EXCLUSIVE – Taking a Step Back and Mapping the Patterns of Conflict in Your Relationship

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At the end of these 10 steps you will have completed what’s called a bow tie diagram, which pictorially represents conflict between two people.

These steps work best when both communication partners are present, willing to fully participate, and accompanied by a third neutral observer, like a therapist. 

However, even if you are doing this exercise on your own, much can be learned by taking a stab at drawing out a bow tie diagram for yourself and learning more about your role in the conflict and ways you might be able to de-escalate it.

READ RELATED ARTICLE: Making the Most of Time with Your Partner: 5 Ways to Improve Marital Communication

Here’s how it works.

1. First, consider a recent argument you had with someone you care about that is still relatively fresh in your mind.

2. Download our Bow Tie Diagram. The two boxes on the left represent you, and the two boxes on the right represent the other person. The boxes on the top are for recording internal experiences, and those on the bottom are for documenting external reactions. Let’s consider each box, one-by-one.

3. Recall the moment(s) when you felt most upset by something the other person did or said. Try to replay the scene in your mind’s eye, almost like a movie in slow motion, and see what you notice. In the bottom, right box write down everything you remember about the other person’s behavior (e.g., words, tone of voice, facial expressions) in that moment ― the good, the bad, and the ugly.

4. Then, in the top, left box write down everything you remember about your internal experiences in that moment. What thoughts were racing through your head? What beliefs or assumptions about life or relationships might have influenced your reaction? What kinds of feelings emerged? And don’t just stop at anger or frustration. Go deeper. Ask yourself, in that moment what exactly about it made you so angry or frustrated? If you are having trouble coming up with other emotions, click here for a list of possibilities.  

5. Now consider how all of the thoughts, beliefs, and feelings you came up with in step #4 influenced what you actually did in that moment. How did you behave? If we had it on film, what would we see? Did you say something hurtful or sarcastic back? What outward signs of anger or distress could we observe? For example, did you raise your voice, use a condescending tone, withdraw, or become tearful? In the bottom, left box write down all of the ways you outwardly responded in this moment.                             

6. After reflecting on your own behavior, now imagine what the other person might have been thinking and feeling in that moment. If you were in his/her shoes, what might be going on inside? What concerns and emotions might your behavior have triggered in the other person? If you’re having a hard time, look at what you wrote in the bottom, right box about the other person’s behavior (in step #3). Try to come up with some guesses about what he/she might have been thinking and feeling to cause such a reaction. Even better, if the other person is willing to indulge you in this exercise, ask him/her about it directly and get the answers straight from the horse’s mouth. When you’re done, write down everything you come up with about the other person’s internal experiences in that moment in the top, right box.

7. Now that you have all four boxes filled in, look at how they are connected. Consider how your thoughts, beliefs, and feelings influenced your own behavior  Turn your attention also to the boxes on the right and see how the internal experiences of the other person might have affected his/her behavior,

8. Notice also how the other person’s behavior fueled the thoughts and feelings you had in that moment. Though it may be more challenging to do, also consider how your own behavior and outward reactions might have affected the other person’s internal experiences.  These linkages are represented by the diagonal arrows in the diagram 

9. Trace your fingers across the arrows and notice how it forms a bow-tie shape, and just like the ∞ symbol, it can be traced over and over again to infinity. It’s this repetitive, habitual nature of the fight that often hurts the most. Barely healed emotional scabs are suddenly yanked off. We patch them up with our prickly emotional armor, stinging the offender until he/she lashes out once more and sets the destructive pattern into motion all over again, now with even greater force behind it.

10. Just being aware of a problematic cycle is an enormous step forward. But if you want to go a few steps further in breaking the pattern, focus on aspects of the cycle that are directly under your control. Might there be other ways of thinking or interpreting what’s happening in these tense moments that might help you to keep your cool or see the other person in a more compassionate way? Also consider the possibility that there might be other ways to outwardly respond, even if you’re not really able to change your thoughts and feelings about the matter. Brainstorm alternate actions you could take that might be less likely to elicit the same familiar responses from the other person.

You can also watch our video to learn more about how these diagrams can be used as a tool to undercut conflict at its knees.

If you go through these ten steps, let us know what you learned from the process in the comments box. We want to hear about your experiences.

Return to Article: Why Do We Keep Having the Same Fight?  Breaking Out of Toxic Communication Cycles

Feel free to download and use our free Bow Tie Diagram.


Further Reading:





Feixas, G. (1995). Personal constructs in systemic practice. In R. A. Neimeyer y M. J. Mahoney (Eds.), Constructivism in Psychotherapy (pp. 305-337). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.


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