Relationship Conflicts: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

Compiled by Heidi Burgess, Co-Director, University of Colorado Conflict Research Consortium

We often get calls and emails from people in relationship conflicts — in families, conflicts between husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, parents and children, and in the workplace, between co-workers, or between employees and supervisors. There are a few fairly simple rules and guidelines that are often helpful. These are listed below, along with links to additional information on each. And if these guides don't work, information about where to find more help is also provided.

What to do when you are in a relationship conflict:

1) Slow down, step back, and try to figure out what is going on.

In his book, Getting Past No, William Ury talks about "going to the balcony." The idea here is to step away to a point where you can look down on the conflict from above — where you can see more clearly what is going on. For more information read:

  • Article: Cooling Off Periods
    Escalation can sometimes be slowed or stopped by calling for a short-term "cooling-off" period during which time all the parties stop engaging and step back to look at the situation and how they might be able to proceed more constructively.

Things you want to figure out as you "cool off on the balcony" are:

a) What are you arguing about? Is that the real problem?

It is important to distinguish between each person's position and his or her interests. Positions are what people SAY they want, and why they want it. For example, a husband might want to go to Mexico for vacation, while the wife wants to go to Vail. They get into a big argument. But if they ask WHY each person wants to go to a particular destination, they'll discover that the husband wants to go to Mexico because it's somewhere he's never been before, and they've gone to Vail several times. The wife just wants to ski a top-flight ski area. Whistler-Blackcomb in Canada would meet both her interests and her husband's interests. By asking WHY each person wants something, the problem can be solved. For more information, read:

  • Book Summary: Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In
    by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton
  • Article: Interests, Positions, Needs and Values
    Interests are people's desires, concerns, and fears. Almost all adversaries have negotiable interests, it is only when the conflict becomes about rights, values, or power that it become intractable.
  • Article: Integrative or Interest-Based Bargaining
    In integrative bargaining, the parties attempt to "enlarge the pie" or allocate resources in a way that everyone gets what they want.
  • Article: Distributive Bargaining
    In distributive bargaining the parties assume that there is not enough to go around. Thus, the more one side gets, the less the other side gets.
  • Article: Positional Bargaining
    This type of bargaining negotiates from positions, rather than interests. It is more typical in situations where there is a "fixed pie" to be divided up, or where both sides cannot possibly win, hence an integrative.

b) Are strong emotions (fear, anger, distrust) a big part of the conflict?

If so, you need to address those emotions first. Although strong emotions cannot be fixed quickly, acknowledging they are there and listening empathically to the other side explain their feelings can go a long way towards allowing them to transform the conflict into one that can be successfully addressed. So can devising a way for the other side to "save face," to give in or at least meet you halfway without overtly having to admit they were wrong. For more information, see:

  • Article: Emotions
    Negotiation theory often assumes that people in conflict behave rationally, but emotional factors also play a large role in people's attitudes and behaviors. This essay examines the importance of these emotional factors in both conflict assessment and response.
  • Article: Anger
    Anger can be constructive, but is more often destructive. This essay examines the interplay between anger and conflict and discusses when and how anger should be managed.
  • Article: Fear
    Fear is both a cause and a consequence of violent and some nonviolent conflicts. It certainly makes conflict resolution more difficult.
  • Article: Guilt and Shame
    We feel guilty for what we do. We feel shame for what we are. Both lead to and are caused by conflict.
  • Article: Face
    From the correspondence between Kennedy and Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis, it is clear that they were trying to end the conflict while retaining their honor or "saving face." Understanding the concept of face is vital to resolving intractable conflict.
  • Article: Conflict Transformation
    Many people believe that conflict happens for a reason and that it brings much-needed change. Therefore, to eliminate conflict would also be to eliminate conflict's dynamic power. In transformation, a conflict is changed into something constructive, rather being eliminated altogether.

c) Is there some way to solve this that will meet both people's interests and needs?

Not all disputes have win-win solutions, but many do, especially if one examines the interests that underlie the positions. Keep in mind that interests may not be material, but rather psychological. Sometimes people just feel hurt or disrespected. Hearing their side and apologizing might be all that is needed to make amends. For more information, read:

  • Article: Win-Win / Win-Lose / Lose-Lose Situations
    The terms, "Win-Win," "Win-Lose," and "Lose-Lose" are basic concepts in dispute resolution. They are game theory terms that refer to the possible outcomes of a game or dispute involving two sides, and more importantly, what the implications of those outcomes are.
  • Article: Respect
    Treating people with respect is key to conflict transformation. When they are denied respect, people tend to react negatively, creating conflicts or escalating existing ones.
  • Article: Apology and Forgiveness
    These are two sides of the mutli-faceted "diamond" of reconciliation. Both are necessary for true reconciliation to take place.

