick: try to find five blue things in the room, then five red things, then five green things, etc. Tune into the moment, and notice that you are just fine. No machine guns, no saber toothed tiger. You will live.

After following the first five steps, check yourself: are you still thinking thoughts like “My partner never understands,” or “How dare my partner say that?!” or “but I DID…”. If you’re still in a blaming or defending state of mind, continue to slow down, breathe, and stay grounded until you feel able to empathize with your partner again. Sometimes a quick bathroom break is helpful, or maybe you want to walk the dog together and take a little vacation from processing.  If you’re not totally activated, a mini-time-out can really help.  

Now that you’re holding steady and feel ready to engage more deeply with your partner, turn to the next five steps.

  1. Remind yourself you want to know this person deeply. Try to listen from their perspective, without immediately jumping in to tell them that they’re wrong. Remember: you have plenty of time to work things out. You can just listen for a bit and share your perspective later. Whatever they are saying, it is not about you. They are telling you how they see things. This is not a truth, it is a perspective. You don’t have to agree, but it would be helpful if you could listen, hear, and validate that you get how they could see it that way.
  2. Get curious about how they are seeing things. For the next ten minutes of the conversation, ask only questions. Make sure they are only genuine questions of curiosity, not loaded ones like “How could you think that?” or “Why would you do something so stupid?” If you’re able to get curious about your partner’s perspective, you may find your anger dissolving as you realize “Of course–that’s why what I said got under your skin so much!” This is an opportunity for greater intimacy, a vulnerable moment in which you can learn more about your partner’s unique self.
  3. Tell your partner how you are feeling. By this, I don’t mean “I feel like you never…” . I mean what emotion are you experiencing? Tell your partner why this topic is difficult for you. Talk only about yourself, your perceptions, your feelings, the meanings you make of the topic. Don’t let the word “you” start your sentences. When your partner asks clarifying questions, stay loose. They are trying to get to know you better too.
  4. Tell your partner something you appreciate about them. At this point, or any point in the conversation you can shift the energy. Help each other get grounded. Try telling your partner something you appreciate about them, and why it feels important. That might be as simple as “thank you for letting me know how important this is to you, and why; I want to know you well, and this way I don’t have to guess what’s going on for you. Thank you.”
  5. Get curious about your own reactions. Ask yourself: why did this get under my skin so much? What does it symbolize or mean to me? This is an opportunity to learn more about yourself, too–and understanding more about what set you off in the situation will help you manage your reaction better next time.

This post is part of a series about navigating conflict in relationships. Check out last week’s post about timing out, or read about how I learned to stay steady in tough conversation with my partner.

How To Keep Fights From Damaging Your Relationship

Think back to the last big disagreement you had with your partner. Do you cringe when you remember saying something you wish you could take back? Do you feel a jolt of pain when you remember something your partner said, even though they didn’t really mean it? How long did it take you to repair the damage from that fight? Now, as you look back, is it really completely healed? Would your partner agree with you?

Handling a fight well is one of the hardest and also most important things you can do to build a happy relationship. Staying calm, rational, and empathetic in a stressful situation means working against your brain’s most basic survival instincts. In my next blog post, I’ll write about how to build your ability to remain curious and calm, but for now, I’d like to focus on what to do when you are NOT curious OR calm.  

Imagine: the conversation is heating up. Your voice is rising. You’re turning red. You know you are right and your partner is wrong. Why can’t they see the obvious?

This behavior is perfectly normal. There’s nothing wrong with you. Your body is doing its job: protecting you. Your brain has a survival mechanism that is extremely sensitive. When it perceives a threat, all it can do is fight, fly, or freeze. This survival mechanism floods your body with stress chemicals that make it easier to fight off an attacker or run from a bear.

But there’s a trade-off: your brain can no longer use logic, do math, think through a problem, or even empathize. Nobody is kind or polite when triggered. This response is designed to save your life. But it might be a little over the top given that it’s your beloved partner you’re facing down, and your life is probably not in danger.

It’s almost impossible to fight this life-saving stress response once it starts. The best thing you can do is take a “time out” and return to the discussion once you’ve both calmed down.

Here are my 6 steps to “time out” effectively:

