couple communication conflict in relationship fighting
10 Keys to Effective Communication in Marriage

1. Be aware of an amygdala hijack

2. Create psychological safety - Take turns listening

3. Paraphrase or mirror what you hear

4. Check your assumptions

5. Know your conflict management style

6. Have a trigger strategy

7. Practice empathy (Master perspective-taking)

8. Validate your partner's thoughts and emotions

9. Use "I" language (Take responsibility, don’t blame)

10. Remember you're on the same team



1. Be aware of an amygdala hijack


A simple disagreement can trigger an amygdala hijack. Even when there is no real danger, as soon as you perceive a threat, your amygdala, the part of your brain responsible for the fight, flight, freeze, fawn survival responses, "hijacks" or "takes over" your prefrontal cortex.


Your prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain responsible for rational decision-making. So, when under the influence of an amygdala hijack you are literally in reaction-mode, unable to think and respond rationally. You shift from "Creative Brain" to "Reactive Brain", from an ability to consciously and rationally respond to unconsciously reacting to a perceived threat.


Many couples try and have conversations (arguments trying to prove their point) while under the influence of an amygdala hijack. But this is ineffective. You exert so much energy trying to resolve a problem when neither of you are neurobiologically really capable of collaborating. You perceive your partner as an enemy you need to defend yourself against and are more committed to being right than you are to learning.


Adrenaline and cortisol are released into your system as part of the survival reaction. To communicate more effectively, take a break for at least 20 mins to allow the adrenaline and cortisol to be processed by your system and re-engage when you feel more at ease, resourced and open to learning and collaboration.

2. Create psychological safety - Take turns listening


A prerequisite to effective communication and resolving conflict is psychological safety - feeling safe to express yourself without fear of negative consequences.


Most couples are safe from real physical danger or threats to their life, but they still don't feel safe. They fear their partner's harsh reactions or criticism and end up shutting down because they aren't psychologically safe. But you can learn to create safety for each other intentionally with your words and energy.


Couples often interrupt each other as they try to get their points across. It's about who's right and who's wrong; it's a competition. They speak in Parallel Monologue where neither person is really listening, or if they are, they're unwilling to validate the other person's point of view because they fear disproving their own in the process.


Psychological safety can be created by shifting away from a parallel monologue style of communication to an empathic dialogue where you take turns listening to each other.


Instead of both of you trying to be heard at the same time, set a timer for 5 mins and take turns actively listening to each other. The timer is used to set a beginning and ending to your role as Listener or Speaker. The Speaker feels safe during this time to not be interrupted. The Listener feels safe during this time to not be not be flooded. The time container acts like training wheels that assist you to stay in your role because it's surprising how easy it is to revert to reacting!


Remember, reactions make it unsafe for your partner. You'll have your turn. Until then, listen and see if you can learn something. Get curious and focus on listening to understand rather than defending or clarifying your point of view. Commit to creating safety for your partner by creating this structure, at least in the beginning as you begin to create new habits that support resolving conflict and lend to more effective communication.


3. Paraphrase or mirror what you hear


Listening with the intention to paraphrase changes the way you listen. Rather than waiting for your partner to finish or interrupting them with your point of view, try paraphrasing as a way of demonstrating your understanding.


Assuming you understand or saying, "I understand" isn't enough. Couples can resolve many conflicts simply by making sure they're on the same page.


You'll find that memory and perception are quite inaccurate the more you paraphrase. There will always be gaps between what you said and what your partner understood and vice versa.


Paraphrasing is sharing what you understood in your own words. It's a summary of what you heard. It's not about getting it right, but simply engaging in a discovery process with curiosity and care.


When you paraphrase, you create the opportunity to confirm you understood your partner correctly and eliminate any potential misunderstanding.


4. Check your assumptions


Misunderstandings are a core component of what creates conflict in the first place. You say one thing and your partner hears another thing. So, the simple act of checking your assumptions goes a long way to resolving conflict!


Ensure what you heard is correct by asking, “Did I get that right?”, “Is that what you meant?”, “Am I understanding you correctly?”


Misunderstanding and disagreement are often rooted in false assumptions. Our personal cognitive biases and blind spots can get in the way of effective communication if we don’t check our assumptions about what we believe is true.


Try paraphrasing what you understood, then check if you got it right. Keep going until your partner feel completely understood, then switch and have them do the same for you.


5. Know your conflict management style


When conflict arises, do you default to compromise, accommodation, avoidance, competition or collaboration?


Compromise - You both give something up to move forward creating a lose-lose situation.

Accommodation - You appease your partner by neglecting your needs.

Avoidance - You withdraw or shut down to avoid argument or discomfort.

Competition - You try to prove your point is right and your partner is wrong.

Collaboration - You work as a team to create a win-win situation that integrates both of your perspectives.


Most of us were taught to avoid conflict. It's bad, pain and scary. We don't want to get hurt and don't want to hurt our partner, but conditioned threat responses like the amygdala hijack are real, so we won't show up perfectly every time.


We learned our conflict management style in childhood. It was an automatic defence mechanism that kept us safe. But in adulthood these old fear-based patterns tend to create disconnection and conflict.


Bring awareness to your default pattern so that you can consciously choose a more effective way of communicating. Remind yourself that you're on the same team and try to act like it by taking responsibility for your actions, humbling yourself, leading with vulnerability, focusing on connection vs correction and using collaborative language like "us" and "we" language vs blaming language.


