The Space Between: How to Face Inevitable Conflict


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Conflict is inevitable. We all have our own ideas and the fact that we don’t all agree with each other should actually be a good thing – it can lead to great new solutions. Yet the way we act in a disagreement actually intensifies conflict. Things can escalate quickly and before you know it, feelings and voices are sky high... 

If you’ve ever been in this situation you will know that conflict can feel really uncomfortable. Some people thrive on it and purposefully create it; others don’t know what to do with it and find the tension unbearable and exhausting. Personalities come into play, as do our stress hormones and it’s impossible to focus on more than one thing when all we feel is heat rising and our voice shaking. Janie goes on to explain what is really happening to us in these situations and offers us tools that will help us bridge the divide. Provided there’s a willingness from both parties to resolve the issue (and provided the relationship isn’t abusive), practising these steps will help us reconnect.
— Sarah

Our limbic system gets activated when we are feeling under threat and we will either attack, avoid or deny. This sounds something like ‘it’s your fault’, ‘I’m just going to pretend as if nothing happened’, or ‘I didn’t do anything wrong’.  When our fight/freeze/flight responses dominate we cannot listen. Think about your last disagreement. How long were you able to listen? Probably about ten seconds. That is three sentences! We are able to think much faster than we speak, so while the other person is speaking, we have already been able to whip up a clever reply in no time. And if this reply sounds even the slightest bit like we are blaming the other person and justifying ourselves, then an opportunity for a real conversation is lost. This is because you would have activated the awful 'blame-defend' cycle that, so often, leads to communication breakdown. When you blame the other person, that person cannot listen to you, because he/she feels compelled to defend themselves. In this cycle, we end up saying the same thing over and over and set the other person up for more defensiveness and counter-attacks. If you have ever been caught in one of these cycles, you will know just how awful it feels. No one really wins. Both parties are left with a feeling of defeat and hopelessness. The reason why this ending doesn’t feel good is because we, as humans, have an innate desire to understand and connect. But when under threat, we forget! We crave feeling superior—being right—and the easiest way to get there, is to lavishly dish out blame.


So let’s get down to the basics of how you can escape this blame/defend cycle


1.     Admit you have a problem. You and the other person have to admit that you tend to end up in the blame/defend cycle and that it doesn’t feel good.


2.     Establish calm. Telling the other person to calm down won’t work – it’s more blame. The person who is quieter and seems more in control is not better than the noisier one. You can be defensive even in your silence and you are still part of the blame/defend problem. Seeing this as an ‘us’ problem will immediately soothe some of the heightened feelings. You are in effect saying I want what is best for us. I want us both to feel calm so that we can listen to each other and hopefully understand each other better.


3.     Decide what you want to do next. If you have both calmed down sufficiently you can continue a conversation about the issue that triggered the conflict. But it may be that you need a break to calm down sufficiently. We don’t have a positive association with it, but there is nothing wrong with a timeout if it is done the in right way.


4.     Take a 'Timeout'. Because this is usually used with children and incorrectly as a way to ‘punish’ bad behaviour, I’m very careful to even call it ‘time out’. If you tell your partner he/she needs time out you can be sure to cause even more conflict. Yet all of us can benefit from time out. We take time out to become resourced again. It’s an opportunity to step out of whatever is causing you stress and to get some head-space. In the context of conflict, it is very important that timeout is not used to reject the other person. Timeout is something that both agree on and the aim is to help you reconnect; not to disconnect. Decide together that you are going to take a break and commit to returning to each other at a specified time.


5.     Reflect and Connect. Use the timeout for more than just a walk around the block. It’s a time to notice what you are feeling and thinking. If you need help with this, I recommend The Three Minute Breathing Space developed by Professor Mark Williams that is available for free (below). It’s a very simple and short guided meditation that helps you notice what you are thinking and feeling in a focused and calm way. By acknowledging to yourself how you feel, you prepare yourself to be more open when you return to the other person. You own your feelings and are less likely to blame or defend. Rather you make yourself vulnerable and open yourself up to connect with the other person. Once you have acknowledged how you feel it is important that you ask yourself what you really want. First, connect with what is important to you when you return to the other person: I want to reconnect; I want to feel close to the other person; I want to share how I really feel; I want to listen. Also, identify what you want with regards to the topic that caused the conflict. This will help you to be proactive and find solutions rather than blaming the other person or feeling like a victim who doesn’t see a solution.


6.     Reconnect. When you return to each other, sit down in a way that encourages ease and connection. Make sure that there are no distractions. Instead of trying to tackle the issue, start by asking each other about the time out. What did each of you do? How was it? Connect by telling your stories to each other – be open about your personal challenges and fears.


7.     Resolve the topic of conflict. A funny thing that often happens is that once you have calmed down and taken time out you realize that the topic isn’t relevant anymore. But if it is, now is the time to talk about what you want.  You have to show each other that you can acknowledge the validity of the other person’s point of view. You don’t have to agree with each other, but you can acknowledge that it’s real. You want to communicate that you make sense and that I understand.


8.     Arrive at a solution. Now that you understand what each of you want, you can put the two ‘wants’ together and arrive at the third solution. This solution is created from what both of you wanted, put together into something that is better than what you as individuals wanted.


9.     Take action. Make sure that you both agree on and understand the solution you created together by talking about how it will look in practice. What changes need to take place? What actions are you going to take to implement the solution?




These steps aren't just for couples - they can help families, friends and co-workers as well - and while it might feel mechanical at first, the more you use this approach the more natural it will become. Memorizing and visualizing how you will use them will help you feel more prepared when you find yourself in tense and often uncomfortable situations. It doesn't mean that you have to approach it in a mechanical way. Rather by being open about your emotions and willing to change it takes you out of your automated flight, freeze or flight responses and you instead soften the polarization by creating an opening, a space between you, where each person can think and return to connect. 

*This approach works best for people who still have some emotional investment in their relationship and some willingness to learn about yourself and the other person. If an emotional connection is no longer desired or if it has become too dangerous, this may be an indication that this approach will not be useful.

Janie Loubser is a Clinical Psychologist with a postgraduate diploma in couples therapy.

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