Collaborative approaches to conflict

Yesterday I ran some training on relationship therapy for counsellors which involved exploring various different approaches and techniques. I was reminded of a chapter that I’ve found particularly helpful in this area, which I gave out to the students. Re-reading the chapter I realised that it says something a lot more profound than I originally realised. I thought it would be useful to summarise it here and draw out some implications: both for intimate relationship difficulties and more for conflict more widely.

Collaborative relationship therapy

The approach is the ‘collaborative couple therapy’ of Daniel B. Wile, a US therapist. You can read all about it on Dan’s website here. Personally I prefer the term ‘relationship therapy’ to ‘couple therapy’ as it recognises that not all relationships are couple relationships.

Dan’s first idea is that the aim, in relationship therapy, should be to ‘solve the moment, not the problem’. This takes the pressure off trying to fix the whole – often seemingly overwhelming – difficulty that people are having. Instead, the emphasis is placed on addressing each interaction that comes up as something that can be ‘solved’, or engaged with more helpfully. Dan shares my view that conflict isn’t a problem in relationships: it is inevitable, and it can be helpful depending on how we engage with it.

Practicing this ‘solving the moment’ approach again and again means that another way of addressing issues becomes more and more available to the people in the relationship. They will also come to understand each other better in ways that will no doubt be helpful in addressing whatever they are struggling with.

The ‘moment’ is solved in the following ways:

  • The therapist regains empathy
  • The relationship regains connection
  • The individuals in the relationship regain their voices

Dan’s idea is that, when we have a conflict, we generally do not voice our real feelings about the matter. These often feel too vulnerable and exposing to express; and perhaps they are too difficult to identify in the heat of the moment; and we have deeply embedded habits which lead us to respond in ways other than opening up.

Instead we retreat to fallback measures which save us from voicing our feelings. The two most common are blame and withdrawal. Either we lash out and attack the other person for causing the problem, or we withdraw into ourselves and close off. Dan lists a further fallback measure where people rush to fix the situation in ways that don’t address the feelings involved.

So, for example, if we’re having an argument with a partner or housemate about who does the washing up, our underlying feeling might be of being taken for granted and devalued each time they ignore the pile of washing up: maybe they really don’t care about us. However, rather than voicing this we are likely either to blame them (lashing out at them for being lazy), to withdraw (retreating from the painful conversation and just not saying anything in future despite being upset about it), and/or rush to fix (apologising for arguing with them and suggesting we watch a movie together or something). Similarly they may well not voice the feeling they have of guilt and embarrassment at being called on their, rather entitled, behaviour. Instead they respond with blame (attacking us for making a big deal out of something so trivial), withdrawal (going quiet or leaving the room), and/or rushing to fix (giving us a bunch of flowers the next day).

In these ways we tend to get into adversarial cycles (where we blame each other, and this escalates), or withdrawn cycles (where we avoid conflicts and resentment festers). Dan’s idea is to shift such cycles into collaborative cycles through enabling people to recover from fallback measures and voice their real feelings: confiding in each other.

This is the point at which I think it gets profound. Dan notices that, as a therapist, his empathy for one or other person tends to drop when they retreat into fallback measures. At the moment when somebody starts blaming, going quiet, or trying to placate their partner, for example, he often finds himself judging them for how stupid or unhelpful they’re being. His experience as a relationship therapist has taught him that it is in those very moments that he needs to find his empathy for that person – by recognising that they are falling back on those measures in order to defend their vulnerability. His method then is to go alongside the partner for whom he has lost empathy and to voice his hunch about what their real feeling might be, to help them to voice it themselves.

Once such feelings are voiced, the other person often softens and as able to connect with them better, and perhaps to voice their own feelings. However, as we all know, the exchange easily drops back into fallback measures of blame or withdrawal. This is where Dan returns to the idea of ‘solving the moment’. One moment has been solved, now we’re onto the next moment and a new challenge to solve.

Implications

For me there is so much of use in this approach, not only as a therapist but in my own conflicts in all kinds of relationships, and in the wider conflicts that often bubble up in groups or communities.

First the idea of aiming to ‘solve the moment’ rather than ‘solving the problem’ is useful. We can get so tangled up and overwhelmed by all of the history and complexity in play when we conflict, especially with people or groups which we have had long relationships with. The idea that each moment ‘solved’ has cultivated our capacity to engage with each other a little more helpfully next time is a good way of taking the pressure off. Also I like the redefining of the word ‘solved’ as meaning finding a connection and hearing each other, rather than resolving our differences or getting rid of the conflict. That seems a lot more respectful of the inevitable differences and tensions that exist between people and groups.

Secondly, the idea that we fall back into patterns of blame and/or withdrawal when we feel vulnerable resonates with me. So many times a day I notice that I start to become bothered and my reflex reaction is to find someone or something to pin it on, or to find ways to avoid the difficult feelings (for example, by trying to distract myself or by rushing to some kind of quick fix). Dan’s approach reminds me of how useful it can be to notice those patterns kicking in and, instead, to try to stay with the difficult feeling. I can aim to refrain from acting, or withdrawing, until I have a better understanding, and then to try to voice that understanding (to myself and/or to others concerned). Obviously this is extremely difficult and we are likely to fall back into habitual measures time and time again, but we can try not to beat ourselves up for this, and to regard each time that we manage the different approach as cultivating it in a way which will make it slightly easier the next time.

Finally, Dan’s approach alerts me to the possibility that the very moments when I find it hardest to empathise with others are the very moments in which empathy is most required, and most helpful. When somebody attacks me, or withdraws from me, I generally want to blame them or to withdraw from them myself. And such responses are easy because I have good justification. Everyone agrees with me that the other person was out of line, so I am supported in lashing out or complaining about them, or in deciding to cease engaging with somebody so painful, or in trying to insist on that the situation which is hurting me so badly gets fixed immediately.

But all those responses exacerbate the situation, hurting both me and them in the process. As Dan so wisely puts it ‘if you can’t turn your partner into an ally, you are stuck with turning your partner into an enemy or a stranger’. The approaches of blame and withdrawal just leave us – and them – with more and more enemies and strangers in our lives.

So perhaps – again probably only occasionally at first – we can start to notice those moments when somebody attacks us or withdraws from us as moments requiring of empathy, assuming that it has tapped into something so vulnerable for that person that they’ve had to reach for a fallback measure. Dan repeats the famous quote from Philo of Alexandria here: ‘be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle’.

Instead of rushing to defend ourselves, perhaps we can attempt to at least imagine what might have been triggered in the other person, using our own desire to defend, withdraw, or fix, as a way into connecting with them rather than disconnecting. Again the aim here is not to smooth over conflict, to deny difference, or to get rid of difficult feelings that may be present. Rather it is to ‘solve the moment’ by turning it into a moment of potential connection and empathy where we have voiced our own vulnerability, and have opened up space – if possible – for the other to voice their’s (if they are in a place where it is possible for them to do so).


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