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Manage Conflict: Repair and De-Escalate

Here are a few examples of phrases that you can use to help repair and de-escalate when conversations get tense.

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In “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” Dr. John Gottman says:

“Your future together can be bright even if your disagreements tend to be very negative. The secret is learning the right kind of damage control. You may discover that your partner is more conciliatory during arguments than you realized—once you know what to listen for!”

Though it’s natural to attempt to repair interactions with partners when the conversation careens off the tracks and into negative territory, attempts to de-escalate these conversations often fail without the person knowing why.

Dr. John Gottman’s scientific studies involving thousands of couples have revealed the usefulness of several constructive steps to making and receiving repair attempts.

Here are a few examples of phrases that you can use to get your message through. If they feel awkward or forced, use language that you feel more comfortable with:

I Feel…

  • I am getting scared
  • Please say that more gently
  • That felt like an insult
  • I don’t feel like you are understanding me right now

I Need to Calm Down…

  • I just need this to be calmer right now
  • Can I take that back?
  • I need your support right now
  • Can we take a break?

Sorry…

  • Let me try again
  • I’m sorry
  • I really messed up, I can see my part in this
  • I want to say this more gently but I don’t know how

I Appreciate…

  • I know that this isn’t your fault
  • Thank you for…
  • I understand
  • I love you

Try to find a way to resolve disagreements by asking your partner about their concerns by finding common ground—stating that their point of view makes sense. It also helps to share when you feel persuaded or that you feel that you both are moving towards a solution.

Remember to take a break if you need to calm down or feel flooded with emotion, feel that your conversation has become entirely derailed, or feel that your partner’s emotional state (or your own!) is impeding the ability of the two of you to have a constructive conversation. You can simply ask to stop, ask for a break, ask to change the subject or observe that you are getting off track. Make sure that you both agree on a time when you will return to the discussion after you have both calmed down.

Use Dr. John Gottman’s third skill of Managing Conflict in your own disagreements with your partner in two ways: to exercise better judgment in interpreting your partner’s statements (and their possible implications) before your disagreement escalates, and to limit the damage that such disagreements can create in your relationship by directing your conversations into positive territory.


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Ellie Lisitsa is a former staff writer at The Gottman Institute. She holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology.

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