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Archive for the ‘Conflict resolution’ Category

Teaching Marriage Skills

Susan Heitler, Ph.D:

To be published in the forthcoming book

Earning a Living Outside of Managed Care: Fifty Ways to Leave Your Oppressor, Steve Walfish, ed.

I am a psychologist in private practice whose marriage therapy treatment strategy includes a heavy dose of marriage skills training. I write books for marriage therapists and for couples. I have been invited by many state therapist associations to give continuing-education workshops on conflict resolution and marriage communication as therapists need competency in these skill-sets be able to coach their clients.

In addition, based on my book The Power of Two, I have written a workbook plus a curriculum for couples’ marriage skills workshops. Lastly, I work for Torque Interactive Media which offers internet-based games and workshops where couples (and therapists) can upgrade their collaborative dialogue and conflict resolution skills.

Marriage Therapy and Education

In the 60% of my time (three days a week) that I devote to clinical work, primarily with couples, my skills-oriented treatment strategy rests on the assumption that if people knew better, they would do better. Backward-looking family-of-origin work strengthens people’s understanding of where they learned their mistaken interaction patterns. For improvement in these patterns, however, most clients need explicit skillbuilding. The three-part combo of teaching skills, exploring the family-of-origin sources of mistaken habits, and guiding couples to resolution of issues that have divided them has enabled my clinical practice to flourish free of managed care.

I focus most of the remaining 40% of my work hours on disseminating information about marriage skills to the general public and to marriage therapists. I have been particularly interested in developing online marriage skills-training materials that

o teach couples the communication, emotional regulation, cleaning up after upsets, and conflict resolution skills that can enable them to enjoy a harmonious marriage

o boost psychotherapist effectiveness via podcasts teaching marriage therapy intervention techniques.

Psychologists especially need therapist training options because of the dearth of marital and family skills-training offered in most psychology graduate schools. It has concerned me that by ceding the vitally important and lucrative arenas of marriage therapy and marriage education to bachelor and masters level counselors, psychology as a field has been giving away two of the fastest growing, and most gratifying, arenas of practice.

My own interest in these areas began with the realization that psychotherapy is the art of helping people to resolve their conflicts, so psychotherapists need to be experts in conflict resolution. When the psychology literature did not offer this expertise, I turned to the literature on business negotiation. I began then writing articles and books to bring conflict resolution understandings first to the world of psychotherapy and then directly to couples.

Pros and Cons of Marriage Skills-Training Work

I love teaching communication and conflict resolution skills because the results are so immediate and so gratifyingly obvious. I love when couples enter a therapy session surrounded by clouds of tension and leave laughing together. I love hearing older couples in marriage workshops tell younger ones, “You are so fortunate. If we had learned these skills when we first married we would have been spared years of needless tensions.”

One complication of marriage counseling is that insurance companies are sometimes reluctant to pay for problems that are labeled marriage dysfunction. Diagnosing the problem as depressive, angry and anxious reactions—psychopathological states which almost inevitably emerge when there have been marriage problems–and listing marriage therapy as the treatment modality is one solution. Alternatively, psychologists can choose not to accept insurance and instead charge clients directly for treatment. I use the latter option.

The main downside of offering marriage skills workshops is the significant marketing effort necessary establish a referral flow. Also, workshops generally need to be scheduled on non-work hours. Scheduling workshops on weekday evenings and/or weekends can intrude on the psychotherapist’s own leisure and family time.

On the other hand, offering workshops one or two nights a week, and one weekend a month or every other month can substantially boost earnings. At the same time, workshop participants often want to continue to learn from the workshop leader after their initial exposure to marriage skills training, augmenting the workshop leader’s clinical practice.

The Business of Marriage Work

With regard to skills-oriented marriage therapy and skills-teaching in marriage workshops, which couples should receive which treatment?

Couples that are more acutely distressed generally need to begin immediately with therapy. In marital therapy with one couple at a time, clinicians can combine teaching communication and conflict resolution skills with helping the couple to calm and resolve their specific and pressing issues.

Most marriage education courses, including Power of Two Workshops, teach skills in a group format. Marriage workshops therefore tend to be a most appropriate, as well as least expensive, option for couples who mainly need just a skills upgrade rather than help settling urgent conflicts or exploring deeply-rooted problems. In addition, the group format can be very powerful in influencing change in spouses who are reluctant to admit that their behavior might be part of the marriage’s problems.

The two modalities however are not mutually exclusive. Workshops and therapy can be utilized together. Marriage therapists may encourage their clients to attend a workshop to accelerate their treatment. And workshop leaders may refer couples for therapy during or after completion of the course. To avoid an appearance of conflict of interest, it can be helpful to orient new clients to both options at the outset. That way you can decide together if and when each option will be appropriate.

With regard to other business aspects of these modalities, psychotherapists with strong collaborative communication and conflict resolution skills can market their skills to divorce lawyers, who tend to be a virtually untapped referral source. Divorce lawyers can refer couples who would prefer to fix rather than abandon their marriage, recent divorces who are having difficulty letting go of the marriage, and also post-divorce couple  who need to co-parent more cooperatively.

Interestingly, in terms of income potential, leading workshops actually can yield higher per-hour income than marriage therapy. One of the clinicians in our practice recently reported that a workshop with five couples–her preferred workshop size–yields more than double what she earns per psychotherapy hour. Because her hourly earnings are greater and also because her husband will be available to do childcare during the times that she teaches workshops, her plan is to continue teaching marriage education when she takes maternity leave from her clinical practice.

As I mentioned above, marketing is vital for building a marriage workshops program. Marketing can be targeted to engaged couples seeking premarital education, established couples seeking marriage enhancement, couples in therapy, as well as specific high divorce-risk groups such as empty-nesters and parents of special needs children. Marketing strategies can include flyers at ob-gyn practices, hair-dressers, gyms, and wedding dress stores, and internet or radio ads.

Learning These Skills

A psychotherapist who wants to conduct skills-oriented pre-marital or marriage therapy must first become expert in emotional regulation, cooperative communication, clean-up of upsets, and conflict resolution skills. In addition to studying books, psychotherapists can download the free articles on my website, and learn from the online games on

To teach workshops, therapists can design their own course materials. It is preferable however to start with one of the many excellent existing curricula rather than to start by re-inventing the wheel. The website offers an overview of the full field of marriage education, including listings of existing marriage education curricula. Power of Two ( may also have opportunities for psychotherapists who want to teach internet-based courses.

The bottom line: a good marriage enhances life’s blessings–longer life, more happiness, health, wealth and enjoyment. Communication and conflict resolution skills play a huge part in sustaining successful marriages. Psychologists have much to learn, and potentially much they can earn, in this important area.

On Borderlines and Narcissistics: A Marriage Skills Alternative to Pathologization

By Susan Heitler, Ph.D., author, From Conflict to Resolution

For therapy with the so-called personality disorders of borderlines and narcissists, a non-pathologizing orientation can be helpful. These are folks who function in a borderline or narcissistic matter, that is, in a way that is emotionally stormy and ‘all about me.’ In both syndromes, the folks are not sick; they are unskilled, and as a result they make very difficult marriage partners.

In this regard, it is important to note that there are alternatives to the notion, which fits for some but by no means all borderline and narcissistic folks, that their problem is too much childhood suffering and pain. Too much success, especially success at getting one’s way by ignoring others’ concerns while expecting others to respond to one’s own, can create these disorders with or without what we usually think of as emotional injuries.

What folks sometimes refer to as “spoiled” kids, emotional kids who always get their way because they have overpowered their parents with their intense emotional storms, are at risk for becoming borderlines. Specially talented kids, at the same time, are at risk for what I call “tall man syndrome,” i.e., becoming narcissists. They are at risk for feeling so talented or tall or smart that what they want seems to them, and often to others as well, as far more important than what others want.

In other words, borderline and narcissistic syndromes are patterns of response to situations in which what they want feels sacred and what others want, irrelevant.

This model of personality disorders, based on conflict resolution theory, (see From Conflict to Resolution by Susan Heitler) leads to a practical treatment response. Teach narcissists and borderlines to listen and become responsive to others’ concerns, teach them win-win conflict resolution, and they will learn to function with emotional health and personal maturity.

A key part of the skill set narcissists and borderline personalities need to learn, in order to do win-win conflict resolution, is emotional self-regulation. After years of pitching fits to get what they want, they typically need much coaching to learn to recognize anger as it begins to arise, remove themselves from the situation, self-soothe, and then return in a calm problem-solving mode to find win-win solutions.

