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How to Write Letters to Resolve Conflict in Relationships

How to Write Letters to Resolve Conflict in Relationships

Reciprocal Letter Writing to Learn Calm Corrective Conversation

Often we get stuck in triggered and heightened communication conflicts and experience the same frustrating and often hurtful interactions that don’t seem to have any resolution. 

You may feel you cannot get through to the other person.  You or someone else gets so angry, upset, overwhelmed or shut down that hearing what the other is saying is not working.  That’s because we all ‘hear and see’ through our own filters or lens. 

These lenses are often set in childhood or past painful relationships. Sometimes it is the way our family communicated, and because the other person learned different ways to communicate from their experiences and wounds, it’s like you are not tuned into the same frequency – like a radio station, the signal sent out needs to be received by a receiver that can tune in. 

Sometimes it’s a phrase, tone of voice, or nonverbal like a gesture or facial expression that we knowingly or unknowingly take in, triggering emotions from the past, and this happens in a split second.  It is then hard to stay calm and be rational. 

How you can change your automated communication patterns

a pen on a letter

An exercise to slow down this automated response and teach us to think about what we are saying, and in turn, what we are hearing and interpreting, is reciprocal letter writing.  Most importantly, it teaches DOWN REGULATION skills and DISTRESS TOLERANCE skills.

It also changes the PURSUER-DISTANCER dynamic that often occurs when we have different conflict styles. These skills are needed to train ourselves to self-soothe and build our tolerance of discomfort for growth (all skills required for healthy differentiation). 

It also teaches through experience and not just awareness and assists in the formulation of procedural memory through doing. The more we practice self-regulation, the more we build and strengthen our neurological pathways to use the skills to stay calm and regulate to become a healthy habit, which is essential for so many relationships and situations in life.

Read more about the Bio-Socio-Psycho-Spiritual approach

Here’s how it works….

Person #1 (the person wanting to address an issue) and the person to go first

Person #2 (the person to respond and initiate their own response back)

Person #1 – 

  1. Write a letter using ‘I messages’. These are statements where you own your feelings stating what you are experiencing but not using blaming accusative language. In this letter explain how you are feeling as a result of an event/comment made/something you’re perceiving/long-term issue etc  An “I” message sounds something like this: 

“I feel embarrassed when spoken to in an abrupt way and it makes me feel ordered around and unappreciated, like I’m just a servant. I feel demeaned and put down. An example of this is when… and I noticed that our friends observed…..  and made comment about….”

This sounds very different to  “You’re a rude BLEEP, I hate the way you order me around like your servant and people think you are a real BLEEP”

  1. DO NOT give the letter for THREE days. Process your emotions while you are sitting on it. Notice if they are heightened, or lessened (because you’ve got it out) Do you feel more certain or are you starting to question yourself and look at it from different angles? Are you experiencing more or less anxiety or anger? Edit the letter if you feel it needs more refinement. Try not to put too many issues into the one letter unless they are related.

  2. Give the letter to the other person.

Person #2

  1. Read the letter when you have time to take in what is written. Briefly acknowledge the letter.

  2. Write your response to the letter. Do not deflect, excuse, dismiss, add or not address what has been raised. Start by stating “If I understand correctly, you are saying….. and repeat YOUR understanding of what person #1 is saying. Have I got that right?  Go back and forth until you are repeating their point of view. 

 It is to only clarify you’ve understood what their perspective is. The back and forth can be done in writing but doesn’t need days between responses (unless there is anger/sarcasm/ridicule/heightened anxiety in written clarifications, in which case, take the time you need to calmly respond back and forth.

  1. Once you understand, write YOUR response adding your feelings about the situation/feedback. This may include an explanation/context (not an excuse), apology, undertaking to do something different or an explanation of what you were feeling that made you triggered (using “I” message as outlined in Person #1 step 1) 

This may sound something like: “I hear that you feel embarrassed when we’re with your friends and I speak curtly to you; and your friends are judging me based on that. I’ll make an effort to soften my requests. I’m also asking that when we discuss leaving at a set time and I start gathering together our things and advise others that we need to get going that it is understood that I’d like to go. I feel ignored, unnoticed and irrelevant when I’m not included in the conversation and feel like an accessory. I then start to feel angry and tense because it seems that my signals are being ignored and I’m disrespected in front of others”.

  1. Sit on the letter for THREE days, review and edit if needed. Give the letter to Person #1.

Repeat the process until you both feel understood. If during this process you both feel calm and that you can come to an agreement/move on from an issue/have a solution, you may like to try a closure conversation where you agree on a way forward.  But if you become triggered, go back to the writing steps.

Practice is procedural learning and changes our patterns

This may feel clunky or even frustrating at first. The point is to slow it down, calm down and change pursuer/distancer dynamics by making it feel manageable. Over time using this technique, you learn to communicate differently, and you may find that you don’t need to wait three days.  

You may turn this process around more quickly by exchanging a note, going away, calming, coming back and conveying understanding and/or further clarifying before writing back. You both may get good at following the steps in a day or matter of hours. This is because you’ll get better at identifying triggers, self-soothing, seeking understanding and truly listening and expressing yourself back in a calm less defensive or pursuing way, giving grace and space. 

Ideally, this method will move you to having calm conversations and check-ins where you raise an issue calmly using non-accusative language or retreating and not raising an issue of concern; both seeking clarity to understand the other’s perspective, and to explain and come to a way forward by the end of a conversation.

Facilitate others as well….

This method works with other family members and teenagers.  It could also work in teams where volatile communication occurs. It’s great to facilitate and model self-regulation and set the tone for how you want to communicate, regardless of the setting and the people involved.

Need Further Relationship Help?

If you’re seeking further relationship help, don’t hesitate to contact us for couples counselling. Contact Sara today to start your journey towards a stronger, healthier relationship.

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© June 2024 Sara Martin and Peter Janetzki. Method based on a couples counselling exercise shared in Clinical Supervision by Peter Janetzki. If you wish to reproduce this information, please acknowledge the source. If using in a group setting, please seek permission by contacting sara.martin@lifesensecounselling.com.au

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