Having Hard Conversations with Your Partner: Recognising and Managing Triggers
Here's an overview what's covered in this article:
Life is often a bumpy ride, and relationships aren’t exempt from that.
Just like in life, in relationships, you’ll inevitably stumble upon rocky paths that force you to have challenging conversations.
When you’re faced with these hard discussions, it's completely natural to feel a bit uneasy.
It's a bit like encountering a storm on a sunny day in Melbourne - you know it's common and temporary, yet it still manages to be surprising, even unsettling at times.
Topics like money and family can rattle even the most secure relationships. The reality is that some topics have that special ability to push our buttons and make us feel triggered.
Today I want to equip you with the understanding and tools you need to smoothly deal with conflict in a relationship, focusing particularly on recognising and managing triggers.
3 Steps to Dealing with Relationship Conflict
Step 1: Recognising Triggers
First, let's talk about recognising triggers as a conflict resolution tool.
Triggers are emotional responses that arise from past experiences or deep-seated fears.
The term “triggered” is sometimes associated with PTSD and trauma, making it feel a bit too intense for some. So if you prefer, you can replace it with the term “activated”.
Triggers can be set off by specific words, actions, or situations that remind us, consciously or unconsciously, of these past experiences or fears.
An example of feeling triggered:
Have you ever found yourself or your partner raising their voice, lashing out or getting extra emotional for seemingly no reason?
Here’s a real-life example from a married couple:
(They consented to me sharing their story. Their names have been changed to protect their identity though.)
“Jack and I both got a bit triggered on the weekend. He asked me to give directions in the car, and I gave a kinda vague answer because the right place to turn off was ambiguous on the map.
He got annoyed because I didn’t give a clear answer. We both called “red” and processed when we got out.
I was triggered because I read his response as implying I was incompetent. He was triggered because he didn’t feel like his request was heard.
Soooo glad we had a “red” in our tool belt, it was so good to process it and both feel seen/understood after.”
That’s what being triggered can look like. You’ll probably notice that you or your partner are reacting strongly, often disproportionately to the situation at hand.
Not so fun right?
Side note: Calling “red” refers to the use of the popular traffic light system in communicating consent.
- “Green” refers to “yes/ go ahead”, or “I’m really enjoying this”;
- “Orange” or “Amber” generally refers to “maybe/ not sure” or “we’re approaching a boundary”;
- “Red” can mean “stop everything”, “boundary reached” or “I’m not comfortable with this”
(Check in with the person your interacting with about how they use these terms, don’t assume that it’s the same interpretation that you have.)
So how do you recognise and manage these triggers?
The first skill to learn for recognising triggers is self-awareness.
It's like being the calm, observant captain of your own emotional ship. Pay attention to your feelings and reactions.
When you notice a strong emotional response, take a moment to reflect on it. Ask yourself, "What just happened that made me react this way?".
Approach the situation with curiosity and compassion. The best skill I’ve learned for dealing with triggers has to be curiosity!
A curious mind isn’t judging the situation or reaction, instead, it’s actively exploring any potential underlying needs or fears that need to be addressed.
Identifying the event or interaction that led to the emotional response is the first step in recognising your triggers.
Having that self-awareness and recognition of your triggers will help you a lot in dealing with conflict in your relationship.
2. Pattern Recognition
The next skill is to look for patterns.
Do you notice certain themes, specific situations, or particular words that consistently lead to strong emotional reactions?
These are likely your triggers. Keeping a journal of these instances can be very helpful in recognising patterns over time and faster conflict resolution.
It’s very much connected to the self-awareness we just talked about.
TIP: Nurturing your self-awareness and curious mind will help you spot the patterns more easily.
Step 2: Managing Triggers
Once you've recognised your triggers, how do you manage them?
I’ll cover three crucial elements of managing your triggers that will help you calmly and effectively deal with conflict in a relationship.
First and foremost, self-care is vital.
When you're well-rested, well-fed, and generally taking care of yourself, you're more likely to be able to handle triggers when they arise.
Also, don’t underestimate the power of snacking! I am a firm believer that food, especially chocolate, makes everything better ;)
Think of self-care as keeping your emotional battery charged.
A charged battery is far better at remaining calm during relationship conflict and being a supportive loving partner throughout.
When you do get triggered, grounding techniques will come in handy.
Explore ways to bring yourself back to the present moment and away from the strong emotional response.
A few ideas of grounding techniques you can try are:
- Deep breathing, for example, box breathing with a 7-second inhale and 7-second exhale
- Focusing on physical sensations, like the feeling of your feet on the ground, or your hand gently rubbing against your arm
- Shake it out - literally, shake your whole body to snap out of the triggered state and release any stuck energy.
Finally, open communication with your partner is key to smoothly managing conflict.
Remember, your partner isn't a mind-reader. If you don't communicate about your triggers, they may unknowingly keep pushing those buttons.
Share what you've learned about your triggers, and discuss ways to navigate them together.
I cover way more about having honest and open conversations in my blog 6 Tips for mastering effective communication and nurturing a loving relationship.
