conflict hot buttons

Conflict hot buttons are the topics that invariably cause a flare-up when they are broached. Usually, this is in a long-term intimate relationship such as marriage (there are other unions that fulfil the same purpose and which are equally valid).

According to marital researcher John Gottman, 69% of marital disputes cannot be resolved (e.g. the right way to raise kids; what is ‘fair’ in chore-sharing; who has the final say on this or that decision…).

Of course, it’s not limited to personal relationships (can you have an impersonal relationship?) Recurring and unsatisfiable themes arise wherever people get together, particularly if they spend any time together.

Conflict hot buttons

In my view, what CAUSES these spats is not as important as HOW the sparring partners behave. After all, no matter how ‘hot’ an issue is –theoretically at least – every one of us can choose whether to fight, compromise, ignore it or simply deviate from the topic. We can break the pattern, or obligingly jump right in in a predictable, “here we go again…” way.

When a contentious issue is raised, what follows is always p for grabs. Be it an argument, agreement, apology, or some other action, there is recognition, even complicity, of the fact that something needs settling and, surprisingly, engagement of both parties in a ritual dance that at least one of you is very familiar with.

Usually, coming back to marriage again (there are other unions etc…), you’ve both been here before. hence Gottman’s 69% of recurring arguments data.

Two routes out…

There are several ways to break this unproductive cycle. Here are two:
1) Do something different, anything, to break the pattern. Ideally, choose a moment of harmony (or create one), where you can discuss the PATTERN (not the topic) that occurs between you.

For example you could say something like “I know that (topic ‘X’) is important, and I want us to find a way around it. In order to avoid fighting, which isn’t productive, can we agree to call a halt if either of us senses that it’s getting out of hand? On the understanding that we aren’t avoiding the topic, just avoiding how we are going about discussing it.” At least that’ll break the cycle of arguing.

Alternatively, take a unilateral approach to the same strategy “If you see me walking away I’m walking away fro the issue, which I agree is important, I’m walking away from the way we are discussing it.” By the way, keep it short and simple otherwise you might start arguing about this. Don’t discuss it, it’ your choice, stick to it (then go an do something useful like walking the dog, make some jam, or finish decorating the hall).

There will still be a sensitive conversation to be had, but this important first step can begin to lay the foundations. Don’t be in a rush to ‘settle’ anything. Focus instead on the quality of your relationship. Healthier relationships provide a safer place to discuss important issues.

Basic conflict styles

2) The second route is to understand your own preferred style of conflict. There are five, but most of us default to one or two (see below for an article on our basic conflict styles). Naturally, there can be no ‘one size fits all’ that’ll work for all disagreements; flexibility gives us the freedom to choose how to react. If you only have one response to disagreement (yelling, say, or collapsing into a doormat mode), you aren’t very well equipped or flexible enough to navigate a disagreement creatively.

That’s all for today, but as I’ve said before, it should be enough for a lifetime. You may not have much control over the other person’s reactions, but you do have control on whether or not you push the conflict hot buttons.

Our Basic Conflict Styles

I’m a psychologist, coach, and therapist. All my work is aimed at enabling people to improve personal aspects of their lives and work.


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