How To Resolve Conflict In Your Relationships

photo courtesy of creative commons flickr

photo courtesy of creative commons flickr

Most men suck at conflict.

To me, the hallmark of a healthy, solid relationship is the willingness and ability to go into conflict, sit in the fire, and deal.

Here are a few basic points about men and conflict, then onto the process of working through it.

First, admit you are afraid

Most guys claim to be fearless and spend a lot of energy acting fearless about most things. But those same men are often single, unhappy, and terrified of relationship strife with loved ones.  As I wrote in my rage post, men commonly respond to conflict either by blowing up, care-taking, or shutting down.

If you want to learn the art of conflict, first admit that you are scared of it. Go ahead and say it out loud. “I feel scared of upsetting _______.” Then you can learn to have the balls to tell the truth and be more fearless when it comes to conflict.

Commit to learning how to do conflict

If you want profound love, and to be a solid leader or community member, learning the art of relationship, specifically how to work through conflict, must be a central focal point of your development as a man. Go there.

Remember that conflict is hardest with the people closest to us

Because of what is at stake, we are challenged most by family, intimate partners, and very close friends. Conflict can be easy with strangers where there is no personal injury at stake. It’s easy to tell a stranger off. Much harder to tell a loved one a painful truth that may upset them.

Learn how to fight with your intimate partner

I knew nothing about conflict until I met my wife. Thankfully, we learned together. At times it was ugly and dark. I felt so incredibly uncomfortable at times and I often wanted to hit the eject button and run away. Ouch.

Since my parents hid their conflict from us kids, I learned that a “healthy relationship” meant no fighting. That teaching is and was bullshit.

Every single short term relationship I had prior to meeting my wife, I would say “yeah, our relationship is great, we never fight,” thinking how my parents taught me well. Little did I know I was keeping the relationship stuck on superficial grounds with the unwritten rule to “not go there.” Deep down, I was terrified of ruffling feathers in all my relationships so I would withhold the truth, tell white lies, care-take, and do anything in my power to avoid tension. The irony was that I was already feeling a lot of tension inside myself. Bottom line? I was afraid of conflict.

My wife and I have had some pretty intense fights and I imagine there will be more.  I have learned that healthy fighting is good for a relationship. It’s fertilizer. We now burn through conflict and relationship challenges within hours.

Practice conflict by telling the truth in safe places such as your men’s circle

Men’s groups are a great place to flounder your way through conflict.  In my own men’s circle, we fumbled our way through conflict that was so intense one man left the group for a while. It took us many years to arrive where we are today, able to deal with, and resolve, conflict.

Enlist another man to role play the person you are in conflict with. Practice, practice, practice speaking your truth and say yes to whatever the outcome is.

Give yourself permission to fuck it up and trust that with help, you can come back and clean it up

Early on, you will blow it and make mistakes. No problem. You can always clean up your mess later after you think, journal, reflect and get feedback from non-biased friends and mentors.

Conflict ain’t pretty. It often hurts and brings up the most uncomfortable feelings ever. Say yes to those feelings.

At the root of any conflict avoidance is your unwillingness to feel pain

Did I already mention being a YES to feeling your discomfort?

You must be willing to feel your feelings fully to move through it and become okay with it. Sorry. There are no bypass roads when it comes to conflict.

Most people hide behind “I don’t want to upset the other person.” When in fact, you don’t want to deal with what you have to feel if you see the other person upset.

The more you avoid conflict, the bigger the shitpile gets

If you “hold on,” avoid, shut down, sleep on it and never come back to it, or just brush stuff under the carpet, your shitpile will crack. It will build until that day when your damn of resentments explodes. Sadly, this often causes way more pain and harm than had you told the truth from the beginning.


Very few of us have been taught how to do conflict or how to resolve conflict successfully. Give yourself permission to learn and go slow. Bite off small chunks at first and start with people who you trust will not disown you even if it comes out sloppy.

The middle way is to stay present to the whole range of emotion that arises within you and to speak your truth with a open (o even shaky) heart.

If you can learn relationship conflict, you are that much more adaptable, flexible, agile as a man. Your relationships will not only last longer, they will deepen and strengthen.

Okay fine, but HOW?

Here is a great, simple tool for working through conflict.

It’s called the couples dialogue and is a common tool used by imago relationship therapists. It is also used by everyday folks as a way to move through little and big tension between two people. This process can even be used to tell someone how much you love or care about them.

Be sure to really read the full approach here.

Follow these basic guidelines:

  1. Find a witness to help the two of you move through this process.
  2. Create a safe space to work through it that you both agree upon.
  3. Review the 3-step process by Hendrix and Hunt–Mirror, Validate, Empathize here.
  4. Move through the 3-step process (below) with one of you as the “sender” and the other person as the “receiver.” See process below.
  5. Switch.
  6. Now make a request if you have one.
  7. Always remain open to hiring a professional help you work through conflict. Sometimes it feels too big for us on our own.
  8. Commit to going all the way with this. Don’t blow off your needs or the other person’s needs unless you have an explicit boundary and you are clear you will not budge.
  9. If the other person refuses, you can still clean things up on your end by working with a coach, therapist or friend that can help you speak your truth and move through your part. Your part is the only part you have control over anyway.