This treatment approach requires first that the therapist become an expert in conflict resolution, and then that the therapist become a great coach for conveying the skills to clients. For a free download on Therapist as Conflict Resolution coach, go to

In sum, with enough confrontation on their old ways of powering over others, plus coaching in win-win skills, borderlines and narcissists who want to grow up can become great folks with normal to excellent potential for partnership.

From Conflict to Resolution: Psychologist/Divorce-Attorney Collaborations

Susan Heitler, Ph.D.; 303 388-4211;

This paper is adapted from Dr. Heitler’s chapter in A Practice That Works, Harris, S.M., Ivey, D.C. and Bean, R. (eds), 2005. New York: Routledge.

Divorce lawyers and clinical psychologists have much to gain by forming working alliances. This article explains the kinds of positive synergies that lawyers and psychologists can develop. For instance, I have worked on cases referred by divorce attorneys to address the following issues:

  • · To give a marriage one last chance for growth, particularly in cases where one or both partners would prefer to fix than to end the marriage, even if it is just “for the sake of the children.”
  • · To resolve ambivalence about divorce, in situations where spouses take two steps forward and then one backwards with regard to movement toward legal finality.
  • · To ease excessive emotional distress during the divorce process when the client does not want a divorce but the spouse insists on it.
  • · To reduce angry fighting between the spouses during divorce negotiations.
  • · To facilitate post-divorce healing.
  • · To assist children of divorce in their post-divorce adjustment and co-parents with establishing appropriate collaborative interactions.

How I stumbled into work with divorce lawyers

I began to receive referrals from a first divorce lawyer quite a few years ago. I could not remember how it began, so I asked the lawyer himself. His report:

“Friends of mine came to see you. The husband had children from another marriage. They loved your work because you were helping them with step-momming issues. You gave them good advice. That was 18 years ago. I researched who you were then and we talked some. You said you worked with couples, and I referred my first case. You had this advanced collaborative thinking methodology. So I started to pick and choose with my clients, thinking who would want a therapist who gets down to brass tacks. And I began thinking about which marriages could be saved. Which people are desparate to try one last time even if I know there’s nothing left to save. Where you could be helpful in the mediating….”

Appropriate candidates for this strategy

The following criteria for each of the three populations involved–lawyers, couples, and therapists—stem from my experience, not from scientific research.

Lawyers. As I think about the various lawyers who have referred cases to me over the years, they seem to share the following characteristics.

Abundance: For starters, lawyers who have more people inquiring about their services than they can handle are likely to be most open to referring clients for therapy. Realistically, while lawyers with overload will not be the only lawyers who refer, they may be the least threatened by the possibility that some clients whom they refer to a psychological professional will mend the marriage instead of continuing to pursue the divorce option.

Confidence: To refer to therapists, a lawyer needs confidence both in the specific therapist and in the effectiveness of therapy in general.

Emotional sensitivity: Lawyers definitely vary in their perceptivity about, and interest in, their clients’ emotional states. Only some attune to their clients’ ambivalent feelings about divorce, ask outright about lingering love, or regard spouses’ anger as remediable. Those with this sensitivity are most likely to feel comfortable referring ambivalent clients for psychological evaluation and treatment.

Belief in marriage. Lawyers also differ in the extent to which they believe in rescuing potentially redeemable marriages. Some lawyers are like mortuarians, defining their work as closing the casket on what they assume to be dead relationships. Others perceive their job as being more like that of a priest. They would rather save the dying marriage than issue last rites for the couple. These latter lawyers appreciate knowing a therapist they work with to resuscitate the marriages that are still breathing.

Clients. I generated the following list by thinking about the clients who have been referred to me to clarify who seemed to benefit from treatment versus those who were resistant to treatment or left after one session.

Motivation. One or both partners must feel a significant motivation to make a last effort at reconciliation. The motivation for reconciliation may be financial, what’s best for the children, religious-based, love, or desire for a smoother divorce process. For clients with no motivation, therapy is unlikely to have much impact.

Sometimes this motivation can be induced by the lawyer. For instance, the lawyer might say “This much anger is going to make for a very expensive divorce. I’d recommend you go to therapy to see what you can do about coming to peace with your situation before we move forward.” Or, “Your husband’s anger at you is going to make this a very costly and combative divorce. I’d recommend you go together to therapy to help him come to peace with the divorce before we proceed further.”

Strengths. Like most therapy, divorce-related treatment is more likely to be successful with patients who demonstrate capacity for insight and willingness to grow.

Insight here refers to the ability to explore the parts that they may have played in the relationship’s demise. Growing refers to ability to learn new ways of handling the role of spouse, new behaviors to substitute for former problematic habits, and new ways of communicating and handling conflict.

Paranoid features. If one party blames the other spouse in a manner that has become a fixed paranoid stance, treatment will be unlikely to modify the blaming, particularly if this ideational system is fixed and non-permeable to new information. Therapy with these couples nonetheless can be beneficial for the healthier spouse who may need help understanding the confusing phenomena of cognitive rigidity, projection, and a fixed blaming stance.

Affairs. When one spouse has developed a strong emotional attachment to a third party, this attachment is generally an extremely bad sign for saving the marriage. Occasionally however, treatment in a couple therapy format can renew the betraying spouse’s recollection of how the marriage used to be, and can inspire a vision of how it could become. A return to monogamy may again begin to look appealing, especially if the lover has become burdensome over time. Sometimes also the errant spouse needs coaching to accomplish ending the affair.

Psychopathology. Psychopathology such as depression, anxiety, compulsive habits, controlling behavior, or excessive anger is often a key factor in marriage difficulties. Anger problems, addictions, and affairs are the big three causes of divorce. Psychotherapy that addresses these issues can sometimes alleviate the cause of the marriage’s demise.

Individual therapists. When one spouse is in individual therapy, or worse, if both are in individual therapy with different therapists, these help-structures can inadvertently precipitate the belief that divorce is the only option. A switch to one therapist who handles both the couple and the individual treatments in an integrated fashion can sometimes put the marriage back together again.

Multiple research studies have shown that when people in a troubled marriage undergo individual therapy, they become at increased risk for divorce (Heitler 1990, 2001). A treatment format in which one therapist handles both the individual and the couple treatment sessions, however, can sometimes resuscitate these marriages, healing the iatrogenic (doctor-induced) damage.

Therapists. I generated the following list of therapist attributes by reviewing the various therapists who have worked in our office suite over the past decade. I looked for what seems to differentiate the ones who did well with attorney referrals from those who either did not want the referrals or did not experience success with them.

Conflict resolution expertise. Potentially divorcing couples are likely to have many areas of entrenched conflict, so above all a therapist for all-but-divorced couples must be skillful at helping couples resolve their differences. These skills include anger management, techniques for cleaning up the toxic residues of past poorly-handled conflicts, skills for teaching improved communication and conflict resolution patterns, and expertise at guiding seemingly irreconcilable conflicts to resolution (Heitler, 1990, 1992, 1995, 1998, 2001)

Confidence. For couples who are taking one last try at obtaining help and who have consulted a lawyer because they feel hopeless about reviving their lost love, a therapist needs to be able to inspire their hope. This task requires radiating confidence. Confidence comes in part from having experienced many couple therapy successes, and perhaps even more from a therapist’s temperamental tendency to positive thinking.

High activity level. The therapist must utilize highly interventionist treatment methodologies. At the outset of treatment especially, merely remaining a calm presence and a good listener is not enough. Divorcing couples for years have played and re-played conditioned angry responses. By the time they seek a divorce attorney, they may be totally allergic to each other. Therapists need to be able to take charge for the sessions to feel safe and productive. They need to intervene immediately at the slightest slippage off the narrow pathway of healthy communicating. They need to offer clear guidance so that talking about the unfortunate past consistently concludes with learning for a better future. A more passive definition of the therapist’s role will not suffice.

Comfort with being in charge. How does a therapist know that he or she will be effective at keeping all therapy sessions safe and constructive? I used to teach junior high school, which helped me enormously. Therapists who have raised teenagers may have the requisite experience. Therapists who grew up as the mediator in a family of origin with much fighting also may have well-developed “natural” skills for cooling marriage conflict having been mediating conflicts in their contentious family since early in their youth. This is one kind of work where such a childhood can prove to be an advantage.

