In this week’s blog postings, we discussed Physiological Self-Soothing and Softening Startup, which are the first two of Dr. Gottman’s 6 Skills for Managing Conflict. Before venturing into the four remaining skills for effectively managing conflict in your relationship, we’d like to take this opportunity to encourage you to work on ways in which you can personally apply these two skills in your own lives. In the exercises below, we will show you some simple strategies for beginning to practice conflict management in your own relationship. This way, you can start getting into the habit of using these skills in the way that works best for you and your partner! With practice, the two or you will increase your ability to manage serious conflicts before they escalate.

We hope that the following activities will help you to explore the first two steps of conflict management and to figure out which methods of their use are most natural and helpful to you:

Physiological Self Soothing

  • Think of a neutral signal that you and your partner can use in a conversation to let each other know when one of you feels “flooded” with emotion.
  • Try to think of a place that makes you feel calm and safe. As you imagine yourself in this sanctuary, lose yourself in the peace of mind that it brings you. Meditating on the beauty of a sacred haven in your imagination can be a perfect way to relax yourself in a break taken from a difficult conversation.
  • Practice focusing on your breath: it should be deep, regular, and even. Inhale and exhale naturally. As in Eastern practices, from yoga to contemplative meditation, we may find ourselves calmer and more centered if we stop for a moment and allow the noise around us to temporarily fade away.
  • Tense and relax parts of your body that feel tense. Feel the warmth and heaviness flow out of your limbs. This technique is similar to a focus on breathing, but you may feel that one or the other (or both!) are preferable to you. Work with either of these techniques to feel your stress melt away!

Think of these as starting points for your creation of islands of peace within yourself. Investigate these lands, and find a way in which you may ask your partner for a moment to clamber up onto the safety of your own haven in the course of a difficult conflict conversation. 

Softening Startup

Think of recurring areas of frustration or current problems that you would like to discuss with your partner. Make a list of your specific needs that you feel are not being fulfilled in these areas. Try to think of ways in which to express these needs to your partner in a manner following Dr. Gottman’s rules for Softening Startup, by asking yourself the following questions:

  • How can I rephrase my “You” statements into “I” statements? 
  • How can I describe what is happening without evaluation or judgment?
  • How can I express my needs to my partner in positive terms, in terms of what I would hope or want rather than what I don’t want or can’t deal with?
  • How can I show my partner appreciation for what I feel he/she has been doing in the past, or in the present with regard to this area?

Remember that the above exercises are not set in stone, or a part of some one-size-fits-all rulebook! Tailor them to your own relationship, your own needs, and your personal conversation styles. We hope that you will find them useful jumping-off points for cultivating your own sense of confidence in bringing peace and affection into your own conflict conversations. Play around with the ideas above, and let yourself be creative! Next week, look forward to the next two Skills for Managing Conflict as explained by Dr Gottman: “Repair and De-Escalate” and “Listen to Your Partner’s Underlying Feelings and Dreams.”  Have a glorious weekend! Enjoy the summer sun.

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Managing Conflict: Skill 1 & 2 Weekend Homework Assignment

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.