The "C" Word: Understanding and De-escalating Conflict in your Relationships

Post written by: Melissa Kroonenberg, Relationship Therapist

According to Webster’s dictionary, there are three definitions of conflict:

1. Fight, Battle, War (an armed conflict)

2. (a) Competitive or opposing action of incompatibilities: Antagonistic state or action (as of divergent ideas, interests, or persons)

(b) Mental Struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes, or external or internal demands

3. The opposition of persons or forces that gives rise to the dramatic action in a drama or fiction

I've found throughout my life and my experience as a therapist that “conflict” is often viewed as an uncomfortable, unnecessary, and damaging thing.  A characterization that makes sense if you consider the first definition of conflict listed above.  And when I discuss my client’s experience of conflict with them, they often describe it in a way that is in line with the first definition.  Each person comes to “battle”, “armed” with a tonne of psychological artillery that is sure to win the overall fight.  What a terrifying prospect!

It’s not like I don’t identify with this perception of conflict, too.  However, over the course of my life, my relationship with conflict has shifted. At first, it began as a terrifying possibility - when I thought someone was mad or upset with me - rendering me passive and paralyzed in the relationship. Then it moved into a protest phase where I spent considerable time and effort trying to control the people and elements involved in order to avoid conflict at any cost. Finally, it moved into a place where I could begin to see conflict as an opportunity for growth and empowerment, rather than letting it bulldoze me or actively trying to stop or avoid it.

Ultimately, conflict - despite its bad rap - is an unavoidable, natural, and (wait for it) healthy part of close relationships. Over time, relationships transition and require a renegotiation of needs and hopes in order for the relationship to evolve and thrive, which is much more representative of the second definition of conflict.  What it comes down to is understanding the distinction between generative conflict and degenerative conflict.

Generative conflict is a process where the participants involved have an awareness for, and acceptance of, the core emotions they're experiencing, as well as the ability to clearly and respectfully communicate those feelings to the other(s) involved. The focus isn't on squashing your feelings or denying them - it's about responding to your emotions consciously and with intention vs. reacting to them automatically.  Generative conflict also requires flexible thinking and an openness to hear the emotional experiences of the other, which means holding multiple perspectives simultaneously (e.g., yours and the other). The desire for mutual understanding and resolution, as well as the appreciation of complex feelings and perspectives, underlies this type of conflict.

Degenerative conflict, by contrast, is a process where understanding, awareness, and flexibility are undermined by the desire for one or both members to control the argument.  In this way, people are either mutually interested or invited into a power struggle to the psychological death!  The goal of mutual understanding and appreciation for the outcome of the conflict is obscured by the desire to “win the fight”.  This can look like one person “emotionally attacking” while the other “defends” their position, or it can look like both/all parties involved mutually attacking one another with insults, accusations, judgements, sarcasm, and harmful criticisms.  Degenerative conflict not only eliminates the possibility of evolving the relationship into something healthier, it also erodes trust, facilitates emotional injury, damages the emotional bond, and sets the stage for future degenerative conflict and tension.

Everyone deserves the right to be treated with respect, openness, and curiosity, even during times when anger is present. Although it can be difficult at times, we all have a responsibility to the people we're in relationships with to take care of each other, and ourselves, even in the face of anger. And if anger gets the better of you - and sometimes it will - then the ability to own it and take responsibility for your own emotional reaction is imperative for conflict to remain generative. Making mistakes in an argument from time to time (e.g., criticizing, attacking, etc.) does not create degenerative conflict in and of itself.  Rather, it's the lack of responsibility taken for the mistakes over time that will distinguish generative from degenerative conflict.

Below are some tips for staying generative during conflict:

  • Awareness: practice awareness of your feelings and be clear and specific about what is causing the tension or distress before engaging someone in a conversation about it. It's also important to practice awareness of your emotions during the conflict. Pay attention to your feelings as things come up in the conversation. If you feel like you're getting too heated, take a break to cool down until you feel like you're able to return to a more generative conversation.
  • Self-care: If you're feeling really angry with someone, wait to talk to them until you feel like you can be more flexible and open to what the other has to say; respond to your anger first, don’t react to it!
  • Decline the invitation to engage: If someone comes at you with a complaint and they're acting hostile, aggressive, attacking, critical, or disrespectful, respectfully decline the invitation to engage with them until they feel more able to be generative. This can be done with kindness and compassion.  For example: “I'm feeling attacked, I can see you're angry but it's hard for me to have a conversation with you when I'm feeling attacked”. There will be times when you won’t be able to get that sentence out because the other person might be so heated that they will talk over top of you. In this case, just remove yourself from the situation and try to explain later why you had to go. Trying to discuss anything with anyone who is so worked up that they're acting hostile, is like talking to someone who is intoxicated- you will not get anywhere productive.

When I reflect on the times that I've felt most anxious about bringing up a concern with someone or discussing tensions, it was when I believed that degenerative conflict would take place. Ultimately, you cannot control how others will respond when you raise concerns but you can decline the invitation to engage in ways that you know will be harmful to you and the relationship. In fact, showing people that you will not engage in degenerative conflict will not only help you feel empowered over which kinds of tension you allow in your life, it's also likely to lessen the fears and anxieties that others have when they need to approach you about something awkward or tense.

Is the distinction between generative and degenerative conflict helpful to you?  Let us know how in the comments below!