Sometimes discussions start off on the wrong foot. Other times things start to escalate and we start attacking or blaming each other. In order to communicate more effectively, we need to learn how to deescalate these sorts of conflicts. One of the best ways to do this is with what relationship expert John Gottman calls repair attempts.
Repair attempts are attempts to repair any damage we’ve done with something we’ve said during a discussion. Maybe we’ve been a little too harsh, or said something unfair or mean. Or maybe the other person just reacted poorly to something innocent we said that they took the wrong way. No matter why tensions have started to rise, repair attempts can help ease tensions and get things back on track.
Although this video focuses on how to improve communication in a romantic relationship, like with the last post, these same skills can help improve communication with friends, family, co-workers and bosses, and so on.
Deescalate Conflict With Repair Attempts
This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.
In my previous video on communication in relationships we looked at how to start off conversations with our partners more gently or softly. Softening our start-ups is probably the most important thing we can do to communicate better and make our discussions more likely to lead to a resolution rather than escalating into a fight or argument.
But even if we have good intentions we don’t know if we start things off softly and even if we do start off softly discussions can still escalate into an argument or fight. So in this video we’re going to look at what we can do when we find ourselves trying to talk to our partners and things start escalating and seem to be heading towards a fight or unproductive argument. And how we can de-escalate conflicts so we can try to work things out in a more productive manner.
So a very common dynamic is that when someone brings up a complaint at some point in the discussion one of us gets offended or feels attacked or maybe just takes something the wrong way and then they take things up a notch and respond back a little more harshly. This usually leads the other person to respond back equally harshly or take things up another notch.
And once this sort of escalation starts if we don’t make a conscious effort to relieve this tension things often continue to escalate until we’re left yelling and screaming at each other. Or with one of us in tears. Or with one of us so upset we storm out of the room and slam the door behind us. Or maybe one of us shuts down and goes silent and refuses to talk anymore. Or any number of variations on this theme at which point the discussion isn’t going any further and nothing’s getting resolved and we’re left with anger and hurt feelings and resentment towards each other.
So how do we deal with this? How do we manage to keep discussions from escalating like this, and to de-escalate things once tensions do start to rise?
In my last video on communication i mentioned the psychologist and relationship expert john Guttmann. In his research observing thousands of couples he’s found that once tensions during a discussion start to escalate, couples who communicate well with each other relieve this tension with what he calls repair attempts. In his book the seven principles for making marriage work, which i think is one of the best self-help books about relationships and I’ll link to it in the description, he describes repair attempts like this:
When you take driving lessons the first thing you’re taught is how to stop the car. Putting on the brakes is an important skill in a relationship too. When your discussion starts off on the wrong foot or you find yourself in an endless cycle of recriminations, you can prevent a disaster if you know how to stop. I call these breaks repair attempts.
So a repair attempt is simply a statement that we use to try to ease the tension a bit and de-escalate conflicts. So for example I’m sorry that came out a little harsh what i meant was ….
Or I’m feeling a little defensive right now could you please try to rephrase that?
Or i think I’m starting to understand what you mean.
Or you’re right i was being a little unfair or i think we’re getting a bit off topic.
Each of these statements is like a peace offering we’re making in the middle of the conflict. And if our partners hear this peace offering and accept it, then tensions can start to de-escalate and we can get the discussion back on track. And there are a couple of posts on the Guttmann institute’s blog that have a long list of examples of phrases we can use as repair attempts that I’ll link to in the description, so you can look through these and find a few that sound good and make sense to you that you can use in your discussions with your partner.
And it’s not enough to just make a repair attempt; our partners need to be able to notice and recognize when we’re making repair attempts. And likewise we need to be able to notice and recognize our partner’s repair attempts. Otherwise our repair attempts are just flying over each other’s heads and they don’t accomplish anything and nothing changes.
And if we’re arguing with someone. Sometimes we stop listening to what they’re saying, or at least stop paying that close attention maybe because we’re thinking about what we want to say next. Or maybe we feel like we’ve heard it all before so we’re just waiting for them to stop talking so we can say our piece
And so it can be easy to miss our partners repair attempts. But if they are making repair attempts and trying to ease the tension, we need to be able to pick up on this. So it’s important that we be on the lookout for our partners repair attempts and do our best to recognize them when they do happen.
And if our partners have missed our repair attempt then maybe we need to repeat it or find a way to rephrase it so that it’s more obvious to them and they receive the message that we’re reaching out and trying to ease the tension.
And it’s a good idea to try to phrase repair attempts as i statements because i statements are more likely to be received graciously than a you statement, which often comes off as blaming or attacking even if that’s not the intention. So when we’re able to express things in terms of i instead of you there’s a better chance our repair attempts will be well received. So let’s look at some examples.
Instead of a you statement like, you’re getting off track try to stick to the point, it’s more effective if we can phrase it in terms of an i statement: i feel like we’re getting a little off track, can we try to refocus on what we started off talking about.