Orientation toward health. Lastly, this kind of therapy requires that a therapist have clarity about how healthy couples communicate and deal with differences (Heitler, 1990, 1997, 2003, 2008). A therapist who does not know clearly the skills necessary for healthy talking together and shared decision-making is unlikely to be able to make these phenomena happen.

Belief in marriage, and understanding of the limits of marriage. The Case for Marriage by Waite and Gallaher (2000, Broadway Books, NY) and The Case Against Divorce by Medved (1989, Ballantine Books, NY) are essential reading. Interestingly, the final chapter of The Case Against Divorce provides a particularly excellent decision tree for when healing a marriage is ill-advised and divorce is a more appropriate choice.

Special training needed

As I describe in my book From Conflict to Resolution and illustrate in the video The Angry Couple, therapists who work with high-conflict couples need to be able to

  • guide the movement form conflict to resolution
  • contain the arousal levels in the therapy session to keep everyone in a constructive emotional zone
  • explore efficiently the family of origin issues and transference patterns that exacerbate a couple’s conflicts, and
  • coach the skills that can enable couples to talk and resolve conflicts cooperatively on their own once therapy has been concluded. I have detailed the skills which healthy couples use to communicate effectively, manage anger, and handle differences in The Power of Two.

Treatments outcomes

Of the peri-divorce cases referred to me by divorce lawyers, my estimate is that between a half and two-thirds end treatment with saved and well-functioning marriages. The remaining couples generally conclude treatment with their ambivalence about the divorce significantly reduced, a more cooperative divorce, and emotional relief from understanding more clearly and without blame how their once-hopeful marriage turned to disaffection. This growth typically includes gaining deeper understanding of the role family of origin experiences of both spouses played in how they handled the role of marriage partner. Lastly, they have been introduced to, and hopefully even learned, the communication and conflict resolution skills they would need for improved odds of success in subsequent relationships.

A small number of my lawyer-referred couples—less than a handful in total over more than a decade of this work–have left treatment with their anger at each other unabated and without significant personal growth. In these cases, one or both partners remained locked in blame, that is, manifested paranoid or abusive personality tendencies.

Clinical outcomes

The following three cases illustrate several types of cases that lawyers might refer to a therapist, the kinds of interventions called for, ethical considerations, and outcomes. They are the three most recent cases referred by divorce attorneys to me.

A saved marriage. When the lawyer called me to ask if I had room in my practice to accept Jack and his wife Sandy (names changed for confidentiality) for treatment, he emphasized that Jack, a client with whom he had met only once, seemed to be a lovely fellow. Jack had long been unhappy in his marriage yet was wary of pursuing a divorce. He had been in individual therapy for several years, and was taking anti-depression medication. Neither treatment had brought him relief from his chronic unhappiness, anxiety, and compulsive ruminations. Jack had been involved in affairs, one of which he was currently ending. He was living separately from his wife. He thought he still loved her, but whenever he was near her he felt anger. Jack felt distressed also by what felt were poor relationships with his high school and college-aged children.

The outcome of this case has been highly sanguine. Jack now has moved back home, his Depression has lifted, he is optimistic about the marriage, and his relationships with his children are improving.

Couple treatment focused initially on helping Jack’s wife Sandy see that she inadvertently but consistently negated virtually everything Jack said to her. In the couple’s first session Sandy had resisted my observation that she was responding with “but…” to most of what her husband said. A key factor in her being able to move past this initial resistance was that, with signed patient permissions, I routinely audiotape treatment sessions (Heitler, 1995). When Sandy listened to their session recording at home, she was shocked and dismayed to hear the extend of her buts.. To her credit, she immediately strove to shift her listening mode from criticizing to listening for what was interesting in her husband’s comments, a shift that dramatically encouraged Jack.

In the second session we addressed Jack’s long-standing habit of speaking in a depressed barely-audible whisper. Jack reluctantly agreed to try speaking in a normal voice, selfmonitoring (giving numbers from 1 to 10) his voice volume intermittently for the remainder of the session. First in that session, then at work, and eventually in visits with his wife, his stronger voice led him to sit up straighter and to feel more personally empowered.

The therapeutic structure combined individual and couple treatment formats (Heitler, 2001). The treatment schedule included individual sessions (initially for both spouses, and then later for just Jack) plus one couple session each week for the first several months of treatment. Interestingly Jack liked his wife Sandy’s interest in hearing his individual session tapes. He regularly brought them home for her to listen to, which enabled his wife to understand with more empathy his struggles. This practice yielded the added benefit of helping Sandy to reduce the extent to which she interpreted Jack’s withdrawn behaviors in a personalized fashion, that is, as lack of love for her. Listening to the tapes enabled Sandy also to understand along with Jack the family-of-origin sources of his nervous agitation when he was at their house and his tendency to withdraw or leave the house. With this understanding, Sandy was more able to relax and become again the positive, good-humored and safe person Jack had married. Her transformation in turn made it easier for Jack to break out of his chronic anxiety, learned initially from growing up in a trauma-ridden family. As Jack resumed at home the adult selfconfidence he tended to feel outside of his home environment, his desire for escape methods such as affairs or divorce diminished.

Jack in individual treatment experienced difficulty believing that his childhood has been as traumatic as his recollections made it sound. The couple sessions helped considerably in this regard. His wife’s observations about the chronically humiliating treatment Jack, and later Jack and his wife, had been subjected to by Jack’s father helped to break through Jack’s minimizing and repression, consolidating his understanding of the sources of his years of misery. By distinguishing what was the same (both were family) and what was different (virtually everything else now that Sandy no longer deprecated and dismissed him) between his father and his wife, Jack gradually freed himself from the long-held pattern of disappearing that he learned in a painful childhood.

Jack and Sandy currently are learning collaborative communication and conflict resolution skills to replace making decisions with one of them caving in to solutions they didn’t want. They learned also to talk over upsetting incidents in ways that would lead to healing and learning instead of continued resentments. Having both grown up in dysfunctional households, these basic couple skills had not been in their repertoires, even though both spouses were highly intelligent and successful in their professional lives.

The lawyers involved in this case were saved from having buried a marriage that was emotionally still alive.

Successful treatment with a divorce outcome. Nellie and Sam had vacillated for several years over whether or not to divorce. They had long ended their sexual relationship, and enjoyed virtually no affectionate interchanges. Nellie distrusted Sam’s financial dealings. Sam was non-disclosive to her about his financial situation. Nellie and Sam did not fight at home, primarily because they did not want their children disturbed by fighting; but they interacted only minimally and at arms’ length.

Therapy, which totaled approximately 6 sessions, clarified that neither spouse was willing to make any changes that might warm their relationship. They mutually agreed to end the marriage, and requested that couple treatment be continued for several more sessions to help them decide how to tell the children and how to implement separate domiciles.

In sum, while Nellie and Sam were not willing to breathe new life into their dead marriage, they used therapy to bring their marriage to a non-argumentative emotional closure. Disengaged emotionally, they then could work with their lawyers on financial and parenting disengagement. That is, therapy enabled the couple to land the plane of their relationship so the lawyers then could help them safely disembark.

Divorce, with successful individual follow-up treatments. Bill and Lilly had long endured a stormy relationship. Both seemed to want to end it, but Lily, whose lawyer referred the case to me, still clung to hope that somehow the marriage could be saved. During the course of brief treatment (four sessions), Bill decided he would file for divorce. Both spouses then elected to continue for several additional sessions of individual treatment with me.

Bill’s individual treatment goal was to grieve the death of his first wife. With help lifting the blockage, he was able to experience the flow of a normal grieving process.

In her individual sessions, Lily wanted help accepting that the marriage was ending, understanding why and how this outcome could be in her best interests, and staying positive during the divorce process accepted that Bill was not interested in becoming the kind of husband she wanted. The several sessions enabled her to let go of a chronically undependable relationship that had provided economic security without the emotional sustenance or commitment she craved.

Lily augmented her therapy with a marriage communications skills course (Power of Two) to upgrade her collaborative communication skills. Her long-standing habits of complaining and emotional escalations had made her prior relationships difficult and created turbulence in her relationships with her adult children. She learned to express her preferences in positives (“I would like…” or “My concern is …”) rather than in negative “don’t likes.” She also learned to monitor her emotional intensities, withdrawing from situations where she was escalating, so that she interacted only from an effectively calm and positive emotional stance. At the end of therapy and skills training, Lily’s predominant feeling toward the divorce was relief. She was glad that the frustrating marriage had been terminated with a clear ending, and, with her new collaborative interaction skills, looked positively toward a better future.

