How to stop a relationship conflict dead in its tracks

A man and woman standing next to each other.

Are you tired of angry outbursts and walking on eggshells in your relationship?

Are conflicts keeping you from the closeness you want?

Here is a powerful tool that will help you diffuse relationship land mines before they blow you apart.

Conflicts always start when our relationship becomes unsafe.

Often couples will think their relationship is safe but they don’t realize when safety has taken a hike.

Here’s an important thing to remember.

Safety leaves the room as soon as either of you blows up or clams up.

Your conversation becomes unsafe not only when you BLOW UP but also when you CLAM UP.

We know safety is jeopardized when someone blows up in anger and goes off the rails,“But, come on Chuck, I clam up to keep the peace.”

What kind of peace is that if you’re walking on eggshells?

You’re not keeping the peace, you’re just delaying the war.

Connection cannot happen in a relationship that is made unsafe by someone clamming up and not sharing what they are really feeling.

Here’s a great tool called "The Left Hand Column" that can help you see a conflict coming and stop it in its tracks!

This exercise, developed by Chris Argyris, helps to identify the hidden parts of a conversation that cause you trouble.

Let’s dive into it. Here we go! 

Grab your partner and do this together if possible. 

If that’s not possible right now, just do your part and you can involve your partner later.

1. Together identify a conversation that became unsafe.

Remember how to tell when a conversation is no longer safe?

Did I say that safety is at risk when someone blows up OR clams up? Oh yes I did.

So take a moment to identify your conversation. 

Look for one where you or your partner went silent about what was really going on.

2. Together write down what was said in the Right Hand Column.

Each of you write down the conversation as it happened on your own sheet.

Draw a line down the middle forming two columns. 

Label the columns appropriately, “Left Hand Column” and “Right Hand Column” at the top. This is important for the next step.

Then make sure you agree on the details about how the conversation actually went. This also is important for the next step.

My own case in point.

Here’s an example of a heated conversation my lovely wife Sandy and I had one Saturday morning. 

Wow Chuck, that conversation does look like it could be heated. That’s right. Why would I give you an example of one not charged with emotion and conflict?:-) What’s the fun in that?

You can tell when you read it, there were obviously feelings that weren’t shared. 

That’s what goes into the Left Hand Column.

OK. After you have each written the conversation down in the right hand column on your own page go to step 3.

3. Fill in your in your own left hand column.

…that is what you thought or felt but did not say.

Do this separately.

1. What kinds of things did you not say? Why?

2. What was at the heart of the conversation that was not spoken?

3. How did your unspoken motives affect the conversation?

Ah, now the truth comes out. The truth of what you were thinking and feeling but didn’t say.

Don’t be afraid to be totally honest. After all you’re partner is not seeing what you’re writing. At least not right now.

The goal is to be able to talk about it in a safe way without triggered reactions, and you both listen and validate each other.

I’m going to coach you on how to do that. How to do what?

How to communicate a potentially hurtful message to your partner.

And just as important, I’ll help your partner listen to what you have to say without reacting.

But first, here's the ugly truth behind my own conversation with Sandy. Yikes!

You can read it below. 

I put it under those Right Hand Column items so you can catch the flow of how it went,

or actually how it didn’t go because NONE of these things were said in the conversation. 

But do you think we weren’t aware of that?

Of course we were!

Neither of us were happy, but neither of us wanted a fight either, so what did we do?

We stuffed it. Setting land mines to sabotage our relationship down the road.

Here's the ugly truth in Chuck and Sandy's left hand column.

SANDY: “Honey could you fix the fence?”

SANDY’S LHC: “Why do I always have to initiate getting things done around here?”

CHUCK: “I fixed it last weekend or didn’t you notice?”

CHUCK’S LHC: “She’s never satisfied.”

SANDY: “You nailed a board over it. It’s not fixed.”

SANDY’S LHC: “Are you kidding?! Why couldn’t I have married someone with some useful skills?”

CHUCK: Look, you don’t have to worry about the dog getting out. We can redo it later. But for now it’s fixed.

CHUCK’S LHC: “I’m so sick of her being so controlling. I’m not doing that today. I just want to watch the game.”

SANDY: “Fine. I’ll just call a contractor.”

SANDY’S LHC: “I’ll show you. I don’t even need you. Everyone else gets your time but you can’t be there for me.”

CHUCK: “Fine. You do that.”

CHUCK’S LHC: “I’m never good enough. So why even try?”


Couples with this kind of tension feel stuck. I know we did.

We’re stuck and walking on egg shells because saying what we really feel could start World War III.

But to NOT say what we really feel guarantees that we continue to feel disconnected, walking on eggshells and even resentful of each other.
So what’s the key?

4. Share your Left Hand Column with each other using safe conversation skills.

1. Make a commitment to share your frustrations with each other rather than carrying them around waiting for them to detonate.

2. Use safe conversations skills to talk about it: a dialogue process where one person talks and one person listens. Then you switch positions.

3. Get to know your partner at a deeper level where you begin to see the fear and pain that is behind their hurtful words.

Empathy for your partner will help you regulate your reaction and keep the conversation safe. 

