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Archive for the ‘Conflict resolution’ Category

Combined Individual/Marital Therapy: A Conflict Resolution Framework and Ethical Considerations

This article addresses the need for therapists to see the forest as well as the trees.  It proposes that the core overall project of therapy is to help people to resolve their conflicts, bringing new and more gratifying solutions to difficult dilemmas.

Conflict resolution theory enables individual and couple components of treatment to feel unified under the central project of resolving conflicts.

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Conflict Resolution: A Framework for Integration

This article addresses the need for therapists to see the forest as well as the trees.  It proposes that the core overall project of therapy is to help people to resolve their conflicts, bringing new and more gratifying solutions to difficult dilemmas.

Conflict resolution theory enables individual and couple components of treatment to feel unified under the central project of resolving conflicts.

Click to Download

A New Blog — Resolution, Not Conflict

As of the last week of August of 2011 has selected me to be one of the psychologists who post expert-opinions on their website.  My first post on the blog is an article explaining three of the main elements that make couples therapy effective.   

From Thin-Skinned to Win-Win“–a title suggested by Kent Powell, my web marketing friend–explains that the first level of intervention is behavioral.  Marriage is a high-skilled activity.  A first task of a therapist is to coach clients in behvarioral skills of collaboartive communication, cooperative conflict resolution, emotional self-regulation (ability to stay calm versus to pop off in anger in sensitive situations), and dissemination of positive energy via appreciation, affection, and good humor.

This coaching in new skills is enough for many couples to let go of their less effective old habits and launch instead a lifelong positive relationship.  That’s why the website based on my book The Power of Two,, is so helpful for many couples.  For these marriage partners, coaching on the website gives them the boost they need to live relatively happily ever after without needing the help of a marriage therapist.

Skills coaching alone however, while it may be a helpful first alternative, does not suffice for couples who also need the second and third levels of therapist interventions.

If one or both spouses grew up in a family that was seriously dysfunctional, or, as is increasingly frequent, in a single parent family, their platform of marriage readiness may need significant additional shoring up.  These couples need to look at their own families of origin to understand how they got to where they are today.  They also  need to look at how each of their individual sensitivities and skill glitches have a tendency to hook their partner’s sensitivities and skill glitches so that they can identify and then modify their negative interactions circles.  Or maybe a better term is negative spirals, as all too often the circles of interlocking sensititivities lead to escalating emotions and increasingly hurtful interactions.

Sometimes these emotional escalations come from sources that couples have difficulty consciously identifying.  This is where the third level of therapy interventions becomes vital, the level of identifying and clearing subconscious “landmines,”  that is, the thoughts, feelings and situations that trigger especially intense negative emotional reactions.  

For further details, please check out my new blog post at on

Effective Apologies: A Quick Guide to the Key Ingredients

To fully clean up distressed feelings an apology needs to include the following ingredients.

1.  Specificity: “I’m sorry about my ______.”  That is, specify exactly what you did that you see now was mistaken.

2.  Non-intentionality: “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

3.  Clarification:  What was your miss – the mistake, misperception, misunderstanding, miscommunication, mishap, etc?  “I can see now that I mis_______ that _______.”

4.  Restitution:  Figure out what you need to do to fix the harm created by your mistaken action.

5.  Learning: What will you do differently next time to prevent a similar mishap from occurring again?  “In the future I will _____________when___________ .”

These five ingredients may be accomplished with just a few sentences.

However for more serious grievances, each ingredient may need to be added slowly, one by one, with discussion of each facet.

For the most serious grievances such as, for instance, marital infidelities, dishonesty of any type, alcoholic misbehavior, or abusive words or action, each ingredient may need to be reiterated and dsicussed at length multiple times over.

Step five, looking back to learn in order to prevent future repeat episodes, is a particularly vital ingredient for an apology to be genuine and the healing to transpire.

In addition, tincture of time plus repeated evidence of the new alternative behaviors also help to accomplish full healing, both of the guilt felt by the person who made the mistake(s) and of the suffering of the one who was wronged.

Conflict Resolution Treatment with Couples: Levels of Intervention

Three Levels of Conflict Resolution Treatment

Susan Heitler, Ph.D., and

 Jon and Julia came to therapy for help toning down their continual bickering.  Now they rarely bicker and enjoy instead a warm and loving partnership.  What does a conflict resolution therapist do that turns a couple like this from conflict to cooperation?

My therapy colleague Matthew LeBauer has terminology that I like a lot for explaining the three levels of intervention that conflict resolution treatment typically includes.

Level I: How To.  As early as in their first session I guided Jon and Julia through to an effective discussion of an issue over which they had locked horns.  Jon wanted to bring the family on a lengthy car trip for summer vacation.  Julia wanted to go to a beach and stay put. 

