Building Bridges

Issue # 7 of 43 

David LeClaire
By: David LeClaire

Let The Fire Go Out: Resolving Conflict Calmly

Last week's article, Avoid Installing Landmines generated questions from readers wanting to know what to do if arguments are more serious than just normal spats. One reader wrote:

I found your article comforting and calming after a terrible quarrel with my spouse. Both of us are in our middle 50's and each time we have a quarrel it gets worse. I fear we have grown too far apart from each other and some day the relationship will just break off completely or it will turn into physical abuse. I have called police a couple of times to make a point that I won't tolerate abuse even though he didn't touch me but was verbally very intimidating. Your Bridges article makes sense but on the other hand, seemed like it was a band aid remedy for other people, not us. In other words, it seems our quarrels are deeper and more violent or harsh than those addressed in your article.

Quarrels can get out of hand. Here is my advice on how to handle the situation.

Assume for a moment that you and your partner are in the middle of a heated fight. Your attempt to resolve the issue backfired, and your line of reasoning instead ignited the flames. Now extreme caution must be used. Let the fire burn down, don't throw anything else on it. If it is smoldering, don't fan it back to life. Let it go completely out and then deal with it.

Too many people don't have the sense or know when to leave the situation alone or when to initiate a break from the intensity of the moment. This is especially important if you or your partner becomes enraged. Express that you think it would be a good idea if you both took a break. Promise to come back later to continue the conversation when you're more calm, and then promptly leave.

Don't just stomp away, or chances are your partner will follow, angered by your sudden departure and apparent avoidance. If you have the ability, mention when you think you may return. While you don't need permission to leave, common sense says to leave in as mature of a manner as possible. Resist the temptation to throw a verbal dagger or slam the door to be dramatic. Too many people try to get one more shot in before they leave. Just say you must leave, that you don't want to escalate anything, and you will be back.

Then get out, relax, and breathe. People have different methods for calming down, such as going for a walk in the woods, exercising or talking with friends on the phone. Regardless of what approach you use to get into a different space, the key is to know when it's in your mutual best interest to separate yourself from the situation.

Even though every cell in your body may be intent on convincing your partner that you're right and winning, remember that is not what is most important. Instead, working out the conflict with your partner is what really needs to be on the agenda.

Unfortunately, sometimes an invisible force grips us when our adrenaline begins to pump, and our clarity of mind seems to evaporate instantaneously. Most anger management techniques become relatively ineffective and the last thing on our mind at this point. The simple act of temporarily leaving the situation may be exactly what you both need.

Because conflict can get out of control, it is important that you don't burn the house down when conflict happens. You can't ever take words or actions back, regardless of how much you apologize. I would bet there are a few phrases that a parent, teacher, coach, friend or lover has said to you in the past that you'll never forget. In the heat of these fights, many times a dagger is thrown that can never be taken back and will also never be forgotten.

We are emotional beings, and many times we get carried away when the fight or flight instinct kicks in. Yet the desire to win, to be right, and to say what you feel compelled to say is only temporary. In a more calm state of mind your ability to be fair, reasonable, and to compromise can return. When you know there is no easy resolution in sight, see to it that temporary time and space gets in between you and your partner, or what you might end up with is a permanent distance instead.

Remember, if you didn't care about your partner and your relationship, didn't want things to be different or to be better, then you wouldn't care about what they said or did. Your anger comes out of your desire to have it work and your frustration that at the moment what you have is not what you want. If you are that angry, then you probably care quite a bit. So get out, take a breather, and come back when you've regained your sanity and perspective.

David LeClaire has spent much of his time teaching at community college and private school, and lead communications training for Fortune 500 companies. Now a popular and active Seattle area sommelier, this graduate of Central Michigan University led seminars for a wide variety of organizations. LeClaire is the author of "Bridges To A Passionate Partnership." He can be reached at

Building Bridges Table of Contents

Text © 1998, David LeClaire. Part of the original Sideroad.
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