2) When you come back together, even if you think you have the answer, focus on carefully listening.

It is important to listen to the other person before you do much talking. Make sure you understand the other person's feelings as well as their interests by saying something such as "it sounds to me as if you think that...which is making you very frustrated" or, "it sounds to me as if you want ..." If your understanding is not true, the person can then clarify how they feel and what they want so you have a better understanding of the nature of the problem.

It is also important to be willing to patiently explain your feelings and interests to the other person. Without being hostile, you need to correct any misunderstandings that they might have. Such misunderstandings are often a big part of the problem. For more information, see:

  • Article: Empathic Listening
    Richard Salem writes, "I spent long hours learning to read and write and even had classroom training in public speaking, but I never had a lesson in listening or thought of listening as a learnable skill until I entered the world of mediation as an adult."

3) When you do talk, try to do so in the least confrontational way possible.

The reason is that you want to avoid conflict escalation as much as possible. Escalation is extremely dangerous — it makes people say things that they wish they didn't say, do things that they wish they didn't do. Usually escalation makes the situation worse for both people. To avoid it, try using "I-messages" instead of "you-messages," and language that calms down the other person, rather than making him more angry (we call this "escalation-limiting language").

For more information, see the articles on:

  • Article: Destructive Escalation
    Escalation is an increase in the intensity of a conflict. The number of parties and issues tends to increase, tactics become heavier, malevolence increases, and overall destructiveness generally increases as well.
  • Article: I-Messages and You-Messages
    I-messages can be a useful tool for defusing interpersonal conflict. This essay describes how they can be used, their benefits, and their problems.
  • Article: Escalation-Limiting Language
    A wrong word or misunderstanding during a conflict is like gasoline on a fire. De-escalating arguments requires awareness and self-control.
  • Article: Limiting Escalation / De-escalation
    De-escalation tends to proceed slowly and requires a lot of effort. This essay describes some key strategies available for slowing escalation and then de-escalating a conflict.

4) Instead of arguing, negotiate.

But use interest-based bargaining, not positional bargaining. Try to think of the problem as a joint problem to be solved and working on finding a solution together. As you do this, look for your "zone of possible agreement," and be sure you know your alternatives, should negotiation fail. (This is often called your "BATNA" — best alternative to a negotiated agreement.) For more information, see:

  • Article: Negotiation
    Negotiation is bargaining — it is the process of discussion and give-and-take between two or more disputants, who seek to find a solution to a common problem. This overview essay discusses basic strategies and tactics of negotiation
  • Article: Integrative or Interest-Based Bargaining
    In integrative bargaining, the parties attempt to "enlarge the pie" or allocate resources in a way that everyone gets what they want.
  • Article: Positional Bargaining
    This type of bargaining negotiates from positions, rather than interests. It is more typical in situations where there is a "fixed pie" to be divided up, or where both sides cannot possibly win, hence an integrative.
  • Article: Zone of Possible Agreement (ZOPA)
    The ZOPA is the common ground between two disputing parties. The ZOPA is critical to the successful outcome of negotiation, but it may take some time to determine whether a ZOPA exists.
  • Article: Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA)
    BATNA is a term invented by Roger Fisher and William Ury which stands for "best alternative to a negotiated agreement." Any negotiator should determine his or her BATNA before agreeing to any negotiated settlement.

5) If this doesn't work, take a break, and then try again, or try to get someone else to try to help you figure out a solution.

Sometimes a friend or colleague can help you frame the situation in a new way and/or think of a creative solution. Or you might want to try mediation, in which case an outside third party will help guide your discussion to make it more constructive and fruitful. By giving you a process to work with, a mediator can often help parties reach a solution that they couldn't figure out on their own. Keep in mind though, mediators do not make decisions for you, nor do they say who is right and who is wrong. Rather, they help you communicate and negotiate with the other person more effectively, both to solve the immediate problem, and to learn to avoid having similar problems in the future. For more information, see:

  • Article: Frames, Framing, and Reframing
    Frames are the way we see things and define what we see. Similar to the way a new frame can entirely change the way we view a photograph, reframing can change the way disputing parties understand and pursue their conflict.
  • Article: Reframing
    Bernard Mayer wrote, "The art of reframing is to maintain the conflict in all its richness but to help people look at it in a more open-minded and hopeful way."
  • Article: Mediation
    Mediation is a conflict resolution process in which a third party assists the disputants to communicate better, analyze their conflicts and their options and to develop a mutually satisfactory solution.

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