Column Entry, Let’s Talk Family, “Navigating the Yellow Lights: Strategies for Handling Conflict,” Jonathan Pettigrew and Diane Badzinski

Robert WoodsBlog, Member Publications: Other, News: Other Leave a Comment

Column: Let’s Talk Family: Conversations about Faith and Family Flourishing

Column entry: Navigating the Yellow Lights: Strategies for Handling Conflict

By Jonathan Pettigrew, PhD, Arizona State University; Diane Badzinski, PhD, Colorado Christian University

Column Description: Let’s Talk Family: Conversations about Faith and Family Flourishing is a monthly column offering a space to consider research-based, biblically-sound practices for family communication. We all have families. And we all experience messy family communication from time to time. Our column focuses on what works and doesn’t work for helping families be a little less messy and a lot more rewarding. Please join the conversation.

June 2023 | May 2023 | April 2023 | March 2023 | February 2023 | January 2023 


June 2023

Navigating the Yellow Lights: Strategies for Handling Conflict

When you see a yellow traffic light, what do you do? Speed up to make it through on “orange”? Slow down to come to a complete and safe stop?

When I [Jonathan] had been driving a year or so I “invented” what I called the “light game.” The goal was simple: route myself to a place in the fastest way possible. If I was driving down a street and saw a light turn yellow, I’d quickly reroute to see if I could “beat” the light (still abiding by all traffic laws like speed limits and stop signs, of course). Sometimes, a quick turn, jog over a block, and cruise past the red light before getting back on the same road would do the trick. Other times, I’d beat the light with a right and two left turns to arrive at the traffic light on green from the crossing street. The game launched only if I saw the light turning yellow; otherwise, it would be faster just to sit through the red light. I don’t necessarily recommend this “game,” but the point is that we have lots of options when we see a yellow light.

The same is true for families. We have options for navigating conflict when we recognize the “yellow” lights in our relationships.

In our last column, we talked about warning signs of conflict: harsh start-ups, situational stress, criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. These conversational patterns can serve as “yellow lights” that warn of impending conflict. When we see the “yellow traffic lights” of conflict, we have options for how to respond. In this second of a three-part series we present some practices for handling family conflict in ways that lead to strong family connections.

What do you do when you see a relationship yellow light?

Here are a few practical suggestions:

  1. Try using I-statements. In the midst of a disagreement, confrontation, or conflict, one of the ways to help defuse the tension is to make sure and speak for yourself. We can have a tendency to “mind read” or attribute motives to others’ actions, which sometimes are unfair or incorrect. An I-statement helps prevent that mistake. It takes the form of stating your feeling and reason for it. It could sound like this: “I’m not mad at you, but I feel really _______ (annoyed, frustrated, worried) because ______ (xyz is happening in the world, so-and-so said this to me today, etc.).”
  1. Ask for a do-over. Another strategy for conflict is to ask for a “do-over.” Saying something like, “Wow, I’m sorry. I came in guns a-blazing. Could we start over?” If agreed, exiting the room and trying a “take 2” can be a helpful way to break a spiraling cycle of negativity. Apologizing and taking ownership of conflict, particularly a harsh start-up, can be an important step. If you are the recipient of a harsh start-up, a do-over may still be warranted. Proverbs 19:11 (ESV) teaches that “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.”
  1. Ignore it. A research finding that may seem counterintuitive is that avoiding conflict can still lead to happy marriages and relationships. Not every conflict should be avoided, but it doesn’t hurt to ignore some. The old adage that we should “choose our battles” applies. Maybe this strategy is like side-skirting the “yellow light” altogether. In your head, pray “God forgive me my debts and I forgive my debtors” then move on. Change the topic. Think about and then share a personal encouragement with your partner.
  1. Identify and discuss the deeper drivers of the conflict. A helpful model of understanding how conflict occurs in families was developed by Markman and his colleagues. They suggest that we need to recognize that many conflicts, but not all, are fueled by deeper psychological needs. They might seem like they are about what someone said or did, but those are just triggers. Imagine a volcano. On the surface, we see an eruption, but underneath the volcano are swirling magma, churning and flowing under the ground like a river of melted rock and metal. As pressure builds up, it tries to find a way out. Triggers can be events or comments, seemingly minor things, but they are fueled by deeper desires and motivations.

Here’s an example. A couple starts planning what to do for the Fourth of July. The calendar serves as the trigger. A conversation about the holiday plans brings up issues related to holiday rituals. It brings up hidden issues like recognition and respect. The wife may get angry because she feels helpless to celebrate how she wants if they go to her parent’s house. The husband may feel rejected because his wife does not want to have a family hot-dog eating contest, which is his family’s tradition. The hidden issues of control and respect feed into conflict about family and tradition, all triggered by July 4th. This is one example based on a common event, but there are thousands of triggers. Having meaningful conversations about belonging, tradition, autonomy, and mutual respect can help you navigate yellow lights in relationships. Getting to these roots of conflict, when done well, can also help increase a sense of connection and understanding between partners.

  1. Follow Sande’s Biblical Model of Conflict Resolution. As a final practical strategy we introduce you to a Biblical model of conflict resolution that is applicable in all situations no matter the specific strategy you select to navigate the yellow light alerting you of conflict. In Sande’s model, conflict begins in the heart, and he recommends four steps for resolving conflict:

a. Glorify God (“How can I please and honor the Lord in this situation”?).
b. Get the log out of your own eye (“How can I show Jesus’s work in me by taking responsibility for my contribution to this conflict?”).
c. Gently restore (“How can I lovingly serve others by helping them take responsibility for their contributions to this conflict?”).
d. Go and be reconciled (“How can I demonstrate the forgiveness of God and encourage a reasonable solution to this conflict?”).

Taking this perspective is not easy. It probably requires forced reflection to go through these steps during a conflict. But repeating the process a few times can make it routine. It can become a natural part of how you approach situations and conflicts.

How do you handle conflict in ways that honor God and build stronger family connections?  Our next column looks at repairing after conflict and focuses on forgiveness.

—Jonathan Pettigrew and Diane M. Badzinski 

* The views of any CCSN columnists are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the CCSN. We invite and embrace a wide range of views and critiques on important communication and cultural issues from a Christian perspective. The CCSN is a community of Jesus followers who study communication. We do not support or promote a particular social, political, or denominational agenda. 


Howard J. Markman, Scott M. Stanley, and Susan L. Blumberg, Fighting for Your Marriage: Positive Steps for Preventing Divorce and Preserving a Lasting Love (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1994).

Ken Sande, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004).


Leave a Reply