3 Words To Help You Manage Relationship Conflict

By Heidi Reeder, Ph.D

You’re standing on the lot of a car dealership when your spouse’s eyes light on a silver convertible. Last weekend after a tense discussion, he reluctantly agreed to trade in the Jeep for something family safe. Now, as if being pulled in by a tracker beam, your spouse moves toward an MX-5. You follow him, saying:

“You’ve done this before and you’re doing it again, only thinking of yourself. My position, as was made clear last weekend, is to buy the Nissan.”

If this situation represents an ongoing conflict, this statement probably won’t be taken too well. It won’t lead to smart conflict management or take the discussion in a positive direction. Language choices matter, and nowhere is that more true than during a conflict. In this example, the speaker’s language shows a focus on the past, a separation between herself and her spouse, and a rigid position.

As a 15-year instructor of a conflict management course, I have found three words that have the capacity to move conflict in a positive direction. These words are future, together, and interests.


All too often we try to fix the past, but in a conflict, language that focuses on the past can take us in a downward spiral, and away from solutions.

“In the past when you chose the car, we ended up with a lemon.”
“In the past we when we bought a car, we didn’t even have enough money.”

Talking about what we want for the future is far more productive.

“In the future, I’d like us to make joint decisions.”
“In the future, I’d like a car we can pay off quickly.”

Future talk clarifies and empowers. Try using language that reveals what you want for the future instead of what should have been in the past.

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