A lawyer’s perspective

I asked the lawyer who has referred the most cases to me if he would be willing to answer several questions for this book chapter. He expressed delight, and answered as follows. These are all direct quotes, excerpts from a lengthy conversation.

How do you decide who to refer for psychological services?

1) “Twenty years ago divorce lawyers were supposed to encourage people to stay together if at all possible. I still ask if they still love their spouse. If they say yes, I send them for therapy.”

2) “I send them when a person isn’t emotionally ready to get divorced, and is open to getting help. Some people need to explore a last chance at saving the marriage. Like that guy from Elbert County. He was so scared of divorce, and so depressed about it, but he needed a reality check. You could see it was an impossible marriage, and you worked with him. You started out seeing if there was something to salvage. You’re very good at giving people a reality check so they can accept its time to get divorced.”

3) “Sometimes people get frozen and can’t go forward with the divorce. Like L (Lily, described above); she wanted so much for her husband to love her.”

4) “When a marriage is broken from infidelity, the trust is broken. Sometimes it can be rebuilt and sometimes it can’t. I’m thinking of L and R. I sent them to you in hopes the marriage could be rebuilt. They’re still together.”

5) “I really look if there’s something to save. If there is, I send them to you to save it, or, if there isn’t something left to save, for you to be brutally honest with them. Then I want you to help them face what’s to come and help them work collaboratively together to get it done.”

6) “I have occasionally sent people who are having difficulty communicating after the divorce. You help people communicate about their children. You help them talk about their children so they’re not blaming each other.”

7) “When there’s parent alienation syndrome, during or after the divorce, the alienated parent doesn’t know what hit them. They need help.”

8) “If I know the person personally who’s in a divorce, then I especially send them.”

What do you look for in a therapist?

1) “I look at the results. I’m really proud of how many marriages we’ve saved. We’ve saved a lot of marriages. We saved 7 marriages in one year. I’d say of the ones I send, a larger percentage you save their marriage than that don’t (sic).”

2) “I think you have a good approach because you don’t waste time. You make them communicate with each other. You roll around in your chair [I do therapy in a chair with rollers so I can move in close when the patients need help, and pull back as they can talk together with less support] and get in their face [I think he’s referring to how I roll in close to a spouse I want to work briefly with one-on-one] and get them to start doing things different. I sent one case, and a few days later I saw him in the gym reading your book [on marriage communication and conflict resolution skills].”

What about you, or about your ideas about law, do you think has led you to refer so many clients for therapy?

“I’m careful not to try to become their therapist. In court this morning a lawyer was meeting with the children. I try to know my limits and keep boundaries. I’m not psychologically trained. Lawyers need to know their boundaries. Psychological issues need to go to a therapist; we take care of their legal issues. And the nice thing about having a therapist I trust is I can say ‘This is a psychological issue. You need to talk about it with your therapist.’”

What else might you add for the benefit of therapists who may be approaching lawyers for referrals?

“I just hope you’ll stay in business for a while, at least for the 8 years until I retire. If a marriage maybe can be saved, I send them to you. If it can’t be saved, you’ll be honest with them. And if it can, you’ll work your butt off to save the marriage. That’s what therapists should do.”

How has working with divorce lawyers changed my practice?

Having been in practice now over twenty-five years, I enjoy challenging cases. Couples on the brink of divorce definitely fit this bill–and keep me humble. I can lead horses to water but there’s definitely only some who will let me help them drink.

At the same time, the referrals of all-but-divorced couples have provided a testing ground for my writing. I do not have access to academic lab facilities, but I write on theory and techniques of therapy and do need ways to test if what I write is valid or not. The lawyer referrals result in case after case where a divorcing couple comes to treatment dramatizing all that my writing says couples should not do. By following the therapy theory and methods that I have written about in my books, I see the same couple gradually build the kind of loving marriage that they had hoped for when they had said “I do.” The couple’s transformation validates the theories I have presented in my publications.

In addition, saving a marriage is like saving a life. It is extremely rewarding to help struggling couples reach the point that they can enjoy the many blessings that that come from a strong and loving marriage.

Reference List

Heitler, S. (1990). From conflict to resolution. New York: Norton.

Heitler, S. (1992). Working with couples in conflict [audiotape]. New York: Norton.

Heitler, S. (1994). Conflict resolution for couples [audiotape]. Denver: Listen-to-Learn.

Heitler, S. (1995). The angry couple . Denver: TherapyHelp.

Heitler, S. (1997). The power of two: Secrets to a strong & loving marriage. Oakland: New Harbinger.

Heitler, S. (1998). Treating high-conflict couples. In G. P. Koocher, J. C. Norcross, & S. S. Hill (Eds.), Psychologists’ desk reference. New York: Oxford.

Heitler, S. (2001). Combined individual/marital therapy: A conflict resolution framework and ethical considerations. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 11, 3, pp. 349-383.

Heitler, S. and Hirsch, A. (2003). The power of two workbook: Communication skills for a strong & loving marriage. Oakland: New Harbinger.

Heitler, S. and Hirsch, A. (2008) The Win-Win Waltz (dvd). Denver: TherapyHelp.

Conflict Resolution for Counselors and Couples

Conflict Resolution: Essential Skills for Couples and Their Counselors

Susan Heitler, Ph.D.

Denver, Colorado


Marriage and relationship counselors need expertise in conflict resolution to work effectively with couples in distress. Couples’ ineffective conflict resolution skills result in anger and arguing, depression, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive syndromes such as excessive drinking, eating disorders etc. Each of these disorders stems from a specific ineffective conflict resolution pattern. Effective conflict resolution habits, by contrast with the symptom-producing patterns, lead to outcomes that feel positive to the participants. Healthy conflict resolution pathways begin with expression of participants’ initial positions, continue with detailed exploration of their underlying concerns, and conclude with creation of a plan of action or solution set responsive to all of the specified concerns. Success in traversing this pathway requires that information be shared in accordance with principles of open and cooperative information flow.

Conflict Resolution: Essential Skills forWorking With Couples

Expertise in conflict resolution appears to be a foundational skill set for effective therapeutic counseling with couples. Couples who seek counseling frequently ask explicitly for help resolving their conflicts. Conflict resolution expertise enables a counselor to respond to these mediation requests. Counselors also need this expertise to be able to teach couples to live in cooperative partnership; improved communication and conflict resolution skills can enable couples to address subsequent differences more effectively on their own. This article reviews the work in this area contributed by a therapist whose interest in the conflict resolution literature of international relations, business, and law has led to incorporation of this literature into her own clinical work and writings.

Differences inevitably arise when two partners try to conduct the business of living together as one team. These differences can corrode marital affection by creating stress, tension, and anxiety, irritation, resentment and arguments, and depression. Handled with effective, mutually considerate, conflict resolution strategies, however, differences can lead to decisions that both spouses endorse and appreciate, enhancing both spouses’ personal sense of well-being and also their affection for each other. Counselors need to be able to guide and coach couples in these healthy dialogue and conflict resolution skills.

From a conflict resolution treatment perspective, the several ways that therapists can help couples with their conflicts define the three goals of couple counseling:

(1) symptom reduction, that is, relief from the anxiety, depression, anger, etc that are perpetuated by poorly handled conflicts.

(2) resolution of the various issues about which the couple has been adversarial and

(3) skill improvement for subsequent partnership effectiveness and peace in the home.

While conflict resolution can be regarded as lying at the heart of the therapy project, the counseling and psychotherapy literatures thus far have offered little guidance in the domain of collaborative dispute resolution. Surprisingly few books on therapy even include the word “conflict”, much less conflict resolution, in their index. Rather, advances in conflict resolution theory and techniques have developed primarily in the realms of business, international relations, and legal mediation. In my prior books and articles I have translated ideas from this mediation literature into the vocabulary of personal relationships and therapy (Heitler, 1987, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001). The current article distills from these writings the essential skills that a therapist or counselor needs to facilitate conflict resolution with couples in distress.

Signs That Indicate A Need for Conflict Resolution

Negative emotions of all types signal conflicts. Anger and arguing signal overt conflict. In addition, stress, tense silence, feelings of anxiety or depression, and addictive impulses all suggest brewing differences.

