12 Steps to Improve Your Communication in Relationship Conflict

12 steps to Improve Your Conflict Communication in Relationships

By Kendall Coffman, MS, Marriage and Family Therapist

Bids for Connection: 12 Steps to Improve Your Communication in Relationships

Bids for Connection and Love

Relationships can be challenging, but we can all make our relationships more meaningful by enhancing the relational friendship. Relationship researcher, John Gottman (1999), explained that even in distressed relationships, partners still make bids for attention, affection, sex, support, love, and so on. When partners miss the opportunity to meet the bids being made, they can sometimes damage the roots of love and trust in the relationship. Nowhere is this more true than in conflict. 

Defining Love

Along similar lines, vulnerability and shame researcher Brené Brown (2010) defines love, saying, 

We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.

Love is not something we give or get. Instead, it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it also exists within each one of them. This is why we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.

Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare. (26)


One area where we often miss the opportunity to connect with a partner is in disagreements. Disagreements are an expected and utterly normal occurrence within relationships. However, what is critical is how those disagreements are handled, processed, learned from, and healed moving forward within the relationship. Join me as I outline a twelve-step process (The Healthy Disagreement Resolution Cycle) for couples to work through conflicts and repair any failed bids for connection. (*Note that you can apply these twelve steps to other, non-partner, relationships, such as with friends and family members) These twelve steps draw from the work of Dr. John Gottman (1999).

Needing support in your relationship? Click here to search for a relationship therapist in your area.

The Healthy Disagreement Resolution Cycle

  1. Before any relationship conflict happens, think about a time when you were angry about an issue. Identify how long you were upset at your angriest and how long it took you to calm down. Share this information with your partner. 
  2. In the event of a disagreement, notice when either of you is upset beyond rational thinking or your own reasoning.
  3. Should either of you notice yourself or your partner becoming too upset, explain that it may be best to stop the conversation and set a time to pick the conversation back up based on when you tend to calm down (step 1).
  4. Whoever sets the time is responsible for picking the conversation back up at the designated time. 
  5. While you are each taking a break, you should take time to write down your true thoughts and emotions. Your significant other should not ever see what you write during this stage.
  6. After writing your emotions and thoughts, reread what you’ve written and take time to identify your true emotions – how did this disagreement make you feel
  7. Once you are calm and able to express your emotions, plan how you can take responsibility for changing the next interaction and resolving the conflict.
  8. At the designated time, share with each other your emotions without blame or using the term “you.” Only use “I” statements when expressing how you each feel with emotions.
  9. During this conversation, be sure to acknowledge and validate what your significant other is sharing. Remember acknowledging and validating does not mean you agree or that there is an admission of “right” or “wrong.”
  10. During step 9, you should not be thinking of a rebuttal; you should solely be listening and placing yourself in the shoes of your significant other in order to gain a better understanding. 
  11. Once you both have shared your emotions and have acknowledged and validated each other, this is the time that you both share your resolutions that you came up with individually to resolve the disagreement.
  12. The final step is to identify ways to avoid similar conflicts.

Helpful Tips:

  1. Always remember the Healthy Disagreement Resolution Cycle takes time to learn and master. 
  2. If you arrive at steps 8, 9, or 10 and are still not seeing progress toward resolution, go back to step 2, set a longer time for a break, and follow the remainder of the steps. 
  3. If you attempt the Healthy Disagreement Resolution Cycle twice and cannot reach a resolution, discuss where you are getting stuck with your therapist.
  4. Give yourself grace. You are doing your best.          


Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Letting go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Hazelden Publishing. 

Gottman, J. (1999). The marriage clinic: A scientifically-based marital therapy. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 

Relationships are hard. Working with a therapist who specializes in relationship, couples, and marital therapy can help you and your partner head make strides toward a healthier, more fulfilling life. Click here to start your search for a therapist in your area.

© Copyright 2021 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Kendall Coffman, Marriage and Family Therapist

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