image description

Revisiting Past Conflicts Exercise

This exercise is to improve communication by "Processing", which means that you can talk about an incident that occurred without becoming activated and getting back into the argument. It needs to be a conversation – as if you were both sitting in the balcony of the theater looking down on the stage where the action had occurred. This requires calm and some emotional distance from the incident.

Before you Begin

Keep In mind the GOAL Is Greater Understanding – addressing the process and how the issue was talked about, without getting back into the fight. So, wait until you're both calm.

Assume that each of your realities has validity. Perception is everything. Don't focus on "the facts."

Pay attention to the common barriers to communication and their antidotes as you move through the process. The "Four Horsemen" references can help.

  • Criticism
  • Contempt
  • Defensiveness
  • Stonewalling


Work through the Following Five Steps Together

  1. Feelings: Share how you felt. Do not say why you felt that way. Avoid commenting on your partner's feelings.
  2. Realities: describe your "reality." Take turns. Summarize and validate at least a part of your partner's reality.
  3. Triggers: share what experiences or memories you've had that might've escalated the interaction, and the stories of why these are triggers for each of you.
  4. Responsibility: acknowledge your own role in contributing to the fight or regrettable incident.
  5. Constructive Plans: plan together one way that each of you can make it better next time.


Share how you felt. Some common words/phrase:

  • I felt……… defensive
  • not listened to
  • my feelings were hurt
  • totally flooded
  • angry
  • sad
  • unloved
  • misunderstood
  • criticized
  • not cared about
  • worried
  • afraid
  • unappreciated
  • alienated
  • overwhelmed
  • tired
  • frustrated
  • I was right and you were wrong
  • taken for granted
  • out of control


Subjective Reality and Validation:

  1. Take turns describing your perceptions, your own reality of what happened during the conflict. Describe only what YOU saw, heard and felt, not what you think your partner meant or felt. Avoid attack and blame. Talk about what you might have needed from your partner. Describe your perceptions like a reporter, giving an objective moment by moment description. Say "I heard you say," rather than "you said." This leaves room for your partner to correct anything that they heard or misunderstood.
  2. Summarize and then validate your partner's reality by saying something like, "it makes sense to me now why you saw it this way, and what your needs were." Use empathy by saying something like, "I can see why this upset you." Validation doesn't mean you agree, but that you can understand even a part of your partner's experience of the incident.
  3. Do both partners feel understood? If yes, move on. If no, ask, "what do I need to know to understand your perspective better?" After summarizing and validating, ask your partner: "did I get it?" And "is there anything else?"


  1. Share what escalated the interaction for you. What events in the interaction triggered a big reaction for you?
  2. As you rewind the videotape of your memory, stop at a point where you had a similar set of feelings triggered in the past. Now tell the story of that past moment to your partner, so your partner can understand why that is a trigger for you.
  3. Continue to share your stories – it will help your partner to understand you. As you think about your early history or childhood, is there another story you remember that relates to what got you triggered you, and further explains your "enduring vulnerabilities"! Your partner needs to know you, so that your partner can be more sensitive to you.

Examples of Triggers:

  • I felt judged. I'm very sensitive to that.
  • I felt excluded. I'm very sensitive to that
  • I felt criticized. I'm very sensitive to that
  • I felt disrespected
  • I felt powerless
  • I felt out of control
  • I felt ashamed
  • I felt lonely………

Validation - does any part of your partner's triggers and story make sense to you?


Under ideal conditions, you might have done better at talking about this issue. What set you up for miscommunication? Share how you set yourself up to get into this conflict.

What set me up – Examples:

  • I've been very stressed and irritable lately.
  • I've taken you for granted.
  • I've been running on empty.
  • I've not been emotionally available.
  • I've not shared very much of my inner world.
  • I've needed to be alone.
  • I've been very preoccupied.
  • I haven't felt very much confidence in myself.
  • I've been overly sensitive lately.
  • I've not expressed much appreciation toward you lately.

Read aloud the items that were true for you on this list. Specifically what do you regret, and specifically, what was your contribution to this regrettable incident or fight?

What Do You Wish To Apologize For?

I'm sorry that:

  • I overreacted
  • I was really grumpy
  • I was defensive
  • I was so negative
  • I attacked you
  • I didn't listen to you
  • I wasn't respectful
  • I was unreasonable…

If you accept your partner's apology, say so. If not, say what you still need.


Share one thing your partner can do to help make discussing the issue better next time.

Then, while it's still your turn, share one thing you can do to make it better next time.

What do you need to be able to put this behind you and move on?

Be as agreeable as possible to the plan suggested by your partner.

Stop the Four Horsemen with Their Antidotes

  • Criticism – – Use Gentle Startup
  • Defensiveness – – Take Responsibility
  • Contempt – – Describe your Own Feelings and Needs
  • Stonewalling – – Do Physiological Self Soothing

Thom Kessler, LMFT, RAS