How to have constructive conflict

Woman and man in boxing gear fighting

Conflict is a healthy part of relationships, and it can come in many different forms. It can be about simple household things when you share a home with friends or partners like doing the dishes, taking out the bin and the emotional meaning when someone doesn’t do those things. It can be about conflicting needs, miscommunication, different interpretations of the same event, painful old emotions being brought up by someone else’s actions, insecurity and lots of other things too.

Some authors identify conflict as an opportunity for deep intimacy. For example Audre Lorde in her essay “Uses of the Erotic” recognises the potential of fighting together to be a form of deep participation that may be a forerunner to concerted actions that may not otherwise have been possible. Conflict can be the site of intimacy or the site of distancing. It may be a moment opening participants to growth in a relationship, or it may close them down and lead to an ending.

There are two key factors that make a big difference as to whether an argument is going to cause distance or promote closeness. They are how you argue and when you argue.

How factors that contribute to distancing or escalation:

  • Speaking over the other person
  • Only thinking about your own thoughts and feelings and not listening to the other person
  • Bringing up tangentially relevant past conflicts
  • Using critical attacks
  • Blaming and generalising
  • Threatening to leave or end the relationship
  • Raising your voice or getting physical

When factors that contribute to distancing or escalation:

  • When you’re too overwhelmed to engage or hear the other person
  • When either of you is too hungry, angry, lonely or tired
  • When you are at work, a family event or other event that requires your attention
  • When you put it off indefinitely in an effort to avoid the conflict
  • When you chose a time immediately before your partner has something important or urgent to do

This is not an exhaustive list, and you will likely know better than anyone else what you do to escalate a fight or create distance in your relationships.

While conflict is inevitable, it is often possible to find ways to work through it without escalation or distancing. I propose a constructive conflict agreement. I came across this idea in conversations at a workshop I ran at Solo Poly Con 2018 in Seattle.  A participant had a contract with her partners, outlining the standards of behaviour that they agreed to adhere to if they had a fight. I loved it as an idea, but one of my people really disliked the idea of a contract. I also realised that I was much more interested in my own behaviour in conflict than monitoring anyone else’s. I wanted to have a set of standards that would help me to navigate conflict better, rather than to make someone else ‘wrong’ if they didn’t behave the way they had agreed to. So I put together this agreement, and proposed it to a partner.

As “luck” would have it, the very next week I had the biggest conflict with that partner that I have had in 18 months. It was painful. Silver lining: I got to try out my new conflict agreement! I literally had a printed copy of it in front of me during the discussion. You know what? It helped me to feel really really good about my participation in that conflict. I messed some of it up, inevitably. There was a point where I was really too upset to carry on with the conversation but insisted on continuing, even though I should have taken a break. Nevertheless, I was much better at behaving in line with my values. The conflict was shorter and more productive than normal and we managed to create a win:win solution to the problem we were arguing about.

I’m completely sold on the idea of conflict agreements, but I think they need to be personal. You’re welcome to use mine as a template and alter it to suit you. Add in the ways you want to behave and the values that you have about them. Add in triggers and what you might need if a situation becomes too hard for you to deal with. Add in the things that will tell you that you need to take a break. However you alter it, make sure it fits what you believe and how you want to behave when conflict arises. After all, this works for me, but you might have a completely different value about bringing up the past or expressions of anger. Take what works, leave the rest!

Constructive conflict example agreement

If you are interested in working more on how to have more effective conflicts, I have written a series of posts on working with values in conflict, starting with this one.


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