Instead of, you seem to be getting really worked up. Can you try to calm down a bit? I feel like things are getting a little worked up. Can we just try to take it down a bit?
And even if we think our partners are the ones being unreasonable, and let’s face it that’s usually the case, we can’t control what they’re doing or what they’re saying. So if we want to de-escalate we need to focus on what we can do to help simmer things down rather than calling them out for not listening, for attacking us, for getting defensive, and so on.
Or playing some sort of game of chicken where we’re not going to start de-escalating until they make a peace offering first. Because even though it’s a natural reaction to want them to have to acknowledge that they’re the ones being unreasonable, they’re the ones at fault, if both of us have that attitude and neither of us are willing to reach out with a repair attempt first, then the argument is going to just keep escalating and nothing’s going to get resolved.
Now ideally when we say something harsh we can catch ourselves right away and make a repair attempt before our partners even had a chance to react to it. Are you just going to sit there and ignore me all night? Sorry i didn’t mean to snap at you. What i meant to say is i had a rough day at work could we just talk about it for a bit.
Now sometimes during a discussion things seem to be going fine and then one of us says something that the other person takes the wrong way and then that just sets them off. And so if we can catch things right away before there’s any further escalation our repair attempts are much more likely to be successful. So for example let’s say we’ve been arguing a lot lately about chores and just how much work around the house each of us are doing and we say something like, thanks for cleaning up after dinner tonight.
And because this has been a sensitive issue lately our partners take it the wrong way and say, you don’t have to be all sarcastic about it. I told you i was going to clean up after dinner. And so now we have a choice and we can respond back to our partners in the same sort of manner they responded to us and continue escalating things: what are you getting so defensive? About i was just thanking you.
Or we can choose to use a repair attempt: oh I’m sorry if that came off as sarcastic. I really meant it i really do appreciate you cleaning up after dinner tonight.
And then because we were able to use a repair attempt as soon as things started to escalate it’s going to be easier for our partners to respond positively to it since the level of tension is still relatively low at this stage and it’s pretty likely that we’re going to be able to prevent things from escalating any further oh okay i guess i took that the wrong way.
Or another example. How was work today?
My boss was being such an idiot.
I wish you two could get along better get along better.
He’s an idiot. Why should i have to get along with him? Why can’t you just take my side for a change?
And then we can feel unfairly attacked and attack back: i was just trying to be supportive there’s no need for you to blow up at me like that.
Or we can try a repair attempt: I’m sorry i was just trying to be supportive. I know that came out the wrong way. What i meant was i wish your boss would stop being such an idiot.
Yeah he’s the worst. I just hate him.
So again, if we’re able to intervene almost immediately with a repair attempt as soon as things start to go off the rails, there’s a good chance we’re going to be able to get things back on track without too much trouble.
So it’s great if we can catch things right away and offer a repair attempt early on before things have a chance to escalate, but that doesn’t always happen. But we can still use repair attempts in the middle of arguments that have been going on for a while and gotten really heated. So let’s look at a couple of examples where we’ve been going at it for a while.
So things have been escalating and they say, stop attacking me. And instead of using a repair attempt we respond, I’m not attacking you. You’re the one attacking me, and you’re just not listening to anything I’m saying. Then things will most likely continue to escalate you’re impossible to talk to when you get like this and then keep escalating from there.
But if when they say, stop attacking me, even if what we’re thinking is, stop attacking them, they’re the ones attacking me, if we’re able to respond with a repair attempt like, I’m sorry i should have phrased that better. I didn’t mean to attack you. Let me try again. We’ve made a sort of peace offering and made it much easier for them to de-escalate as well. Yeah okay i get that now.
Now if they continue to escalate and respond with something like, yeah you always get like this. Why can’t we just have a discussion without you attacking me? So in that case they didn’t respond to our repair attempt. So why might that happen and what can we do about it?
Well if we or our partners are really upset or angry or having any sort of very strong emotional reaction to what’s being discussed it can be hard for a repair attempt to even register. And even if it does register we can’t always disengage ourselves from fight mode or attack mode and take things down a notch. Sometimes our emotional reactions take over and overwhelm our abilities to process information and respond more appropriately.
So anytime we’re feeling so upset angry anxious or overwhelmed that we’re only able to respond to each other emotionally, then we need to take a break until things calm down enough that we’re able to talk things out more rationally. But there are a few challenges with taking a break in the middle of a heated argument, and so in my next video we’re going to look at these challenges and learn some tips on how to take an effective break or timeout in the middle of a heated argument or fight with our partners.
There are a couple of blog posts on the Gottman Institute website with more examples of repair attempts: R is for Repair and Repair is the Secret Weapon of Emotionally Connected Couples. And you can learn more about repair attempts, as well as many other self-help strategies to improve your relationship, in Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.