Conflict can be such a painful, frustrating experience. Is it really possible to turn conflict into an opportunity to grow closer rather than it being a catalyst to push you further apart?
Both Caleb and the research think it’s possible!
This topic was spawned by the question, “How can we do conflict as if we’re passionate about solving the same problem instead of having it something that’s against each other?”
So, today we give you a new perspective on conflict – a perspective that is concrete but unique.
Fighting Together: Understanding a Collaborative Conflict Style
The first thing we want to discuss is the conflict style. People think their fighting style is part of their personality, but really it’s just much more of a habit. If you don’t have the right style, the first thing you need to do is change your style!
A very insightful study from a couple years ago helps us to understand the nature of conflict and how collaborative conflict styles compare to other styles of conflict resolution.[i]
First off, you need to understand that conflict is what happens when one person perceives the other person is frustrating their own concerns. Whenever I get in the way, prevent, obstruct or interfere with your actions – then we have conflict going on.
Inside of conflict, there are two dimensions at play. The first is assertiveness, or how concerned you are with your own outcomes. The second dimension is cooperativeness – how concerned you are with the outcomes of your spouse. The following styles describe how each dimension plays off the other.
The best style is the collaborative style. This style is high on both dimensions; it is assertive and it is cooperative. It looks like openness, the free exchange of information and a steady resolve to produce win-win solutions where the needs of both parties are met. This happens when we place equal emphasis on my interests and your interests.
There are two not-so-great styles: avoidance and accommodation. Avoidance is low on both dimensions, so you never really get to the bottom of things but you probably don’t have a lot of conflict, or else it’s not very intense. Accommodation is where you are low on assertive behaviour and high on cooperative behaviour, which will probably lead to the “doormat” feeling.
The worst style is the competitive style which is where you are high on assertiveness and low on cooperativeness.
Rather than give you our opinions about each style, we’re going to stick with the research here. A study completed in 2000 showed that a “collaborative conflict management style has the highest correlation with both marital satisfaction and spousal satisfaction with conflict management in the marriage.”[ii]
In contract, where one or both of the spouses used the competitive conflict management style, the lowest marital satisfaction was reported.
Think about your style right now. Which style do you use? The next time you find yourself in conflict, try to use the collaborative style where you’re both asserting your own needs and also attending to cooperating with your spouse’s needs. This is the start of how you shift to fighting the problem itself instead of fighting each other.
Fighting is Also About Goals
The next part that comes into play is goals. As couples, we usually have no idea this part is going on! We just talked about styles and how that impacts conflict, but we also have these goals that account for this other dimension of our conflict.
Basically, all behaviour is goal-directed, BUT, in the middle of an argument, we often don’t know what our goals are. And, just to make life more confusing for our spouse, our goals may change partway through arguments, too.
Here’s a real-life example which some of you may be able to relate to…
“Consider a relatively common conflict: a couple arguing over directions while traveling…Both partners want to get to the destination, and neither seems to benefit from arguing about directions. Yet, as it becomes clear that they are not on the correct road, here they go again. He becomes angry and asks why she can not read a simple map. She retorts that there is nothing wrong with her map reading, that he must have missed a turn. They progress through several increasingly hostile reproach-denial cycles until she suggests they stop and ask someone for directions. He drives on in stony silence, even angrier than he was prior to her suggestion. Everything happens quickly. Upon later inquiry, neither partner reports planning what they did, but both report a considerable number of very negative thoughts about the other in the silence that followed the brief eruption.” [iii]
After a situation such as this, a couple can stop and see how their goals changed in the midst of the situation. The husband can consider at what point his goal switched from focusing on finding his way to focusing on whose fault it was for being lost.[iv] The wife can consider at what point her goal shifted from focusing on helping her husband to defending herself or counter-attacking.[v]
Researchers found that conflict behaviour in distressed couples often comes out of self-protective goals (like re-establishing equity) and avoidance goals (like avoiding harm) which then give way to conflict behaviour.
