Conflict resolution therapy, an approach to treatment that seeks to teach people conflict resolution skills, was designed primarily to help couples but can be used to address conflict in any situation, whether it arises in a family, between friends or romantic partners, at the workplace, or in any other situation.
People seeking treatment may find conflict resolution therapy can help them find solutions to certain challenging situations, relieve related mental health symptoms, and build a skill set that can be used to navigate future conflict.
This approach to therapy, a combination of psychologist Susan Heitler's psychotherapy training and experience in legal mediation, was first established with the publication of her 1990 book, From Conflict to Resolution: Skills and Strategies for Individual, Couples, and Family Therapy. She recognized that many individuals were able to communicate in a more collaborative way in the workplace than in their personal relationships and thus possessed the skills for conflict resolution. This specialized form of therapy is grounded in her belief that both parties involved in conflict, when they are able to truly listen to each other and work together, have the ability to resolve conflict in a cooperative way by translating these conflict resolution skills.
The goal of conflict resolution therapy is to help all parties involved feel as if they have achieved a "win-win" scenario, and the method has gained recognition both as an effective treatment for couples and a prominent resource for mediators and lawyers. Throughout her career in conflict resolution therapy, Heitler has published books on the topic, presented at numerous conferences, and facilitated workshops throughout the country. Many of Heitler's training materials on conflict resolution therapy are also used in graduate programs around the world.
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Underlying this therapy model is the idea that conflict can cause negative emotions to form out of an individual's natural response system. When conflict is not resolved appropriately, negative emotional states may linger and develop into situations tht can have serious, lasting consequences. Redirecting conflict with the proper skills, however, can help individuals address these challenges and achieve greater well-being as well as resolution.
- Fight: The person attempts to dominate either the person or situation. This detour can lead to things like anger issues, paranoia, and borderline functioning.
- Flight: The person attempts to avoid, distract, or run from the situation. This detour can lead to anxiety issues, including obsessive compulsive behavior.
- Immobilization: The person is unable to act or make decisions. This detour can lead to anxiety issues, including panic attacks and isolation.
- Submit: This person is overly accommodating and gives in too easily. This detour can lead to depression.
Conflict resolution skills training, which attempts to help people learn how to redirect conflict without emotional detouring, incorporates imagery and communication as the primary tools for exploration and resolution. Participants are taught skills that can allow them to unite when facing difficult situations, and they are encouraged to work together rather than combat each other in order to overcome difficult issues that may, if left unaddressed, lead to anxiety, depression, or contempt.
In the process of exploring these feelings, the therapist can help those in therapy discover win-win scenarios and help them identify new behavior patterns that may help them avoid engaging in negative actions and reactions in the future.
The approach implements these basic steps (which are referred to by Heitler as the "win-win waltz") during the treatment process:
- Expression of initial positions
- Exploration of underlying concerns (with a focus on core concerns)
- Creation and establishment of a mutually agreed-upon plan that meets the needs of both participants
Conflict resolution therapy seeks to provide a balanced mix of therapy and skills training, and a well-trained therapist will generally be able to integrate skill-building activities and therapeutic intervention to those they are treating. Conflict resolution therapy seeks to provide a balanced mix of therapy and skills training, and a well-trained therapist will generally be able to integrate skill-building activities and therapeutic intervention to those they are treating. For example, if a family of origin issue arises in the course of therapy, the therapist may choose to halt skills practice in order to more deeply explore the family issue.
Conflict resolution therapists take on several roles over the course of therapy, providing those in treatment with a well-rounded, all-inclusive approach. Therapists act as mediators, guiding people through conflict and helping them learn how to utilize skills to achieve a win-win resolution. They coach by teaching these skills and prompting the use of them in session, and they also take on a healing role by using skills associated with more traditional types of therapy to help those in therapy both mend relationships and understand their past and how it relates to their current area of conflict, whether it is relationship-based or otherwise.
Conflict resolution therapy is based on the premise that conflict lies at the heart of emotional distress. This conflict, which might occur internally, interpersonally, or externally (situation-based), may be the result of one or more core concerns—recurring issues often leading to conflict and emotional distress. Conflict resolution therapy applies its problem-solving approach to each type of conflict in order to reduce tension, improve well-being, and find solutions. It has been known to improve mental health issues related to anger, depression, and anxiety.
People who engage in this type of therapy are often able to develop the skills necessary to adequately address any future circumstances that might otherwise result in conflict, whether this conflict occurs with a romantic partner, a family member, or a colleague. Because the principles of this approach can also encompass issues such as financial difficulties or health circumstances, this therapy may have benefit to a wide range of individuals in a variety of situations.
Throughout treatment, the conflict resolution therapist will typically note any core concerns and encourage the exploration of these concerns. A therapist will also likely assess patterns of interaction, block negative communication, and model effective “dialoguing” skills. Over the course of therapy, people may be able to learn how to avoid emotional detours, how to communicate safely, and how to manage emotion regulation. These skills may, in addition to helping them address areas of current conflict, help prevent conflict in the future.
There is no official certification program for conflict resolution therapy, but therapists and other individuals interested in learning conflict resolution therapy skills can use the training materials developed by Dr. Heitler to train in the approach. These materials include her books, taped training sessions, the Master Therapist video The Angry Couple: Conflict Focused Treatment, and a number of self-help materials designed for couples and individuals. The Master Therapist video is frequently used in graduate-level couples counseling programs throughout the United States.
Conflict resolution therapy is relatively new, so the approach does not yet have an established history of use. The method appears promising as a couples therapy practice, and though anecdotal evidence supports this, there is currently minimal research reflecting the efficacy of the approach.
The lack of a formalized training and certification program also creates the potential for practitioners and couples attempting to utilize the method to do so incorrectly. This may simply have little to no effect on conflict, but it might also place further strain on a relationship.
Expanding available information, research, and training to potential participants and professionals alike will likely help expand conflict resolution therapy as a widely utilized practice.
- Bio of Dr. Heitler. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.therapyhelp.com/bio
- Dattilio, F. M., & Bevilacqua, L. (Eds.). (2006). Relationship dysfunction: A practitioner's guide to comparative treatments. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.
- Heitler, S. (2010). Combined individual/marital therapy: A conflict-resolution framework and ethical considerations. Retrieved from http://www.therapyhelp.com/225
- Heitler, S. (2010). Conflict resolution: essential skills for couples and their counselors. Retrieved from http://www.therapyhelp.com/conflict-resolution-for-counselors-and-couples
- Heiter, S. (2010). Conflict resolution therapy. Retrieved from http://www.therapyhelp.com/conflict-resolution-therapy
- Wyatt, R. C. (2006). Susan Heitler on couples therapy. Retrieved from https://www.psychotherapy.net/interview/susan-heitler