6. Have a trigger strategy


Work with your partner to develop a plan for how you’ll handle conflict when it arises. Bring awareness to each other’s triggers and patterns with a fun safe word that lets you know when you’re experiencing an amygdala hijack.


Awareness is the first step toward change, so you have to learn to cue each other in safe and gentle ways when old patterns are being acted out. Request accountability from your partner to help you align your behaviour with what you value. Steer away from telling your partner how to be or trying to control them and instead help them be more of who they want to be.


What's your conflict or trigger strategy?


Will you take a time out? Who will listen first? What communication tool will you use? What childhood pattern are you acting out? What made you feel unsafe? What do you need when that happens?


Write down your answers and agree to a strategy together. It's your co-responsibility to change the dynamics of your relationship. Creating a strategy that works for both of you, will take some practice. Try, fail, iterate, repeat!


7. Practice empathy (Master perspective-taking)


Empathy goes a long way to resolve conflict. Many people know what empathy is, but don't know what it actually sounds like in practice. So let's get clear.


There are two core components of empathy: 1) Perspective-taking and 2) Communication.


Perspective-taking is when you put your point of view aside and imagine what it’s like to think, act and feel like your partner.


Communication is when you demonstrate you understand your partner’s perspective by paraphrasing and validating their thoughts and emotions so that they know they’re not alone.


You'll know you're a master at perspective-taking when you can speak as your partner. When you can be them and step inside their world, you'll naturally have greater compassion for them, create a deeper connection and probably learn something too!


8. Validate your partner's thoughts and emotions


Partners tend to resist validating each other's perspective because of a core false assumption:


"If I acknowledge what you said makes sense, then you must be right, and if you're right, the I must be wrong, and I'm not wrong!"


We assume validation = agreeing but this is not true. Both perspective are valid. It's not about right or wrong. That's a paradigm of competition.


Validation is acknowledging the existence of your something. When it comes to conflict, validation means acknowledging your partner’s reality exists; that their perspective is at least true for them. You don't have to agree with it.


But that's easier said than done! There's a difference between kind of sort of seeing how you see a 6 and your partner sees a 9. If you truly are committed to connection, learning and collaboration, you'll leave your position behind, at least for a few minutes, to get curious about your partner's perspective, knowing that you can't lose by doing so.


When you resist validating and stay commited to proving you're right, you make your partner feel like they're crazy. You arrogantly assume you have the whole picture and have nothing to learn from them. You don't give them a seat at the metaphorical table as equals.


Validation might be the single most important skill to master in resolving conflict in your relationship. Invalidation causes upset because you unconscious dismiss, ignore, or neglect your partner's point of view.


Martin Luther King Jr. said, "A riot is the language of the unheard." In other words, your partner only has reason to get frustrated and raise the volume of their voice when you're unwilling or unable to validate their perspective.


You can soothe their nervous system by building this new habit:


To validate, let them know they’re not alone by saying,


“It makes sense you think / feel ________ because ________."


"I would have (felt / thought / acted) the same way if I were you.”


9. Use "I" language (Take responsibility, don’t blame)


Take responsibility for you actions by using “I” language. This is the language of ownership and empowerment where you have an internal locus of control and focus on what is within your power to change rather than blame your partner.


“You” language is blaming, judgmental and disempowering whereas "I" language is much less likely to put your partner on the defence because you're not trying to change or control their experience.


"I" language combined with feeling statements are also inarguable. “When you show up late, I feel hurt, disrespected and angry” is an example of inarguable language. Where we get into trouble is when we blame our partners by saying, "You always show up late!"


Instead we can ask empowering questions like,


“What can we do to support each other right now?”

"What could we do better next time so that we both feel respected and free?"


You can ask yourself questions like, "What can I do to change" instead of, "What did they do that was wrong?"


Our mind's negativity bias is survival-based, so we have to be mindful to focus on progress, positivity and collaboration rather than the default judgmental blaming that stokes the fire of conflict.

10. Remember you're on the same team


It’s easy to forget you’re on the same team, especially when your amygdala is hijacked because you perceive a threat and feel you need to defend yourself. You engage with your partner from a paradigm of competition - winner vs. loser, me vs. you – rather than from a paradigm of collaboration – us and we.


Pause. Breathe. Look each other in the eyes. Hold each other’s hand. Share something you appreciate about them. Take space. Try to find something to laugh at together. Find ways to connect with and without out words. These are co-regulation strategies to calm each other's nervous systems and de-escalate conflict.


Remind each other you’re on the same team, not enemies. Focus on the outcome you're trying to create together rather than the problem. Try and give rather than get. Try and learn rather than prove you're right. You are a two-person psychological system, so make shifting from competition to collaboration a priority by co-creating conscious partnership agreements together.


Conclusion


At first, some of these tips may feel unnatural or awkward, that's expected when building any new habit. Remember changing human behaviour is hard. We resist change even when it's good for us because the pain we know is better the the unknown pleasure.


Any one of these tools and tips would go a long way to resolving conflict in your relationship, so don't try to do them all at once. In today's information age, it's hard to focus on anything for a sustained period of time. I invite you to choose one item to focus on per week or month. Take your time building one habit at a time and be consistent. Tell your partner what you're focusing on so that can help keep you accountable.


Self-awareness is the catalyst for all change, so work together to cultivate awareness of your patterns, biases, blind spots and emotional triggers so that you can shift away from conditioned patterns of behaviour. Eventually you'll turn all of these into a way of being, a natural way that you are together without effort.