What dogs can teach humans about approaching conflict


Kyle Benson

Have you ever watched two dogs meet each other? When some dogs meet, they are gentle and curious about each other. When other dogs meet, sometimes one of the dogs is growling and showing its teeth.

How does the one dog respond to the growling dog?

The dog may reciprocate, showing its teeth and growling in return.

The way these dogs approach each other closely resembles the way couples sometimes approach conflict with one another.

If one partner brings up a topic in a harsh and accusatory way, it makes sense that their partner wouldn’t respond with kindness, empathy, or understanding. Instead, the response would likely be negative.

In fact, Drs. John and Julie Gottman have found that 96% of the time the way a conflict conversation ends is determined by how it begins.[1]

How conflict is brought up, including with difficult topics, influences how well your partner will hear your needs and understand you. It influences how well you two will work together to better understand how to make the relationship better for both partners.

In other words, a positive and healthy startup will more than likely result in a positive and healthy conversation and resolution.

A harsh startup is the opposite and usually includes someone starting a conversation with some form of an insult. In fact, a study of 124 newlyweds validated that it was possible to predict who would divorce within six years based on the presence of a harsh startup during the first three minutes of a conflict conversation.[2]

A harsh startup often includes the presence of what Dr. Gottman calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling).

These four horsemen are the equivalent of showing your teeth and growling at your partner. It doesn’t make them feel safe to be honest or listen to your needs. Instead they feel attacked.

Let’s revisit our dogs at the park. Dog A has approached Dog B in a gentle and curious manner, and now the two of them are rolling in the grass and chasing each other as if they’ve been best friends for years. Their tone at the start of the interaction set up the dogs for an overall positive outcome.

How can couples have a startup that will allow them to also end up frolicking in the field of conflict resolution and intimacy together?

To learn the necessary skills to implement a soft startup, read:

● Help Your Partner Understand Your Side of the Conflict in 3 Steps

● Transform Criticism into Wishes: A Recipe for Successful Conflict

When we use these speaking skills, we are able to significantly increase our chances of getting our needs met while also strengthening our emotional connection with our partner and helping them understand what we feel and why. And your partner will feel less attacked and may be more willing to make adjustments to improve the relationship with you.​

So the next time you have a “bone to pick,” approach your partner with softness and a curious stance, and you may be surprised at how quickly you both will get back to having fun together.


Related Articles

Leave a Reply