  1. Plan ahead. Have a conversation about timing out with your partner before your next fight. Agree on an easy-to-remember signal that will mean “I love you, and I’m calling time out so we can avoid doing damage.” Agree that whoever called time out will take responsibility for re-opening the conversation. This is not about avoidance, abandonment, or denial. Part of the deal is you come back and try again to resolve the issue.
  2. Watch for stress signals. Next time you and your partner come into conflict, pause. Breathe. See if you can stay curious. Slow way down. This is a lot easier if you start at the very first sign of upset. If you start to notice yourself thinking in terms of right/wrong, me versus you, or trying to convince your partner of your viewpoint, you will want to slow all the way down to a time out. The sooner you take a break, the fewer stress chemicals you have to metabolize before you get your logical, caring, curious brain back.
  3. Call “time out.” When you notice your stress signals, call “time out” and pause the conversation. Don’t say another word–you risk sucking both of you back into the fight.  Remember, you will return to it later, when you both are able to access your logical brain rather than your self-protective brain. Protecting your relationship and one another is a better strategy than continuing when neither of your can access logic or empathy!
  4. Separate and soothe. You and your partner will need time to recover. Go to separate rooms, or leave the house. Some people can calm down together by silently sitting holding hands, but most need to separate. The important thing is that you intentionally try to become calm, rather than obsessively thinking about how wrong your partner is and how right you are. Choose a soothing activity that appeals to you. Time outs can last from a few minutes to a few days or even longer, depending on how good you are at calming yourself down, and how upset you got. You’ll know you’re there when you think loving thoughts, and can see that your partner might have a point, at least from their viewpoint.
  5. Return. Once both you and your partner have fully recovered, it’s time to make contact. The partner who called “time out” will be in charge of re-initiating contact with the other partner. You don’t want anyone to feel abandoned or cast aside, or to be left wondering if the issue will simply remain unresolved. Once you re-initiate contact, you don’t have to dive back into the thick of it right away. It can often be better to set up a time to return to the conversation, so that you can pick a good time, plan for it, and bring your best self to it.
  6. Time out” again? When you return to the conversation, continue to pay attention to your body signals, breathe, go slow, and challenge yourself to remain curious and calm for a little longer. Still, you may find that you have to “time out” again. That’s not a failure, but rather a representation of your willingness to take loving care of your partner and yourself, no matter what.

This is part of a series about navigating conflict in relationships. Check out last week’s installment about how to stay steady during tough conversations.

7 Steps to Stay Steady in Tough Conversations

As a couples therapist, I help people learn to hold steady in very difficult conversations with their partner. I know this is not easy, because I had to learn it myself. My spouse, who is much more even-tempered than I, and has been an amazing and challenging teacher for me, particularly when it comes to holding steady and staying in the conversation.

Twenty-two years later, I find it comes much more naturally for me. We are able to make hard conversations look easy. We both know from experience that we can get to a mutually satisfying resolution even if we start off with strong differences of opinion. At least for me, learning to hold steady was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and it would have helped me a lot to know how good the payoff is. The payoff is great!

Today, I’m going to share some steps I take to stay in the game and minimize drama and suffering for both of us. Next time someone you love says something to you that really shakes you up, give this a try.

  1. Pause. Take a moment before you respond at all. Breathe. Breathe some more. Put your feet on the ground and steady yourself. Remind yourself of this: your partner is expressing something about themselves; their perceptions, beliefs, feelings, and meanings they make of various situations. Even if they are pointing their finger and accusing you of something, they are actually telling you about their perceptions, not some global truth. If you want to know them deeply, you will need to listen and get curious.
  2. Set aside your feelings for a few minutes. This was the hardest part for me. I am a person who believes in honoring and expressing my feelings. This is not the time. Remind yourself that you will give your feelings and opinions attention soon, and right now it is not your turn. You will honor your feelings after this conversation. Whatever is still lingering after a break can be expressed fully to your partner. They will be much more willing to hear you out after they experience how amazing it is to feel heard. Your job right now is to give them that experience. Listen. Get curious. Hold your emotions lovingly, and don’t express them yet.
  3. Don’t judge, argue, defend, or convince. Remember: this is someone you love. You respect them, and you don’t have to agree with them. You don’t ever have to agree with them about this. But it might be nice to understand what their internal experience is when this thing happens or this topic comes up. If you truly see this from their perspective, it will probably make some sense, even if their perspective is vastly different from yours. If you argue, defend yourself, or try to convince them you’re right, they will never confide in you about the fear, shame, or vulnerability that underlies their reactions. You will have missed an opportunity for connection.
  4. Get curious. Invite them to give you a tour of their internal culture. How do they see things? How did this get under their skin? What does this issue represent to them? Does this issue challenge something about themselves? The more curious you can get, the more connected you both will feel.  
  5. Focus on feelings and meanings, not details. As you get curious, ask your partner some questions about this activity, experience, or situation–whatever it is they’ve described to you. As you ask, focus your questions on their feelings, rather than on the specifics of the situation. Here are some examples of good questions:    
    • How did that go for you?   
    • At what point did things start feeling bad to you?    
    • What didn’t you like about it? What was going on for you inside?   
    • What did I do or say that made it worse? How did that make it worse?    
    • Can you explain to me how this felt so bad? What did it mean to you that I …(name the perceived hurtful thing here).
  6. Express empathy. At some point you will begin to see that this is about them, not you. For me, I can tell I’m there when I suddenly think “Oh my gosh, THAT’S what you think when I do that?? Wow. Well, of course you’re upset if that’s how you see it or that’s what you heard. That was not my intention, and I’m so sorry for the misunderstanding.”
  7. Post-process. Now is the time to revisit your feelings if they are still swirling around in a worked-up mass. See if you can think about it, journal about it, or let it go. This might be surprisingly easy. If you got all the way to empathy, and had an “aha” moment about your partner’s responses being different but nonetheless understandable, the hurt you felt might have simply gone away. If not, ask your partner if there is a time you could express your experience to them. When the time comes, focus on your feelings, perceptions, beliefs and meanings made. Express the vulnerability underneath the issue, if you know what it is. If not, ask your partner to help you get to the bottom of why this was so upsetting to you.

What do you do when these steps fail, and your conversation starts to turn into a fight? Read more in my post about how to stop fights from damaging your relationship.