Conflict refers to any situation in which people experience pulls in apparently differing directions (Heitler, 1990), with or without overt fighting. That is, the term conflict, as it is used in this article, is not limited to situations with explicit fight behavior. Sometimes the differences are about the issue under discussion, such as a decision or a plan of action. At other times the differences can be about an event that has occurred in thepast. Sometimes the differences have little to do with the topic of discussion, and instead stem from someone disliking the way the other is speaking or responding, that is, from glitches in collaborative dialogue skills.

The conflicts signaled by negative emotions can occur in various realms. Intrapsychic conflicts pit a person’s own various preferences, fears, desires, values, and other motivations against each other. For instance, Norma might feel torn between wanting to finish the dishes and wanting to go outside for a walk in the evening twilight, or Joel might feel tempted to leave a troubled marriage and yet fear living as a single person. Interpersonal conflicts occur between two or more individuals. Norma may want to finish the dishes and Joel may want her to join him on an evening walk. Intergroup conflicts may involve neighborhoods, businesses, ethnic groups, nations, or any group entities, small or large. Lastly, reality conflicts develop between a person or group and facts of life. Norma and Joel may feel upset because of frustrating financial constraints or because one of them has been struck with a debilitating illness. While the same principles of conflict resolution apply in all of these realms, this article will focus on resolving conflict in the interpersonal realm–specifically, between partners in a marriage relationship.

Persistent or particularly strong negative emotions generally indicate the presence of a conflict with deeply felt or high priority concerns. Strong negative emotions also may indicate that the process of dealing with the conflict has been sub-optimal. The more important the issues in conflict, the more vital it becomes that the process be a healthy—that is, a process of collaborative conflict resolution characterized by

  • Mutual information sharing through respectful talking and listening–not a powering-over process based on insistence, coercion, threats, or violence
  • A cooperative tone, devoid of blame, accusation, or antagonism, and characterized instead by attitudes of mutual respect.
  • A win-win process that seeks to understand the concerns of all participants, and then concludes with an outcome responsive to all of these concerns.

When differences emerge in a healthy marriage, spouses express their personal concerns, listen respectfully to each other, and emerge with a win-win solution that is responsive to the concerns of both partners. In less emotionally sanguine marriages, by contrast, spouses detour away from win-win conflict resolution, heading instead down one or more of four ineffective pathways. All of these detours lead to either win-lose (one person gets they want but the other does not) or lose-lose outcomes. Each of these four detours from healthy resolution pathways results in a specific type of psychopathology.

  • Anger — The fight pathway is most obviously labeled as conflict. This pathway involves winning disagreements by escalating anger intensity—by getting louder, speaking more rapidly, and in some cases eventually by hurting the other. Negative energy enables one party to intimidate, dominate, and thereby coerce the other into giving what one wants (Heitler, 1990, 1995).
  • Depression — The submit pathway involves giving up on satisfying one’s preferences (Heitler, 1990, 1994, 1995b). In an adversarial or potentially adversarial interaction one party may choose to minimize the risks of fighting by giving up on getting what s/he wants. Depression is the by-product of giving up and loss.
  • Anxiety — The freeze pathway involves an immobilization response to conflict. Anxiety hovers when neither side in a conflict moves forward with explicit discussion or action. Instead, on-going disagreement produces a stalemated state of tension without resolution (Heitler, 1990, 1995).
  • Obsessive-compulsive and addictive disorders — The flight route utilizes the distraction of drugs, alcohol, or obsessive-compulsive habits as an escape route from conflict. By turning away from a conflict into distracting activities or thoughts, participants end the fighting but leave the conflict unresolved (Heitler, 1990).

Thus the two main indicators of ineffective conflict resolution are (1) one or more of the four primary symptoms if emotional distress (anger, depression, anxiety/tension/stress, or addictive/obsessive-compulsives behaviors) and/or (2) continued unresolved conflicts.

The Three Steps of Conflict Resolution

Effective collaborative conflict resolution flows through three main steps.

1. Express initial positions

2. Explore underlying concerns

3. Create a solution set responsive to all the concerns of both participants.

In order to traverse these three steps successfully, participants in a cooperative conflict resolution process must communicate in a manner consistent with cooperation. Adherence to the principles of collaborative communication insures the smooth information flow upon which conflict resolution depends.

When participants deviate from smooth information flow principles, discussions polarize and become increasingly adversarial in tone. Participants begin to experience themselves in opposition to each other, and to feel irritated or angry. Continuation of a dialogue with poor skills increasingly risks deterioration into argument and escalation into fighting.

When participants in a dialogue are able to sustain a positive emotional tone and utilize cooperative communication patterns, their dialogue will look like shared decisionmaking. Actually, conflict resolution on the one hand, and shared decision-making on the other, both utilize the same three steps of expressing initial positions, exploring underlying concerns, and then creating mutually satisfactory solutions. The main difference is that we tend to use the term conflict resolution when two people have locked into negative stances and it is necessary to reduce their antagonistic, judgmental, or coercive attitudes toward each other. In these situations, negative emotions such as tension, frustration, or irritation will predominate and will need to be reduced in order to move forward cooperatively. The counselor’s first task therefore in conflict resolution is to facilitate the couple’s transformation from enemy stances to quieter more collaborative interactions. For this change to occur, the counselor must truly believe that cooperative talk is predictably more effective than hostile fighting for dealing with differences. Judeo-Christian non-violent ethics, as well as the Western democratic tradition, rest on this belief—and contrast sharply with cultures in which winning by overpowering is valued above mutually beneficial negotiation via words.

The following example illustrates the three steps and the various sub-skills necessary for success in solving conflict dilemmas. Joel and Norma find themselves in conflict—i.e., facing a dilemma–about when to leave the party they plan to attend that night.

Step One: Express Initial Positions

Joel: I’d like to plan to leave the party tonight early.

Norma: Umm. I was hoping we’d stay on until the very end –and probably to be the last ones to leave.

Joel: Stay to the end? We need to talk this over then to figure out when we’ll leave so we have a plan that’s ok with both of us.

For this first step to proceed effectively, each participant needs to verbalize his/her initial position or concerns. For instance, Joel may think, “I’d like to plan to leave the party tonight early,” but not voice his preference. Merely thinking about what he would like would not suffice. Asking what Norma wants to do without also putting his own perspective on the table also would not suffice. “Say it” is the first principle of healthy dialogue (Heitler, 1997).

Norma needs to listen respectfully to her husband’s statement, and then verbalize her own preference—which Joel in turn needs to hear. Norma might respond, for instance, “Oh really? We need to talk then because I was hoping to stay on at the party until the very end –and probably to be the last ones to leave.” Joel too needs to respond in a way that acknowledges what he hears. At each step, symmetry is vital. Both Joel and Norma need to verbalize their preferences; and both need to give evidence of digesting the other’s preferences. For instance, Joel might indicate what he has heard by thinking aloud, “Stay to the end? We need to talk this over to figure out when to leave so we’re both ok with it.”

Conflicts smolder if they are not openly expressed. If Joel, instead of expressing his desire to leave the party early, had suppressed the impulse to say what he wanted, the dialogue would have derailed at the outset, never launching at all. Self-suppression, and resultant too narrow information flow, invites subsequent resentment, depression, or overt anger. When Joel felt ready to leave the party and his wife wanted to stay on, unpleasant feelings would have begun to emerge.

Other violations of basic communication guidelines (see Heitler, 1997) can similarly derail the conflict resolution process. For instance, if Joel had initiated the discussion with a complaint, “I hate the way you stay so late at parties,” rather than a request, he could have inadvertently torpedoed any subsequent cooperative dialogue. Complaints focus on the negative, on what is wrong, what one does not like. Complaints generate resistance and defensive responses. Requests, by contrast, focus on would likes rather than don’t wants, propelling dialogue forward. Likewise, if Joel had initiated the discussion by saying to Norma, “I want to leave early tonight; don’t give me a hard time about that!” With this controlling stance, telling Norma what he wants her to do instead of encouraging her to voice her perspective, Joel would have invited either an

angry or a depressed response from Norma.

Positive listening skills are similarly vital. If instead of listening openly for what makes sense about her husband’s request, Norma had retorted with defensiveness, criticism, or a toxic comment–“I do not stay late. You’re the one who’s usually last to leave”–tensions would have escalated. What I term “bilateral listening” skills also are essential (Heitler, 1997). Preoccupation with satisfying one’s own concerns without regard to the partner’s, that is, narcissism, predicts marital difficulty. Similarly, too much focus on pleasing the spouse at the expense of heeding one’s own concerns, that is, excessive altruism, also predicts marriage problems. Bilateral listening, by contrast, involves heeding both one’s own and one’s partner’s concerns and results in mutual benefit for both partners.