It will also begin the healing process for your partner.

And when the conversation is safe you can connect with each other. 

When you’re connected with each other, working out problems is a cinch. 

Here’s how it worked for Sandy and me.

SANDY: “After our conversation, I felt frustrated. Can we have an appointment to dialogue?”

That word “appointment” for us is a signal that we need to stop and process that Left Hand Column using our safe conversation skills. 

I agreed to the appointment.

SANDY: “When we talked about the fence I felt myself getting angry. I began to feel like I have to initiate everything that gets done around here.”

CHUCK: (mirrors) “What I hear you saying is that when we talked about the fence you began feeling angry, and like you’re the only one who initiates getting work done.”

Mirroring does two things. 

1. It helps you keep your emotions regulated. 

Instead of being critical and reactive, it helps you become curious about your partner. 

This helps keep it safe for them. 

You can’t be curious and critical at the same time. 

2. And mirroring says to your partner, “You matter.” “I see you.” “You’re worth listening to.” “What you think and feel matters to me”. 

This also helps make the conversation super safe. 

After I mirrored those first sentences, I asked two key questions to help Sandy go deeper if possible, to get more in touch with how she feels and what she fears.

Because behind every frustration is a desire, a deep need for something that will bring healing.

CHUCK: “Did I get it?”

SANDY: “Yes, that’s it.”

Then the final question that helps your partner go deeper.

CHUCK: “Is there more about that?”

Then Sandy went deeper and the dialogue helped me see several things that I didn’t know about her before. Even after three decades of marriage. (amazing huh?)

– She feels alone when she thinks I’m not interested in maintaining the house.

– Her home is an extension of her identity. So when the fence is broken, she feels broken.  This was a game changer for me. Now everything in her Left Hand Column made total sense.

My feelings of being controlled and feeling inadequate just evaporated as I entered her world and saw her reality.

And yes, I did get to share my frustrations in a way that did the same thing for her, enabling her to see my vulnerability when I feel controlled or inadequate.

This process is what we call differentiation and it enables us to connect deeply.

And did I say this already?

When you and your partner feel connected, solving a problem is never a problem.

So what happened with the fence?

Realizing what it would do for her, I got excited, hired a contractor, worked with him on the design, and we rebuilt an entire  section of the fence.

Chuck and Sandy's repaired conversation led to a repaired fence.

Sandy felt loved and I felt like her hero.  A true win-win.

Being aware of her need for me to initiate projects around the house stretches me and causes me to grow. 

I’m far from perfect, but I’m a whole lot better than I used to be. 

And if we do have a frustrating event, we have more confidence than ever that we can work through it and stay connected!

It’s my hope that you too will have this same confidence, and with tools like these you’ll be able to stop a relationship conflict dead in it’s tracks.

Let me send you a free communication tool!

If you’ll subscribe to Relationship Resources below, I’ll send you a dialogue tool that will take you step by step in “How To Mirror A Frustration”, the process that Sandy and I used in the example above.

Looking for more help?

Check out my six-week starter program for couples. Get a great start all the tools you need to reconnect, rekindle, and re-envision your relationship as a mutual partnership for healing and growth. 

Click here for more info and pricing.

Author: Chuck Starnes

Chuck Starnes is a relationship coach who is passionate about helping couples find the safety, connection, passion and full-aliveness they are looking for together. He also helps organizations become more productive by improving relationship and communication skills.

6 thoughts on “How to stop a relationship conflict dead in its tracks”

  1. Lisa McBirney says:

    Thank you for this post and your willingness to illustrate this process with an example from your own lives. The most helpful part was the illustration of how to go deeper. I can see that would take some digging to discover the why of a reaction.

    Thanks again!

    1. Lisa, you got right to the heart of the whole thing. If we can become conscious of ourselves and where our reactions are coming from it’s easier regulate them and make it safe for our partner. The problem is so many of our reactions are rooted in childhood defenses that are unconscious. The dialogue process helps you go deeper and heal the wounds that trigger the defenses. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  2. Wow, I didn’t realize that clamming up also makes the conversation unsafe. You provide so many amazing and enlightening resources and tools. Marriage can be such a roller coaster and range from being the best thing ever to walking through a booby trapped field of hidden landmines. Often times we can be totally unaware that we’re even in such a field. You bring so much light and understanding to what is really going on. Thanks again for what you do.

    1. Thank you Lareesa for your comment. I think you’re right that the relationship minefield is even worse when we’re not aware of it. I don’t mind the roller coaster so much as long as I’m assured it won’t fly off the tracks. Thanks for your encouragement.

  3. Linda olson says:

    I so much like the process and dialog of your example, as I know I could relate. The steps to move from not being heard or misunderstood to being given the space to share what the thoughts or feelings were, gives the entire situation a chance to be closed with the relationship united.
    The reminder to be a listener to my spouse without building up a response or frustration can be the most important part so often for me.

    1. That’s a great point Linda about “being given the space to share what the thoughts and feelings were”. I don’t tend to do that naturally. Mirroring slows things down so that can happen. It feels awkward and even unnecessary at first, but without it most times we are too reactive to really give that space. Thanks for that insight.

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