Based on research beginning with Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, and adapted toward intimate relationships, couples have three “Preferred Conflict Styles.”

  • Volatile
  • Avoidant
  • Validating

As a therapist, all your clients have a preferred conflict style. This is the style that they resort to when faced with conflict from their partners or people in general.

Identifying the Three Preferred Conflict Styles

Imagine a scenario where someone is in a supermarket checkout aisle where all the counters are full, so buyers have to wait in line.

The buyers have been waiting in line for a while, and someone cuts in front. What are the three possible reactions that people have, at least initially?

  • Volatile – “Hey! Can you not see the line?”
  • Avoidant – “She’s probably having a bad day, and she’s got kids too, so I’ll just let it go.”
  • Validator – “Maybe we went through because there are different queues for different counters. Am I in the wrong line…?”

Based on their responses, you can begin to identify their Preferred Conflict Style.

This is the default response by which people will approach a conflict, at least initially. 

Preferred Conflict Style Mismatch

What do you do when you play out the above scenario and discover you are dealing with a mismatched couple?

The ideal solution is to steer the couple towards discussing their personal conflict styles on a META-LEVEL.

Remember, a therapist can give gentle guidance, but the goal is to lead the couple to talk to each other without criticizing. 

People can learn to utilize any of the three styles, but your preferred style is largely fixed. 

And much like other traits, it does not need to change. 

The New Therapeutic Goal

First, the couple must talk directly to each other and not through you as their therapist.

Second, you should push your couples to communicate with each other about their styles, without trying to change the other person. 

When they achieve this breakthrough into discussing their issues at a META-LEVEL, they will start to problem solve new ways of handling one another’s conflict style. 

Therapists who integrate the Gottman Method with the Preferred Conflict Styles can utilize the META-EMOTION interview (taught Level 2).

As a therapist, it is also helpful to know your own Preferred Conflict Style.

Being a university faculty member and a Certified Gottman Therapist teaching both Level 1 and 2, I have found that most therapists get into the profession because we are Avoidant or Validators. Some of us may be Volatile, but most therapists tend to assume things are valid and that we can help couples work around the problems.

Can a Therapist Change or Influence a Couple’s Preferred Conflict Style?

A person’s Preferred Conflict Style, much like their eye color, is almost impossible to change.

And the good news is, couples do not need to change.

Each Preferred Conflict Style has its upside, which can strengthen the relationship.

For instance, ‘Volatile-Volatile’ couples will often have an easy time developing physical intimacy. It’s also easy for them to touch and ask physical questions.

‘Avoidant-Avoidant’ couples can overlook the small stuff so they can work on the significant issues.

‘Validator – Validator’ couples often build great friendships. Working on their friendship comes easily and naturally, compared to the other styles, because they assume what they are hearing from their partner is valid.

How Do I Handle A Couple That Has Mismatched Conflict Styles?

Relationships get complicated when the couple has mismatched conflict styles.

As a therapist, the goal is not to change one partner’s Conflict Style.

It is not possible.

The goal is to push them towards discussing their preferred Conflict Styles at a META-LEVEL.

Do you have significant challenges with any of your couples with mismatched Preferred Conflict Styles? 

We can help you learn how to apply the Gottman Method to your practice. 

We’d love to hear from you, leave us a message so we can get started. 🙂