We live in the age of catchy, pithy phrases that usually don’t amount to much substance (conscientious uncoupling?), but I came across one lately that seemed to actually be worthwhile. In fact, I used it in my last post, but didn’t really explain its meaning. I’m talking about “constructive conflict.”

It’s a term I often use with couples when teaching them about “fighting” without damaging the relationship. And, it’s a very specific method of communication that stems from this very important idea: Behind every complaint is an underlying NEED.”images

When you have a complaint about your partner, family member, neighbor, etc., it often comes out sounding like a complaint (because it is). But, if you really dissected the motivation behind the complaint, you would find that you actually have an unmet need. So, constructive conflict is all about identifying that need and helping the other person figure out how to fulfill it (or negotiate a compromise).

Constructive conflict would sound something like this:

Partner A: When you criticize me in front of the kids, I feel undermined. I need you to support me when I’m interacting with them, so I feel more valued.

Partner B: (Reflects the complaint): I’m hearing you say that you feel undermined when I criticize you in front of the kids, and you need me to be more supportive.”

Partner A: Yes, that’s what I’m saying.

Partner B: O.K. I’m sorry. I will try to be more supportive in the future.

I know this sounds elementary, but the most important part is identifying that unmet need, so the other person can actually do something the remedy the situation.

And, this can be a fun game when you’re in your professional capacity, too. Next time you’re mediating, arbitrating, etc., see if you can identify the underlying need!


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