In non-distressed couples, however, the conflict behaviour comes out through problem-resolution goals and relationship enhancement goals.
This is where it gets tricky! The types of goals you want to have and need to have are not accessible to you since you’re already in the distressed state! That’s where working with a counsellor helps you to have someone to referee the conflict and point you towards these goals that produce better outcomes.
At the very least though, think about the goals that you’re aiming for while you’re in conflict – and watch how they change. Catch yourself there, and stay with those problem-resolution and relationship-enhancing goals. Try to avoid self-protective goals (don’t be defensive!) and avoidance goals (don’t shut down!).
This is really about the goals for the conflict that you’re in. Think about how you want the discussion to end and what’s important to you: self-protection, or helping your relationship.
There’s one final layer when it comes to marital conflict, and that’s your overall goals for your marriage and your life.
Develop Mutual Goals to Help Reduce Conflict
If the goals we just talked about are goals during conflict, think about these as overarching goals for your life, your marriage, etc.
This is important because often when we have conflict we aren’t talking about these deeper undercurrents that are powerful influences in our conflict.
A study from 2013 revealed that having joint goals helps couples better solve problems together. Just knowing that you have shared goals makes you more motivated to use collaborative problem-solving strategies.[vi]
Even in a business context, this makes sense. If the people in a business meeting, solving a problem, have a common goal, that discussion goes way better than if they all have their own private, exclusive agendas and different goals, or even goals that point in different directions.
The same goes for marriage: when couples get clarity on key goals and either those goals are the same, or they both agree to honour each other’s goals, then you’re no longer fighting about, but fighting FOR something. Together.
The researchers who did this study a couple of years ago found that HOW couples fought changed when they had many joint goals. They were far more collaborative rather than oppositional.[vii]
So, you can see how shifting the conflict towards having common goals and fighting for those goals will bring you closer together.
How Do We Clarify These Goals
There are two parts to this. First, get a copy of our Goal Setting Worksheet, then think through the following steps:
- Consider the value of setting goals in your marriage – are you both on board with setting goals? There is no point in continuing if you’re not!
- Look at the relationship of new goals to existing goals (are they consistent?). If they don’t align or they go in opposite directions, something needs to change.
- Write out a list of overarching goals for your family or marriage.
- Break them down into smaller or more concrete goals
- Discuss the difficulty of the goals, your ability to move towards them, and how committed you are to them.
- Next time you’re in conflict, bring this worksheet out with these goals on it. Identify what you’re fighting for, and then think about how you can move towards that collaboratively.
If so much of conflict is about having different goals, then it’s time to get those goals out on the table.
With overarching goals in place, you will have a direction that you’re wanting your marriage to go. When conflict arises, establish what your short-term goal is (in the example above with the driving and map – arriving at the destination) and stick with that goal. Remember, try to be assertive and cooperative at the same time. Doing this will have you fighting together for the same outcome rather than fighting each other!
[i] S. T. Byadgi, V. S. Yadav, and U. Hiremath, “Styles of Conflict Management among Dual Earner Couples,” Karnataka Journal of Agricultural Sciences 27, no. 1 (October 4, 2014), http://22.214.171.124/test5/index.php/kjas/article/view/7087.
[ii] Tanya De Bruyne Abraham P. Greeff, “Conflict Management Style and Marital Satisfaction,” Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy 26, no. 4 (October 1, 2000): 321–34, doi:10.1080/009262300438724.
[iii] Frank D. Fincham and Steven R. H. Beach, “Conflict in Marriage: Implications for Working with Couples,” Annual Review of Psychology 50 (1999): 47–77.
[vi] Christiane A. Hoppmann and Denis Gerstorf, “Spousal Goals, Affect Quality, and Collaborative Problem Solving: Evidence from a Time-Sampling Study With Older Couples,” Research in Human Development 10, no. 1 (2013): 70.