5 Steps of Conflict Resolution

 five steps of conflict resolution, image from canva.com 

five steps of conflict resolution, image from canva.com 

John Legend. Ordinary People. Because we are. 

Loving others isn't always easy. We have our histories, our past pains, and our demons to confront every now and then. There's something about intimacy and love that can bring us to our worst selves. We wouldn't dare treat our coworkers or bosses the way we treat our partners, children, or siblings sometimes. Mr. Legend has some good advice: maybe we should take it slow. Perhaps taking a step back to identify consistent problems can help. This can be a complicated process because many of us do not have the tools to communicate without getting emotional heated. 

I worked with many students on conflict resolution skills. I've also worked with parents to help them work towards becoming more effective parenting partners. Here is a breakdown of the process:

Before starting, taking a break to cool off is okay.

NOTE: If those involved cannot start resolutions "softly" try:

Gottman Institute's Softening Start Up Homework

Ensure participants are at a place where they can be receptive and not reactive

Rules During Conflict Resolution: 

  • Stay respectful. (What does that look like for you?)

  • No name calling.

  • Listen while one person speaks.

  • Tell the truth.

  • Try understanding the other person's experience and feelings. (Pauses & Reflective or Active Listening)

  • Be willing to compromise. 

  • Taking breaks is okay.

  • Agree on how long to try talking it out before you are both drained/overwhelmed

    • Figure out a signal to agree to stop. It can be a key word or a hand gesture.

Words (things) that Escalate

  • Always
  • Never
  • Shouldn't
  • You (always, never)
  • You made me (feel, do) X
  • Or else
  • Ultimatums
  • Comparisons to others
  • Bringing up the past
  • Interruptions
  • Denying person's perspective
  • Calling them a liar
  • Can't
  • You're a crybaby, sensitive, overreacting
  • You're insensitive, mean, a robot, uncaring

Words (things) that De-escalate

  • Maybe
  • How about
  • What if
  • It appears
  • Can we try
  • I feel
  • I hear that
  • Staying present with this one incident
  • Focusing on the person right now
  • Thank you for listening
  • It's important to me that X
  • I value the relationship and want to work together by
  • You are important to me and I want to figure this out
  • What do you think about X

Step 1: Identify the Problem

Is there even a problem for all parties involved? How does it affect you and the group? Sometimes one person has a problem, and when it's shared, the other person might not even know it was an issue until now. Being able to share without judgments or accusations can help a relationship move forward more quickly after arguments.

  • Skill to use: I-Messages/I-Statements
    • It is important to speak in first person to identify how a problem affects you. If the conversation starts harsh, it is very likely there will be no resolution.
    • Ex: I feel (emotion) when (action/behavior) because (how it affects you). I want (solution), and I can help by (actionable steps). 
    • I-Message: Asking for Change | Patricia M. Castellanos, MS
  • Reflecting others' emotions and experience. (This takes extra practice)
  • Write it down.
    • Sometimes we are so heated and in the moment we may say things that are hurtful, and things we can't take back. If you're in that state, step away to write it down.
    • It's also useful to jot down notes on your thoughts and responses to when your partner is speaking. 
    • If someone thinks you're not paying attention because you're taking notes, it's a good idea to discuss how writing things down can be a way to pause and sort through thoughts so one person is not REACTING, rather, there is time to identify whether this statement is important enough to talk about, or if they waited a little longer, things got clarified because they didn't interrupt. 

Steps 2: Conflict Resolutions

Identify all possible solutions and outcomes. All feedback is respected and accepted as a potential solution.

  • Even if a potential solution sounds unrealistic or silly, hear it out, and write it down. It's important to honor all options and perspectives, and share input on the potential consequences of each solution.
  • It can be useful to scale emotions or intensities of consequences. On a scale of 1-10, how angry were you before the solution, and if this solution were chosen, how much would your anger, disappointment, sadness, etc. decrease?
  • Being realistic, it's possible for positive AND negative emotions to exist even when a solution is chosen. The goal is to reduce negative emotions and conflict even by a little bit.
praise partner conflict resolution

Step 3: Agree on a Solution

  • List the solutions in order of most agreed upon, to least agreed upon. Choose one, and agree on a time-frame to see if it helps. 
  • Try it out and report back. It may be useful to jot down how you're feeling and thinking about the new changes and how it is helping or increasing conflict.
  • This is a process and requires openness to trial and error.
  • Positive acknowledgment or effort is very important. It encourages one to continue trying. 
  • Acknowledgement can come in the form of:
    • "Thank you for doing this for us." "I know it's not easy for you do try something different. I appreciate you for showing how much you care." "I feel loved knowing you're willing to try something new for us." "When you did X, I was really appreciative." 
    • Hugs, gentle touches, and loving gestures during times of repair can go a long way. Even when it's not perfect, it can make it more rewarding to continue trying. 

Step 4: Check in

What worked and what didn't? Again, acknowledge and praise efforts. *VERY IMPORTANT* Please praise effort! Brainstorm how to make it work better. 

  • When praising someone's efforts, try to be specific about what you liked. For example, saying, "I appreciate you." sounds different from "I really appreciate it when you take the trash out on Friday nights before I have to ask. It makes me feel important." 
  • It can be useful to take notes through the week on what is working and isn't working with thoughts on why. Having a list of negative things might not help unless it comes with reasons for why it affected you. 
  • Try checking in within a time-frame where you both can remember the original conflict and compare how similarly or differently the outcome is now. Maybe a week or a few days is good amount of time to regroup as a team. 

Step 5: Rinse and Repeat for Other Conflicts

*NOTE: We are ordinary people. This new process of conflict resolution can take time, and having a mediator or a professional healer to guide in the beginning may help encourage each person involved to continue trying. Repeated failed attempts are very discouraging. It can also be indications of something deeper than the relationship you're in. Many times our personal stuff comes out in our romantic relationships, and if themes reappear (the same arguments are happening over and over again), it may be time to seek the support of a couple's therapist or even a relationship coach. Depending on the intensity of what's going on, the coach may agree to work with you, or refer the couple to a counselor. 

Asking for help is a sign of strength, and there are amazing therapists who can help.