This is a condensed version in blue that my friend Jeremy (who has trained with the founders) put together for our men’s group.


I would like to dialogue about . . .

Is this a good time?

Then, if the receiver says yes, proceed  If not get a commitment for a specific time and place to do the dialogue.

I feel . . .

When you did this, I felt …


1.  Mirroring

So, if I got that right, you feel …

Did I get that right?

2. Validation

That makes sense.

Is there more?

Then, after a few rounds, offer a “summary” mirror:

Let me see if I got all that.  If I got all that right, when I did ____, you felt ____.

Did I get all that right?

If the sender says yes, then move to step 3.

3. Empathy

I imagine that must feel really bad, or painful, or scary, or ____.


After the process is complete, if desired, the sender can ask for an agreement for the future, to create more safety and trust and deepen the relationship.  The receiver does not have to agree to the sender’s request, but must offer a counterproposal.  If needed, the two can agree to work out a final, new agreement at a specific time in the future.  This ensures that something concrete and specific emerges from the dialogue.

Despite what folks think, you don’t have to take your resentments to your grave. You can do conflict and you can learn to successfully navigate your part in the conflict. And, the more you do this, the greater mastery you will have in all or your relationships.


  • Justice Marshall

    Reply Reply March 30, 2010

    Man, I can get behind the Imago process outlined in theory… but in practice???
    Honestly, just reading it makes me shudder. Those “agreements” and “negotiations” never worked for me. In fact – the process almost always made things worse. And I've heard the same from many other men. Maybe it's just not for everyone all the time…

    The imago principle that says we “project” on our mate HAS been very useful, but only when I work with it myself, taking responsibility for my projections, then bringing that responsibility into my relationship.

    It comes back to that belief that “it takes two to make a relationship work.”
    I don't believe that anymore.

    My two cents…

    Thanks for the discussion.

  • Jayson

    Reply Reply March 30, 2010


    I avoided it for years. Now I think it's one solid tool that can help. With a skilled facilitator or two savvy people, the idea is to take full responsibility for your part.

    I like to give people the freedom to speak their truth first, then clean it up and own up to their projections etc, full responsibility etc.

    Would be a good discussion for us. I believe it does take two to make a relationship work, otherwise, it's me with myself. Perhaps you are talking on an “absolute” level?

  • Justice Marshall

    Reply Reply March 30, 2010

    Probably both can be true. If someone leaves the relationship… boom. No more relationship, right? So in that sense, it takes two. What's been true for me is that the work I've chosen to do as a man, as an individual, has kept me in relationship and transformed my marriage. I didn't actually need my wife to participate in all of that. Even though at times I believed I did… which can be a seductive trap. So for me, that took one (me), not two.

    I certainly see the benefit of having a skilled (and well suited) facilitator help couples. Sometimes I'm that person. I know you are too. And the couples you help are blessed by you, I'm sure.

    If two people are capable and willing, great. But I do see real-life examples of couples “working” on their conflict and only digging themselves in deeper, even with help.

    Sooo – I like to hold out an alternative that brings it back home. Especially for men.

    As for “me with myself”, that's the foundation of relationship right? I get the sense that we work with different parts of the elephant, to paraphrase a favourite metaphor.

    Much respect Jayson.

  • Jeffrey Platts

    Reply Reply March 30, 2010

    Haha. Great post, bro. I just read this after I posted on my blog tonight. We must have been on the same wavelength today about the wanting guys to speak up! 🙂 A great message to get out there!

    – J

  • Dr. Karen Sherman

    Reply Reply April 3, 2010

    These are all really good points!

    As a relationship expert (, I would like to add that couples need to know that conflicts are bound to happen. But here's the good news: there are skills they can learn so that they can handle them better. When they do, their partnerships fare much better. I offer a free teleseminar, “The 7 Tools to Manage Conflict Communication in Your Relationship.” To hear it, go to:….

  • Jayson

    Reply Reply April 4, 2010

    Thanks Karen! Very cool resource you have! I think each couple or person has to find a tool that works for them.

  • Jayson

    Reply Reply April 4, 2010

    Bro, I think this is a solid ground for learning how to talk during conflict. At a certain point, once you have a lot of self-awareness, become open to how others perceive you, and can clearly own up to your part, this model can be transcended (or included informally) quite easily.

  • Dan

    Reply Reply April 14, 2010

    Awesome post Jay. One thing I would like to add is that the I believe expressing your truth has to come from a place of love, especially when it's a truth that your partner may not like to hear. Otherwise, why would you express it?

    @Justice: I agree with Jay that it takes two to tango in a relationship. Yes, the work you've done as a man without your wife's involvement in addition to taking responsibility for your experiences and actions may have deepened your relationship, but I would bet that in some way your wife supported you through the process and/or gave you the freedom to commit to this work. What if she told you, “I think this men's work thing you're doing is bullshit and I don't want you to participate in it anymore”? What effect do you think that would've had?


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