Curiosity Kills the Conflict: How to Stop a Fight with your Partner from Escalating

Jen Hurvitz on Nov 11, 2018 in Relationship and Family

Let’s start by talking about the fact that conflict is normal in any close relationship*. Conflict can actually be strengthening and allow for more closeness within a relationship if you and your partner can have an effective recovery conversation afterwards.

The goal is not to avoid conflict but to avoid rapid escalation of conflict. The reason rapid escalation of conflict is so problematic is that it precludes the opportunity for dialogue, because it pushes one or both partner out of a state of being emotionally regulated. The parts of our brains that allow for clear thought and rational decision-making literally go offline when we’re feeling intense anger or fear. What this means is that if a conflict gets too heated too fast, all either partner can see is their anger or fear, and all hope for a conversation grounded in awareness, empathy, and thoughtfulness goes out the window.

A surefire way to curtail an emerging fight is to put the brakes on your spiraling thoughts and mounting emotions and simply be curious. Being curious is a special mindset because you can’t simultaneously be curious while feeling fear or anger. This means that if you’re flooded with those emotions during a conflict, it is certain that de-escalation of the conflict cannot happen until you de-escalate your intense emotions. This could involve techniques you can use in the moment (breathing, mindfulness, cognitive reframing, etc.) or it may be best to remove yourself temporarily from the situation.

Being curious is invaluable if your goal is to bring the interaction back down to a simmer. Inquiring into their experience will likely clear up a misunderstanding or two. The story that you may have originally attached to their behavior is clarified. Most importantly, this is a chance for you to relate to them and find some space to empathise. It is one of the last things you will want to do when tensions are rising and it is the last thing your partner will expect you to do. Lastly, reaching out to your partner in this way is disarming, giving them a chance to feel seen and heard. This disarmament creates the perfect conditions for your partner to be receptive to you and your experience.

Below is a simple two-step process to use to stop a conflict in its tracks. This same process can also be used to facilitate a recovery conversation if you’re coming back together with your partner after a conflict boiled over.

1. Be Curious About Their Experience

This is an essential in order to de-escalate a fight with your partner (or anyone). 

Being curious means that you take a step away from what you (sometimes, strongly) believe their experience might involve, and you wholeheartedly ask them:

“What is/was your experience of this situation?”
“What are/were you feeling?
“What are/were you thinking?
“What, if anything, does/did it remind you of?”

The trick here is assuming that you don’t know their perspective at all- you will get the most out of this step if you go into this with a completely open mind.

2. Share your experience 

Once your partner has shared their experience, it is essential that you share yours. This step cannot be skipped.

The way you share your experience matters, just like the age-old adage confirms- it’s not what you say but how you choose to say it. 

Stay as close to describing your experience as possible, with a sprinkle of your objective observation. This takes practice. 

For example, instead of saying, “I feel like you were inconsiderate when you didn’t think to make enough dinner for both of us”, try something like, “I didn’t feel considered or cared for when I noticed that you only made enough dinner for yourself”

The main purpose here is to clearly explain how a situation landed on you. How you interpreted it. What you gleaned from it. How you experienced it. 

Lastly, it is always beneficial to try to avoid attacking statements during this interaction. If you attack (even a little), your partner will close themselves off to everything else you have to say.

*Conflict in relationship should never involve physical or emotional abusive behavior. If this is something you experience, the information is in article is not appropriate for you. Your priority is emotional and physical safety. You are never responsible for provoking abusive behavior and should not feel as if you need to change anything you do in order to avoid it.

Resources for Survivors of Abuse:

Jen Hurvitz is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in Los Angeles, CA.

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