Joel and Norma have clarified their differing initial preferences. Both have spoken their initial preferences, and both have given respectful evidence of having heard the other. Once expressing initial positions has been thus accomplished, bringing the conflict into both partners’ awareness, a good technique for bridging from the first to the second steps is to frame the differing initial positions in terms of one over-arching problem statement. For instance, Joel and Norma frame their dilemma as a problem with deciding what time they will leave their party.

How a problem is framed has significant implications for the subsequent tone of discussion. Tensions tend to rise if either partner frames the problem as who is going to win—i.e., my way or your way. Tensions also tend to rise if either partner feels that the problem is being defined as something that is wrong with one of the people (self or other), rather than that the problem is a genuine problem. That is, the problem is not that Joel is asocial or Norma too garrulous; the problem is what time to leave. Defining the problem with a neutral umbrella dilemma label such as “what time to leave” clarifies that the subsequent decision-making process is likely to be collaborative, working together toward a shared goal.

Step Two: Explore Underlying Concerns

Joel: I want to leave the party early because I been feeling tired and I don’t want to get sick with our vacation coming up.

Norma: Yes, I don’t want you getting sick either. At the same time, I’d like to stay late at the party to show appreciation to our hosts, Ginny and David. They are our best friends. Making their party a priority consolidates our friendship.

Joel: I appreciate how good you are about keeping friendships nourished. I tend not to think about those kinds of things. I just go to a party, have fun, and then come home.. Which, by the way, brings to mind my other concern. I’m worried that the car has been having problems. I won’t be happy if it’s past midnight, the garages are closed, and the car breaks down on the way home.

Norma: We definitely need to figure out something about that car. One other concern for me–we’ve been kind of out of the loop socially, working too much. I’m looking forward to the party as a time I can re-connect with our friends and our relatives. Everyone will be there.

This second step of conflict resolution requires that participants identify the dimensions of the situation to which the position they initially suggested was a solution. Joel and Norma both look inward, using “insight” and listening closely to their inner murmurings, and then verbalizing the concerns they have discovered.

For success at this second step, participants need the cognitive flexibility to be able to loosen their attachments to the positions they had initially expressed. If they stay attached to their initial solution ideas, locked in cognitive rigidity, participants will argue for or against their position rather than allow themselves to “explore.” Convincing and debating are conflict resolution strategies intended to control or dominate; these modes of dialogue are incompatible with “exploration”. Insistence and persuasion techniques begin with a conclusion and then present arguments to persuade the other of the rightness of this initial conclusion. Exploration, by contrast, utilizes initial positions as starting points for pursuing further understanding, for deepening and broadening both parties’ understanding of their own and their spouse’s underlying concerns.

Exploration is most effective when the process identifies specific details relevant to each concern. For instance, what did Joel mean by “early” and what did Norma mean by “late?” Why is he tired? What specifically does he fear may break down on the car? What specifically might lead Norma’s party-host friends to feel insulted, and what would matter to them as evidence of friendship? With which friends and relatives did Norma especially want to connect? What would count as connecting? The more that the specifics of underlying concerns have been clarified, the more likely it will be that the couple will find solutions that are successfully responsive to their concerns. Specifics of positions can be problematic; but specifics in understanding underlying concerns significantly facilitate discovery of win-win solutions.

Both participants’ concerns need to be conceptualized as factors added to one list, the single list of “our concerns.” In a loving relationship, any concern expressed by one participant immediately becomes a concern of the other. Each concern becomes a parameter of their shared dilemma and is valued by both of them. The skill of bilateral listening again is relevant. Partners need to be able to heed with equal significance both their own and their partner’s concerns. As in the first step, some individuals will tend to err on the side of egocentrism, hearing only the dimensions of import to themselves. Others may err on the side of excessive altruism (often labeled co-dependency), that is exquisite attunement to the other person’s preferences with inadequate attention to their own concerns. Bilateral listening may be one of the best indicators of emotional maturity and an excellent predictor of marital success. With narcissistic, co-dependent, and hysteric and other less mature personality types, by contrast, a therapist has to repeatedly remind spouses, “I think there’s two of you here. Are you hearing both?”

Fortunately, concerns tend not to be mutually exclusive, the way action plans (initial positions) may be. Concerns come in the form of preferences, desires, values, fears, etc—these are the parameters of the problem to be solved. Joel and Norma’s concerns included fatigue, car problems, and friendship. Solutions, by contrast, are action plans. Whereas Joel and Norma cannot leave a party and stay at the party simultaneously, they should be able to find a plan of action that is responsive to their various concerns.

This difference between positions and concerns is the active ingredient that makes cooperative win-win settlement possible. The initial positions suggested in step one are only some of many possible solutions to any given set of concerns. A good solution or plan of action is win-win if it is responsive to all of both participants’ underlying concerns. Neither participant’s initial position may turn out to be the eventual chosen solution, but as long as both participants feel that their concerns are heeded in the outcome, they will experience the process as win-win.

Positional bargaining is the term used in the mediation literature to describe the adversarial negotiation that occurs when participants lock into step one, arguing over whose position will prevail instead of proceeding together to a joint exploration of their underlying concerns. Positional bargaining typically devolves into a tug of war. One participant wins and one loses depending upon who has more power or perhaps more investment in the outcome. The best that participants in a positional bargaining process can hope for in terms of mutual gain is a compromise, that is, a solution in which both participants give up some of what they want.

In the conflict resolution literature, positional bargaining is contrasted with interest-based bargaining. The latter process looks behind initial positions to “the interests that lie behind the positions.” This shift of focus is essential, but the terminology of interests that lie behind positions does not prove helpful in helping the shift to occur when the subject is personal psychological conflict resolution situations. Asking Joel and Norma what their “interests” are in their dilemma about party departure time makes little sense. I change the terminology of interests that lie behind positions to concerns that lie 0beneath the positions. (Heitler, 1993) By contrast with interests, the word concerns feels compatible with psychological phenomena such as desires, fears, preferences, and values. Asking Joel and Norma their concerns about when to leave the party is a meaningful question, one that helps them identify the relevant dimensions of their dilemma.

The metaphor of interests that lie behind positions needs a change as well in order to dovetail with how people think about personal situations. Psychological conceptualizations generally utilize a vertical, not horizontal, metaphor. We talk about the “sub” conscious, “deeper” issues, and “buried” memories. I recommend therefore changing from a metaphor of interests that are lying behind positions to a metaphor of exploring the concerns underlying initial positions.

Step Three: Create a Win-win Solution Set

Again, vocabulary is important. I use the term solution set to clarify that effective collaborative solutions generally involve a number of different actions, not a single action. A successfully win-win plan needs multiple elements in order to respond to all the concerns that have been identified. For instance, a solution set for Joel and Norma might include the following aspects: Joel would take an hour to nap in the afternoon, so that he is less fatigued. During Joel’s nap Norma could bring the car to a mechanic to check and remedy the potential breakdown. With these two concerns accounted for, Joel and Norma could then stay at the party as late as either would like. Alternatively, or perhaps in addition, Joel and Norma might decide that they could tell their hosts on arrival how much they appreciate their friendship, and that they nonetheless are

preparing for their vacation travel and consequently will need to leave earlier than their usual party departure time. With this information, their hosts would be less likely to take an early departure personally. As to Norma’s visits with her friends and relatives, Norma could keep an eye on the clock to pace how much time she had with each. A triage ahead of time could further enable her to plan with whom she would want to spend considerable time, and with whom a brief cordial greeting would suffice.

Having arrived at step three, creating solutions, does not negate the possibility of returning to step two, exploring underlying concerns. In fact, complex conflict negotiations often go back and forth multiple times between creating possible solutions, and discovering additional concerns. As they talk more, for instance, Norma may realize that staying out too late could create a problem with their new puppy. And Joel might add that he has to get up early the next morning to work on papers from his office that need to be attended to before they depart on their vacation trip. Their solution set will have to factor in these additional variables.

When the solution set feels complete, one further question can increase the odds that the ensuing consensus proves lasting. “Are there any little pieces of this that still feel unfinished?” For instance, Norma and Joel may have agreed that 11:00 p.m. will be the final time by which they will leave. In response to the question, “Are there any little pieces of this that still feel unfinished?” Joel than may realize, “What if it turns out that the party is just getting going then, and both of us are really enjoying the evening?”

