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  • Writer's pictureMadison Lynch, MC Intern

How To Manage Conflict and Communicate More Effectively

Updated: May 9, 2023

Conflict is inevitable. Whether it be with your friend, partner, family member, or even co-worker, conflict can cause difficult, negative emotions such as anger, frustration, sadness, hurt, and stress. These negative emotions often lead to the fear of conflict, causing it to be avoided altogether. In essence, conflict is often seen as a catch-22; either it is addressed with the potential of interpersonal strain or ignored and subsequently leads to intrapersonal turmoil.

The way we communicate during conflict can make or break relationships. Particularly, there are four communication styles identified by relationship expert John Gottman that have been identified as almost certainly causing difficulty:

  1. Criticism. Often confused with expressing a complaint, criticism is an attack on the person themselves, rather than the specific issue.

  2. Contempt. This communication style goes far beyond criticism. Contempt is deliberately putting someone down, ridiculing, or even mocking to gain moral high ground.

  3. Defensiveness. This communication style often arises when we feel wrongly accused. It is often displayed as making excuses and taking a victim stance.

  4. Stonewalling. Stonewalling is often seen as “putting up a wall” between you and the conflict/person. This is displayed by shutting down, not responding, or physically withdrawing from the interaction.

Can you see yourself in any of these communication styles? If so, do not worry. Being able to recognize your communication style is the first step in managing them. Often referred to as “antidotes,” here are some ways we can manage all four of these styles in order to foster healthier communication and relationships

  1. Criticism - Gentle start up. Try to focus on the specific act that is causing conflict instead of the person’s character. One way to do this is to avoid the word “you” and use “I” statements about what you feel. Instead of, “You never listen to me!” Try saying, “I am feeling sad because I am not feeling heard.” End your statement with what you need. “Can we go back to what I said earlier?”

  2. Contempt - Building appreciation. One way to build appreciation is to begin regularly expressing appreciation, gratitude, and affection towards the other person. Another way is to begin a statement with understanding and end with appreciation. Instead of, “You never clean! You are so lazy.” Try, “I understand you have been very busy lately, but could you vacuum? I would really appreciate it.”

  3. Defensiveness - Taking responsibility. One way to manage defensiveness is to acknowledge the other’s perspective and take responsibility for your part in the matter. Instead of, “It’s not my fault the dog is out of food, you’re the one who forgot to pick up more yesterday.” Try, “Although the dog food was forgotten yesterday, I could have told you to get more before I noticed all the food was gone.”

  4. Stonewalling - Self-soothing. One way to avoid stonewalling is to take a timeout from the discussion. Try telling the other person that you are feeling overwhelmed and need to take a break. It is important to verbalize a time limit of at least 20 minutes and come back to the discussion after. During this break, try to avoid thinking about the conflict and do something relaxing. This could be listening to music, exercising, etc.

Conflict is inevitable in relationships and is not always a bad thing. In fact, conflict can suggest a healthy willingness and desire to maintain the relationship. Understanding your communication styles and working to decrease criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling can lead to happier, healthier relationships and in turn, a happy, healthier you.

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