Learning as they went, I explained to the feuding spouses the basics of collaborative conflict resolution, shepherding their skills as we proceeded. By the end of the session Jon and Julia had experienced the pleasure of cooperative dialogue, plus the delight of having ended up with a truly win-win solution. 

Their decision to rent a fun fancy car, which was Jon’s main concern, and use it for occasional day trips from the beach house they would rent and where Julia would be able to enjoy the calm of being based in one main and beautiful spot, satisfied both of their underlying concerns.  In subsequent sessions, with the therapist’s help, Jon and Julia came to similarly mutually satisfying solutions on many issues that had been contentious.

Having seen that win-win really does work, Jon and Julia were eager to learn the skills that would enable the couple to solve similar conflicts collaboratively on their own.  In addition to augmenting and practicing new skills in their therapy sessions, they committed to learning from the Power of Two program.  At that time the program involved weekend workshops.  Now it’s on the internet at 

Level II How Come

Having seen that their old ways of interacting were filled with needless irritability and anger, Jon and Julia both found it helpful to look at some of the sources of their bickering.  Insight about the origins of difficulties makes it easier to pull up old bad habits from their roots.

Partly their bickering stemmed from never having seen and heard too little of the language of collaboration as they were growing up.  If their parents had modeled cooperative problem-solving they might have grown up speaking that language instead of the language of bickering that had prevailed in both of their families.

Partly also Jon’s training as a lawyer had strengthened his tendency to say “But…” and poke holes in Julia’s every attempt to express her concerns. 

Julia by contrast had gradually become depressed in the relationship.  Jon’s ability to trump whatever she said with his perspective had gradually worn her down to having little confidence in her own views.  She experienced a sense of having lost the “self” she used to have.  Now her identity had become mainly just to be a counterweight to Jon.  Whatever he said, she now would negate.  Speaking up for what she herself felt and thought scarcely happened any more.  Her comments had become mostly limited to why she was against what her husband wanted. Depression was both a cause and effective of her perpetual negativity.

Level III:  Tracking Down and Neutralizing the Sources of Negative Energy

Honing in on and easing the deeper emotional well-springs of distress completes the therapy process.  

Deeper, as once described very nicely by psychologist John Norcross, refers to subconscious feelings, concerns, or other phenomena that occurred historically earlier in ones life, and/or that are deeper in terms of less accessible to conscious awareness.

How does a conflict resolution therapist address these deeper issues?

Conflict resolution therapists identify the specific deeper underlying concerns that tend to resurface again and again in their client’s lives by listening closely to clients’ descriptions of moments that triggered upset feelings.  Situations, thoughts or feelings that trigger these “core concerns,” Lester Luborsky’s term for inflammatory thoughts that frequently bring up strong negative feelings.  For instance, whether the conflict involved where to go for vacation, how to help their daughter with her homework, or whether to renovate their kitchen, the same repeated deeper underlying concerns such as wanting to be heard or appreciated or free of blame would again and again lock Jon and Julia into angry escalations.   While deeper concerns tend to be universal preferences that virtually everyone prefers, Jon and Julia’s hyper-intense emotional reactions evoked hostility instead of a positive response from their loved one.

One frequently-evoked deeper core concern for Jim involved resentment at feeling negatively judged by his wife.  He hated to feel unjustly accused, stemming from having been the recipient of unjust accusations in his youth.  For Julia, feeling unheard or that whatever she said was being dismissed raised upsurges of hurt and angry responses stemming from her up-bringing in a large and chaotic family.

Conflict resolution therapists access these deeper concerns with a range of techniques.  They may use visualization techniques, utilizing, for instance, what I refer to in my book From Conflict to Resolution as a “depth dive.” They may use bioenergetic techniques such as Nelson Bradley’s Emotion Code or EFT.  Or they may choose to use other alternative options.   

Once the triggering earlier episode has been identified and the negative emotions released vis a vis this point of origin, the neutralized emotional reaction then needs to be brought up to present time.  That can be accomplished by distinguishing the ways in which the present differs from the past, by using energetic neutralizing techniques such as a magnet or EFT tapping, or by other procedures for removing toxic emotional residues.   

In sum, successful exploration of deeper core concerns begins with identification of the triggering thoughts or situations that are occuring in present-day life.   Second, the origination point of the reactions in a moment of sudden or intense emotions earlier in life needs pinpointing.  Lastly, these triggers then can be neutralized, that is, emptied of negative emotional reactivity.  The result should be that thoughts and situations that feel similar to traumatic moments in a person’s past then will no longer evoke negative energy such as irritation, anger, or distrust, in the present or future. 

Having completed all three levels of treatment, Jon and Julia now enjoy a calm, fun-loving and collaborative relationship.  Jon doesn’t need to even use his anger management techniques because angry feelings no longer rise beyond an occasional whisper within him.  Julie feels appreciated and taken seriously, so she too enjoys a steady pattern of warm and loving feelings toward Jon.

Mission accomplished.