Note that this successful conflict resolution involved no compromise. Flexibility is vital, but compromise leaves everyone feeling compromised. Rather, the process was cooperative and the outcome was genuinely win-win.

Conflict Resolution and Information Flow

Information flow provides the current upon which effective conflict resolution rides. Smooth information flow occurs when information is openly shared, and openly received. By contrast, information presented in a threatening manner, or resisted with defensiveness, results in blocked, diverted, or turbulent information flow.

Because conflict resolution is dependent upon smooth flow of shared information, i.e., on the skills of collaborative dialogue, a therapist must continuously monitor the details of how spouses are talking and listening to each other. Information ceases to flow smoothly the moment any principles of collaborative dialogue are violated. The therapist’s job therefore includes teaching collaborative communication skills, plus continual prompting, coaching, and repairing of violations these skills. Otherwise, escalated emotions and adversarial stances will cause turbulent information flow and will disrupt effective communication.

What treatment methods can keep a couple’s information flow positive and smooth?

  • Skills can be taught. They can be introduced one by one (Heitler, 1987, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1995a, 1997, 2000) and then practiced and reinforced with skill drills. Alternatively, couples can be encouraged to take a couple communication course prior to or during treatment (Heitler, 1999).
  • Skills can be prompted one (Heitler, 1990, 1992, 1995a, 2000). For instance, if a husband’s frown indicates criticism about to flow, the therapist can prompt more positive and insight-focused delivery by suggesting sentence stems such as “My concern is …” or “I would like …” (rather than “I don’t want …”). Similarly, to prompt effective listening, after one spouse has spoken the counselor can turn to the other spouse with the question, “What makes sense to you in what your partner just said?” or can suggest the sentence stem, “I appreciate ….”
  • Skills can be reinstated by a quick after-the-violation repair from the therapist (Heitler, 1990, 1992, 1995a, 2000). For instance, the therapist can invite a second draft of the comment, e.g., “How might you express the same concern in a way that talks about yourself rather than about your spouse?” Or the therapist can translate for the offending spouse by moving his/her chair in next to the spouse (it helps to use a chair with wheels) and reiterating the spouse’s comments in more collaborative language. “You spend money like a leaky faucet,” for instance, could be translated, “I get worried that we won’t have enough cash to pay our bills when I spending that’s not in the budget we’ve planned.”

Underlying these coaching and monitoring techniques is an assumption of zero tolerance for communication violations. Prevention is preferable; if unsuccessful, immediate intervention toward re-establishment of smooth information flow is essential. Prevention and rapid intervention keep conflict resolution dialogue safe and constructive.

Marriage Education: The Preventive Strategy

In medicine, treatments that remedy the pain and damage of medical disorders are certainly helpful, but preventive approaches can be far less expensive, prevent the damage altogether, and can reach far broader numbers of people. Teaching people to use seat belts, for instance, is far more inexpensive and broadly effective than setting broken limbs and treating head injuries after car accidents. Similarly, marriage education that teaches skills of communication and conflict resolution, particularly in the first years of pre and early marriage, can give couples lifelong skills for healthy collaborative partnership.

Perhaps then, one of the most important roles for the pastoral counselor may be to insure that every church has marriage education programs. Young people, premarriage couples, post-divorce individuals who want to do better in their next marriage, and also married people facing life transitions such as the addition of children and the emptying of the nest can benefit. All of the skills described above can be taught in psychoeducational programs. Hopefully, in the years ahead, in addition to helping wounded and conflictual couples to repair their difficulties, pastoral counseling will define its mission also as providing preventive marriage education.

References from Dr. Heitler’s Publications

Heitler, S. (1987). Conflict resolution: A framework for integration. Journal of Integrative and Eclectic Psychotherapy, 6,3, New York: Brunner Mazel.

Heitler, S. (1990). From Conflict to Resolution,. New York: Norton & Co. Released by Norton as a trade paperback, Dec. ’93.

Heitler, S. (1992).Working With Couples in Conflict (2-tape audio set). New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Heitler, S. (1994a). Conflict Resolution for Couples (2-tape audio set). Denver:

Heitler, S. (1994b) Depression: A Disorder of Power (audio). Denver:

Heitler, S. (1995a). The Angry Couple: Conflict-Focused Treatment (video). NY: Newbridge, from the master therapist video series, Assessment & Treatment of Psychological Disorders. Current publisher, Denver:

Heitler, S. (1995b). Anxiety: Friend or Foe? (audio). Denver:

Heitler, S. (1995c). Resolving conflicts; lifting depression. Treatment Today, Fall, p. 31.

Heitler, S. (1997). The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong & Loving Marriage. Oakland: New Harbinger.

Heitler, S. (1998). Treating high-conflict couples. In Psychologists’ Desk Reference. Koocher, G., Norcross, J. & Hill, S. (eds.), New York: Oxford.

Heitler, S. (1999). Power of Two Marriage Skills Workshops: Teaching and Marketing Manual. (curriculum guide)Denver:

Heitler, S. (2000). Conflict resolution and conflict-focused therapy. In Comparative Treatments of Relationship Dysfunction, Dattilio, F and Bevilacqua, L, eds., New York: Springer.

Heitler, S. (in press). Conflict resolution treatment perspectives on combining individual and marriage therapy. J. Psychotherapy Integration.

Communication, Listening, and Conflict-resolution Skills

Communication, Listening, and Conflict-resolution Skills

Susan Heitler Ph.D.

From the forthcoming book

Encyclopedia of Peace Psychology, Dan Christie, Ed.

Participants in peaceful relationships generally interact in a friendly manner. Their dialogue has smooth laminar information flow. When turbulence or blockages in the flow indicate differing opinions, they engage as partners in shared problemsolving to create positive synergy solutions that satisfy everyone involved.

This chapter details the three key skill-sets for sustaining peaceful interactions: collaborative communicating (talking), listening and conflict-resolution. A conflict scenario between Tom and Bob, post-conflict reconstruction colleagues on a difficult data-gathering mission, illustrates these skills.

Communication Skills

Communication is information-sharing.When communication is cooperative, participants experience themselves as partners, not as adversaries. Principles for sustaining cooperative communication include:

1. Say it (Heitler, 1997). Effective communication requires open discussion of sensitive issues. Blockages in information flow occur if no one launches the topic, someone withdraws, or participants hint rather than speaking forthrightly.

Problematic: Tom, hints “Looks like it’s getting a bit dark out.”

Helpful: Tom says “The work we had in this village took longer than our schedule allotted. Once it’s dark robbers make it unsafe to drive back to the hotel. I’d like to leave now and return tomorrow.”

2. Deal with problems; don’t deprecate people (Fisher & Ury, 1981). Criticism and blame invite defensiveness and counterattacks.

Problematic: Tom complains, “Your interviewing style is too slow, Bob!”

Helpful: “The interview protocols take longer than the time we allotted.”

3. Offer insights, not crossovers (Heitler, 1997). Crossovers, often called youmessages, guess others’ thoughts and feelings or tell them what to do. Crossovers offend because they are invasive, crossing the boundary between self and other.

Problematic: Bob replies, “You think my thoroughness isn’t important.”

Helpful: Bob replies, “I do want my interviews to be thorough.”

4. Ask good questions: Instead of crossovers, interpreting others’ thoughts and feelings, ask questions. Good questions begin with How or What, Who (and occasionally Who, Where, or When) (Heitler, 1997). These open-ended questionstarters invite more informative answers than yes-no questions.

Problematic: “Bob, are you going to be finished soon? Can you finish now?” Do you..?” “Don’t you think that …?”

Helpful: “How soon can you finish?”, “What’s left for you to do?” “What’s your reaction to returning to this village tomorrow morning?”

5. Communicate in would likes rather than don’t likes (Heitler, 1997).

Problematic: “I don’t want to return tomorrow because this village is the opposite direction from the others we’re going to and our schedule is tight.”

Helpful: “I would like to stick to our schedule. This village is in the opposite direction from the others we’re going to, and the schedule is tight.”

6. To discuss upsetting past events Use “When you… I …”. By referencing the specific difficult moment with “when you” and then making the subject of your sentence “I…”, you offer insights about yourself instead of criticism of others.

Problematic: “You didn’t listen to me at lunch, Bob, when I said the interviews were taking too long.”

Helpful: “At lunch, Bob, when you didn’t seem to hear my comment that the interviews were taking longer than we’d planned, I dropped the issue instead of explaining my concern about driving after dark. I see now I needed to give you more information.”

