The Key to Constructive Conflict Management: Developing Six Essential Skills

May 2, 2024 |Gideon Hanekom

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The Key to Constructive Conflict Management: Developing Six Essential Skills

Conflict is an inevitable part of any relationship, and how we handle it can make or break the bond we share with our partner.

According to Dr John Gottman’s extensive research on relationships, constructive conflict management is crucial for maintaining a healthy and thriving partnership.

Moreover, in his studies, Dr Gottman identified six essential skills that couples can develop to navigate conflicts in a positive and productive way.

In this post, we’ll explore each of these skills and how they can be cultivated to strengthen your relationship.

1. Soften Startup

The way we begin a conversation during a conflict sets the tone for the entire interaction.

This is a crucial point to understand and start applying to your relationship.

So, starting with criticism, blame, or contempt (e.g., “You never” or “You always”) can quickly escalate the conflict and make resolution difficult.

On the other hand, a softened startup involves expressing your concerns or needs in a gentle and non-accusatory manner.

The latter approach allows your partner to be more receptive and open to understanding your perspective.

Constructive Conflict Management

But, to develop this skill, you must begin practising using “I” statements instead of “you” statements.

For example, instead of saying, “You never listen to me,” try saying, “I feel unheard when we have disagreements.”

By focusing on your own feelings and experiences, you can express your needs without attacking or blaming your partner.

2. Accept Influence

Another crucial concept to keep in mind, is a healthy relationship requires both partners to be open to each other’s influence.

It’s important to recognize that your partner’s opinions, ideas, and desires are valid and worthy of consideration.

Considering that, accepting influence means being willing to compromise and find solutions that work for both of you.

However, to develop this skill, you must practice actively listening to your partner’s perspective without interrupting or dismissing their ideas.

That includes showing empathy and trying to understand where they are coming from, even if you disagree, and that can be tough at times.

Remember, accepting influence doesn’t mean giving up your own needs or values, but rather finding a middle ground that honors both partners.

3. Make Effective Repairs During Conflict

We all know that, if allowed, conflicts can sometimes become heated and emotionally charged, making it challenging to find a resolution.

However, making effective repairs during a conflict is crucial for maintaining a sense of connection and preventing further damage to the relationship.

It is one of the essential relationship skills one must learn and develop if one wants to get good at constructive conflict management.

But to develop this skill, as it is with developing communication skills of all kinds, you must have the intention to do so.

In this instance, you must focus on de-escalating the tension by taking breaks when needed. It might sound simple, and it is, but it’s also effective.


When we become psychologically flooded, we often struggle to think clearly and constructively; we’re essentially in fight-or-flight mode, which is seldom helpful for constructive conflict management.

So we need to create space between us and the situation for a period, before re-engaging in a calm and collected manner.

But, when you take these “breaks,” it’s crucial to engage in self-soothing activities such as deep breathing, going for a walk, or practising mindfulness.

The idea is not to take time out so that you can come up with more ammunition or arguments to use against your spouse when you re-engage later on.

No, once you and your partner have both calmed down, you can come back together to continue the conversation with a clearer and more rational mindset.

4. De-Escalate

Following on from the previous idea, when conflicts escalate, it becomes increasingly difficult to communicate effectively and find a resolution.

Therefore, learning how to de-escalate conflicts is essential for diffusing tension and creating a safe space for open and honest dialogue.

In essence, to de-escalate conflicts, means using gentle and respectful language, while avoiding harsh words, insults, or personal attacks.

Instead, one must make a real effort to focus on expressing your feelings and needs in a calm and constructive manner.

You must get into the habit to use phrases such as “I understand your point of view, but I feel…” or “Can we take a step back and try to find a solution together?”

Ultimately, by de-escalating conflicts, you create an environment where both partners feel heard and valued.

5. Psychological Soothing of Self and Partner

One of the reasons why it becomes increasingly difficult to communicate effectively and find a resolution when conflicts escalate, is because during conflicts, emotions often run high.

That then often leads to more unhelpful responses and behaviours that further escalate emotions and tension.

Because of this, it’s also essential to be able to soothe yourself and your partner in these situations, which we call Psychological soothing.

Psychological soothing involves providing emotional support and reassurance to each other, even in the midst of disagreement.

Now, to develop this skill, one must practice active empathy and validation.

That means showing understanding and compassion for your partner’s emotions, even if you disagree with their perspective.

And you can do that by using phrases such as “I can see why you would feel that way” or “It’s understandable that this situation is upsetting for you.”

In essence, by providing psychological soothing, you create a sense of safety and trust within your relationship, which is the bedrock of a stronger connection between two people.

6. Compromise

Compromise is a fundamental skill in any conflict resolution process, yet many couples I’ve encountered struggled with it.

Each wanted their own way, which resulted in no one getting anything.

Compromise, in essence, involves finding a middle ground that satisfies both partners’ needs and allows for mutual growth and understanding.

However, believe it or not, many couples seem to struggle with that.

It seems that many people have the erroneous belief that if they “win” or get “their way,” the relationship will somehow benefit from it, and their partner will somehow feel good about it and positive about them.

But nothing is further from the truth.

If you’re “winning” all the time, chances are your relationship is ‘losing” or has been losing for quite some time.

There’s a reason there’s a saying that goes: “You can be right all the time, but you’ll be single.”

So, to develop this essential relationship skill, you must start practising seeking win-win solutions.

Instead of approaching conflicts as a win-lose situation, and seeing your spouse as competition, focus instead on finding creative solutions that address both partners’ concerns.

Be willing to let go of rigid positions and explore alternative options.

Remember, compromise doesn’t mean giving up everything you want but rather finding a balance that honours both individuals in the relationship.

Take Away

Constructive conflict management is an essential component of a healthy and thriving relationship.

By developing the six skills identified by Dr John Gottman—soften startup, accept influence, make effective repairs during the conflict, de-escalate, psychologically soothe self and partner, and compromise—couples can navigate conflicts in a positive and productive way.

But remember, these skills take time and practice to master.

Therefore, be patient with yourself and your partner as you work towards building a strong foundation of effective conflict management.

By doing that, you can create a relationship that is resilient, supportive, and built to last.

About the author

Gideon Hanekom

Gideon Hanekom is the creator of, a popular relationship blog that ranks among the top 50 relationship blogs in 2024. The website helps couples to create happier, healthier, and more intimate relationships. Gideon is a trained professional counsellor and holds post-graduate degrees in Theology and Psychology. His articles have also been featured on respected platforms such as and The Good Men Project.

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