Step 3: Having the Hard Conversations
Now, let's talk about having those hard conversations.
As much as we’d like to, we can’t avoid ever having hard conversations with our loved ones.
When you're dealing with a significant issue, it's especially important to approach the conversation with compassion and care.
Choose the Right Time and Place
First, choose the right time and place. Ideally, this should be a calm, quiet environment when both of you are not already stressed or upset.
This helps to create a safe space for open dialogue.
Use "I" Statements
During the conversation, use "I" statements.
This means expressing your feelings and needs from your perspective, rather than blaming or criticising your partner.
For example, "I feel hurt when..." instead of "You always...".
I go into a lot more detail about how to use “I” statements in this blog post: 6 Tips for mastering effective communication and nurturing a loving relationship.
Practice Active Listening
Remember to practice active listening. This involves not just hearing, but truly understanding your partner's perspective.
Show empathy, ask clarifying questions, and acknowledge their feelings.
When you slow down and become present to your partner it immediately shifts the energy in the room.
You’d be surprised at how quickly a situation can deescalate when the other person feels heard, with their feelings and needs acknowledged.
Seek Professional Help If Needed
Lastly, it's okay to seek professional help if needed. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we can feel stuck.
As a coach, I’m trained and well-practised in guiding you through these hard conversations, providing practical tools and techniques tailored to your unique situation.
A Framework for Healthy Conflict Resolution in Relationships
The 5-Step IBR conflict resolution framework
One widely regarded framework for conflict resolution is the "Interest-Based Relational (IBR) Approach" popularised by Roger Fisher and William Ury in their book "Getting to Yes."
The five key steps in this framework are:
1. Separate the people from the problem
The first step in the IBR conflict resolution framework teaches us not to associate the problem at hand with the individual’s, in this case, your partner’s, personality.
You want to focus on the current issue or obstacle, trying not to let any frustrations out on your partner.
2. Focus on interests, not positions - a compassionate approach to conflict resolution
If you want to develop healthy responses to conflict, you’ll need to let go of the black & white or win/lose mentality.
Try to uncover both of your underlying interests and motivations. What is it you really want or need?
This helps you take a compassionate approach focused on finding common ground, and will resolve conflict much faster and smoother!
See if you can catch yourself next time you’re in a tricky situation - are you holding on too tightly to your positions rather than interests?
3. Invent options for mutual gain
Continuing along the compassionate path, look for opportunities to create a win-win situation.
By understanding each of your underlying needs and what’s going on for them beneath the surface, you might actually discover that you ultimately want the same thing.
For example, you might both want to feel heard and appreciated. What can you do to achieve that?
4. Use objective criteria
This one is pretty straightforward. Sometimes you need to take a step back from your strong emotions and find some objective criteria you can both agree to follow.
The idea here is to eliminate bias as much as possible and create a more even playing ground.
If there are heightened emotions involved though, I recommend taking a break first before addressing the conflict.
Some time away to clear your head, take some breaths and process what’s going on for you will make your attempts at conflict resolution far more likely to succeed.
5. Maintain open communication
I can’t say it enough times. Open communication is the answer to almost all relationship challenges!
The more open, vulnerable and transparent you can be with each other, the better your outcomes will be.
You can prevent a lot of those frustrating misunderstandings and enjoy a collaborative approach to resolving conflict.
Extra resources for the super-nerds
I love a good nerding-out session myself, so if that’s you, here are some other awesome resources around conflict resolution and communication for you to rabbit hole down.
- MARSHALL ROSENBERG: He developed Nonviolent Communication, a technique to express one's needs without causing conflict.
- ROGER FISHER & WILLIAM URY: They pioneered the concept of "Principled Negotiation”.
- KENNETH THOMAS & RALPH KILMANN: They created the "Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument," a model that describes different personal conflict resolution styles (competing, accommodating, avoiding, compromising, and collaborating).
- AMY C. EDMONDSON: A leading expert on psychological safety, which is vital for conflict resolution in teams and organisations.
Recap of Navigating Conflict
To sum up the learnings from today’s post, it's okay to have hard conversations, and it's okay to feel triggered. Both are part of the human experience.
Light conflict in relationships is nothing to worry too much about. The key is to approach conflict and hard conversations with:
- Open communication.
I highly encourage you to practice that curiosity and self-awareness! As you get more practised in recognising and managing your triggers, you'll find these hard conversations becoming a little easier.
Just like that storm on a sunny day, they might unsettle you, but with the right tools, you'll be able to smoothly navigate through them and find your way back to sunshine.
Being able to resolve conflict in a healthy way will foster a healthier and more fulfilling relationship.
Gracefully Navigate Conflict Every Time
So, dear reader, next time you find yourself facing a hard conversation or a trigger, remember these tools.
Take a deep breath, and know that you're not alone. You have the strength and the resources to navigate these difficult moments!
Every storm, every difficult conversation, is an opportunity for growth and deeper understanding, both of yourself and your partner.
Embrace the journey, and remember, I’m here to support you every step of the way.