7. Focus on present and future problem-solving rather than on regrets or anger about the past. Look back only analytically, to plan improvements for the future.

Problematic: “Tom, I shouldn’t have taken so long on my interviews.”

Helpful: “I’d like to discuss prioritizing the interview questions and maybe even cutting some so the interview protocol is shorter.”

8. Think about and communicate what you could do, rather than what you want others to do (Heitler, 1997). Use “I would like to…,” rather than “I would like you to….”

Problematic: “I would like you to be patient while I finish.“

Helpful: “I would like to check if we can stay here overnight, in the village.”

9. Express feelings via words, not in tone of voice or behavior.

Problematic: “Stay here overnight?!” Tom said with agitated annoyance.

Helpful: “I feel uncomfortable about staying here overnight,” Tom explained, “because I’ll be a wreck tomorrow if I can’t sleep well on their cots. Besides, my wife planned to call me tomorrow in the early morning at the hotel.”

10. Use climate control, i.e. emotional self-regulation. Emotions have attitude (positive or negative) and arousal (low to high in intensity). Agreement, interest, and humor are positive attitudes. Frustration and anger are negative. Pleased is low intensity pleasure; thrilled would be high. Irritation is low intensity anger; rage is high.

Negative attitudes sound attacking and invite defensiveness. High arousal levels increase crossovers, block listening, and diminish creative problem-solving.

Problematic: Bob groaned, rolled his eyes, and responded sarcastically “Ugh…” as if to say, ‘How ridiculous!’ Tom retorted angrily, “You’re the slow-poke!”

Helpful: A positive attitude with arousal levels in the low to moderate range, e.g., interested and calm. “I’d like to find a solution that works for both of us.”

11. Early exits: When emotions become negative or hyper-aroused, step back from the discussion. Pause by changing the topic, or physically exit.

Problematic: Continuing in a dialogue with a negative or elevated emotional

tone. Following after or blocking others’ exits: “Don’t walk out on me when the problem isn’t solved yet!

Helpful: “By the way, did you meet that cute kid with the radiant smile?” Or

“Excuse me; I’m getting a drink of water” as you stand up and exit. Reset your emotional climate, and then return.

Listening Skills

Listening is information uptake. Effective listening registers information into the listener’s data base and confirms the data deposit with feedback to the speaker.

1. Receptive listening stance: Listen to learn (Heitler, 1997).

Problematic: Focus on what is wrong in what you hear. “No, the problem on the roads isn’t robbers. It’s political extremists that control the countryside at night.”

Helpful: “Yes, getting attacked on the roads is unappealing to me too.”

2. Digest aloud (Heitler, 1997). Comment on the speaker’s specific key words, phrases, or ideas to convey what you have heard and your reaction to the information. Digesting aloud also enhances registration into memory.

Problematic: No comment. Or disagree.

Helpful: Start by agreeing. “Yes Tom, I heard talk at the hotel about extremists stopping cars at night and killing people for their money ….”

3. Add your viewpoint, linking with conjunctions such as and or and at the same time (Heitler, 1997). Avoid but a backspace-delete that negates whatever came before.

Problematic: “but I still want to complete our work here before we go.”

Helpful: “Yes Tom, I heard scary talk at the hotel too, and at the same time I do want to complete our work here before we go.”

4. Positivity in listening responses facilitates constructive dialogue.

Problematic: “So you want to finish all the interviews …”

Helpful: Respond with positive words such as “Yes…”, “I agree that …” E.g. “I’m sure impressed with your dedication to carefully finishing all the interviews.”

5. Aim for bilateral (two-sided) listening (Heitler, 1997), with equal volume for your concerns and the concerns of others. Summaries help clarify bilateral listening.

Problematic: “I just want to leave now,” Tom reiterated.

Helpful: “I do want to avoid driving in the dark when robbers are on these roads,” Tom began, “to be in the hotel when my wife calls, and to get a good night’s sleep. And at the same time I agree that finishing the interviews in a thorough way is important, returning tomorrow is unrealistic, and our remaining schedule is tight.”

Conflict Resolution Skills

A conflict is a situation in which seemingly incompatible elements exert force in opposing or divergent directions (Heitler, 1990), turning collaborative participants into adversaries.

The negotiation literature characterizes two modes of conflict-resolution. Positional bargaining is adversarial, resolving conflicts via power struggle, a tug of war to determine who wins and who loses. Parties argue for their proposal, and against the views of their opposition. Interest-based bargaining is collaborative, aiming for win-win outcomes by exploring the “interests” that “lie behind positions (Fisher & Ury, 1981).

Conflicts usually arise from one or more of three triggers: upsetting past incidents, differing ideas for a present or future plan of action, and/or communication, listening or conflict-resolution skill-glitches.

The following guidelines enable conflicts to move to resolution.

1. Recognize immediately when negative emotions (e.g., irritation, tension) or increases in emotional arousal signal a conflict.

2. Proceed through the three main steps of the win-win waltz (Heitler & Hirsch,

2006). 1) express initial positions, 2) explore underlying concerns, and 3) create winwin solutions.

Initial positions: Tom wanted to leave immediately; Bob wanted to stay in the village until he could complete his remaining data-gathering interviews.

Underlying concerns are motivating factors to which the initial positions were possible solutions (Heitler, 1990): Tom and Bob’s concerns included safety, completing the data-gathering in a thorough way, a tight schedule, sleeping well, and being available to receive Tom’s wife’s phone-call.

Solutions are plans of action. Bob and Tom could leave immediately and forego the remaining interviews. They could return another day to complete the datagathering.

They could complete the interviews, overnight in the village, and drive on in the morning.

3. Immediately upon recognition of conflict, shift from promoting initial positions (step one of the win-win waltz) to (step two) exploring underlying concerns. This down-shift is the critical maneuver that converts an adversarial tug of war conflict into cooperative shared decision-making.

4. Follow the guidelines for collaborative communicating and listening, including climate control.

5. Resist the four negative pathways that each lead to specific psychopathologies: a) fight to win, which invites anger, b) give up, leading to depression, c) sustain awareness without addressing the topic, producing anxiety and tension, d) escape from the problem via addictive or other obsessive-compulsive distractions.

6. List both participants’ underlying concerns on one shared “our concerns” list. Any concern of one party is by definition a concern of both.

7. Create a solution-set, a multifaceted plan of action with elements responsive to every concern on the list. The solution-set may be an augmentation of one of the initial positions, or based on a new solution idea altogether.

8. Solution suggestions often raise additional concerns. Back and forth movement between concerns and solution-building is helpful. Bob’s suggestion to overnight in the village prompted Tom to add his concern about the phone-call from his wife.

9. When the concerns list includes multiple factors, build the solution initially around the most important concern(s). Augment this basic plan with additional elements responsive to each of the other concerns until all the concerns have been addressed.

10. Focus on identifying what you can offer toward the solution, not what you

think others can do.

11. When a solution-set appears complete, ask, “Are there any little pieces that still feel unfinished?”1 Augment the plan with elements responsive to to these last concerns, concluding with full satisfaction and mutual goodwill.

Bob suggested, “Let’s stay until I finish my interviews, then drive back on main highways. They go out of the way, adding an hour or two of travel time, but we’ll be safe. You’ll sleep in your comfy hotel bed, and be in the hotel for your wife’s call.” “Great plan!” Tom replied. “Are there any little pieces that still feel unfinished?”

“I’ll drive,” Bob suggested, ”so you can sleep.”

“Fantastic!” Tom concluded enthusiastically.

In sum, peace goes beyond a static state of tranquility. Truly peaceful relationships handle conflicts collaboratively, creating solutions responsive to all the concerns of all the participants.


Heitler, S. (1990). From conflict to resolution. NY: Norton

Heitler, S. (1997). The power of two. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Heitler, S. & Hirsch, A. (2006).The win-win waltz. Denver: TherapyHelp

Fisher, R. & Ury,W. (1981). Getting to yes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Additional Resources: and for free articles and skill-building games.

Key Terms: Crossovers, open-ended questions, climate control, bilateral listening, win-win waltz, positional bargaining, interest-based bargaining, underlying concerns, solution-sets.

Bio: Clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D. brought understandings of conflict-resolution from the mediation literature to the field of psychotherapy. Her specialty is teaching skills for harmonious relationships.

Author Contact:

Resolution, Not Conflict; Dr. Heitler's blog on Psychology Today
Click here to view Dr. Heitler's Books
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