Why “Talking It Out” as Conflict Resolution is Bad Advice (And What to Do Instead)


Alex and Maya had always been able to communicate well. But lately, they’ve noticed a strain in their relationship. Maya has been hinting that she needs more emotional support. When she tries to communicate her needs directly, Alex doesn’t fully understand and responds dismissively. Despite both partners trying to express themselves, the conversation becomes heated and hurtful, leaving them feeling disconnected.

Effective communication is essential in any relationship but can be particularly challenging when addressing and resolving conflict. As demonstrated by Alex and Maya’s experience, poor communication can often make a difficult situation even worse, leaving both partners feeling hurt and misunderstood.

Fortunately, some strategies can help navigate those hard conversations and improve relationships. After reading through this article, partners can learn to express their needs and concerns in a way that fosters understanding and mutual respect.

How to communicate effectively during conflict

While conflicts may be uncomfortable, they can provide valuable insights into improving relationships and becoming better individuals. Good communication is vital in resolving conflicts, allowing us to express our feelings, needs, and concerns. 

Set the right expectations

Adar Cohen, an expert in conflict resolution, explains that the goal when having difficult conversations is to reach a solution, plan, or understanding. 

A solution is like a grand bargain, where everyone wins, and it resolves all the challenges. Although a bit ambitious, a solution usually causes new problems because it puts too much pressure on an already strained relationship.

A plan is more realistic, and it’s like a map for finding a solution. It sets new boundaries, revised norms, and shared expectations for how to navigate the trickiest parts. Although it leaves the precise terms of the resolution open-ended, it provides a clear path forward.

Initially, it’s most realistic to focus on reaching an understanding. This means you both become aware of what the other person has experienced in the conflict. You appreciate each other’s needs, fears, and hopes. It is possible to achieve mutual comprehension, which can bring significant comfort and establish the groundwork for a strategy, a resolution, and a fresh rapport.

Prepare for the conversation

Imagine having a conversation with the person you need to talk to, and it goes amazingly well. You feel heard, and your concerns are addressed. If there’s something to apologize for, you receive an excellent apology. You reach an understanding that makes you confident about the future of your relationship. It’s not easy, but just imagine it! You feel relieved, lighter, and even grateful to the person you had a conflict with.

Dig out the “Gem Statement” 

Cohen identifies a crucial key in successful conversations called a ‘gem statement‘ — an authentic expression of how you feel and has a positive impact on the other person. It’s a brief yet powerful statement made by one of the parties involved after actively listening, even if they strongly disagree. Gem statements are like precious gems found amid conflict and can lead to compromise, solutions, and goodwill. Finding a gem statement early in the conversation can reduce conflict time and increase positive outcomes.

 Try to think about what’s really underneath the conflict. What’s true when you’re not feeling negative? Write down the first gem statement that comes to mind. For example, ‘I can tell you care a lot about my well-being, and I have a lot of respect for you.’ You know it’s a gem because you initially want to attach a grievance at the end.  Like this: ‘I can tell you care a lot about my well-being, but how you go about it is annoying.’ Don’t add a grievance at the end, but focus on the positive. If you find yourself doing this, leave it out for now.

Ask yourself if you’re ready 

Before sharing your gem statement with the other person, ask yourself if you are genuinely prepared to express it. It can be difficult to be generous and kind when we feel like the other person doesn’t deserve it, and it can also make us feel vulnerable. But it’s important to remember that the temporary discomfort of sharing your gem statement will lead to lasting and profound benefits.

Tell a friend 

You don’t have to work on your gem statement with them or ask for advice; just share these four things with your friend:

  • What is your main feeling towards the person you need to talk to?
  • How do you think the person feels toward you?
  • What key message do you want to convey to them?
  • What outcome do you hope to achieve from the conversation?

The fourth sentence — identifying your hope for the conversation — is essential for planning. Remember that reaching a mutual understanding is a valuable first step instead of aiming for a flawless resolution or strategy. This perspective can alleviate your pre-talk anxiety and provide comfort and positive reinforcement. Your friend might even be able to help you fine-tune your gem statement.

Start the conversation

To start the conversation, exchange gem statements right away, either in person or via phone/video. It might feel uncomfortable, but it will bring relief. Follow your statement with: “I say this because I think if we both really try, we can work this out.” Afterward, ask your counterpart four questions: 

  • How are you feeling now? 
  • What’s still in the way for you? 
  • What can I do to help? 
  • Is there anything else you want to say to me?

Listen and talk

Listening and speaking can be uncomfortable and difficult during conflict resolution. However, remembering the purpose of the conversation can help you keep listening. 

It’s important to listen to the other person’s perspective, even if you disagree. Mediators have seen the powerful effect of listening, which can lead to resolution. When it’s your turn to talk, describe your experiences and emotions rather than listing faults. Filter your grievances and use your partner’s limited bandwidth efficiently.

Take a look at your gem sentences to see if there’s anything you’d like to share. Has something shifted since you filled them in? Share your thoughts and see if anything is happening in the conversation that reinforces your most significant hope.

Finish neatly

As you wrap up the conversation, ask each other: “What’s changed for you as a result of this conversation?” Take a moment to express gratitude towards the other person, even if it’s just a small gesture. What’s one thing you appreciate about your partner’s contributions to the conversation? Lastly, commit to moving forward. Be realistic and reach for progress. It’s okay for things to take a while. 

In conclusion

Before the conversation, sharing this article with the other person is a good idea. Even if you don’t follow the steps exactly or have the conversation right away, both of you reading the article and giving it some thought can be helpful. 

If you do have the conversation, having the article beforehand means that the other person will also have had the opportunity to uncover a gem statement for you, which can help to reduce any feelings of vulnerability or discomfort.

Find your gem statement and consult a neutral third party to get support and relieve some anxiety. When you finally talk, keep calm and listen intently. Focus on emotions and avoid accusations. When you are almost done, thank them for their contributions during the conversation.

If you would like to take your reading further on emotional needs, visit the Relationships Science Labs. The lab uses the research of the Institute for Life Management Science to produce courses, certifications, podcasts, videos, and other tools. Check out the Relationships Science Labs today.

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