Feelings vs Issues

So here's the thing - Carly's blogs tend to be much shorter and to the point than mine. The aspiring novelist in me rarely let's me get away with an absence of descriptors, metaphors and similes out the wazoo, or exactly three of any kind of list of examples. But today's subject can get unwieldy, and it's too important to risk losing anybody. So I'm gonna try to keep this as short and sweet as I can.

Simply put, when in conflict, there are two basic kinds of conversations. Often, even the most experienced couples can struggle to resolve conflict well, and the primary reason for that is that they are trying to have both kinds of conversations at the same time. The two kinds of conversations are incompatible. They have different methodologies and different goals. If you've ever found yourself stuck in an argument loop, where you feel like you're saying the same thing over and over and so is your partner, and you can't seem to get to a place where each of you is really hearing the other, you're probably having two different kinds of conversations.

Typically, men lean toward one of the kinds of conversations, and women naturally lean to the other. If this isn't your experience, that's okay, the principles still apply. Just switch the gender norms in your household and keep on trucking with the rest. Men tend to approach conflict in Issues Conversations (or ICs), and women tend to approach it via Feelings Conversations (or FCs).

The goal of an IC is to reach consensus. Whether the source of the disagreement is philosophical or ideological, it almost always involves an impending decision, i.e., "What are we going to do about X?" By contrast, the point of an FC is to achieve empathic understanding. Whether there is an IC that needs to be attached, FCs usually result from a comment or behavior that resulted in an emotion, i.e., "I feel X about thing Y that my partner did/does/said/thinks." Consensus and empathy are incompatible in conflict because consensus is mutual, where empathy is one-sided. A conversation cannot be both mutual and one-sided in the same sense at the same time.

A quick caveat about the terms "mutual" and "one-sided." These terms typically have connotative definitions wherein a relationship being "mutual" is a good thing and a relationship being "one-sided" is a bad thing. In this context, these terms don't carry that connotation. Empathy, in this instance, is about one person understanding and validating the emotions of another person, not two people understanding and validating the emotions of each other (at least, not at the same time).

Let's break it down.

Feelings Conversations

In an FC, the goal is for, let's say Brian, to understand the emotions of his partner. We'll call her Cindy. Cindy starts the conversation by identifying it. "Brian," she says, "I need to have a Feelings Conversation." Cindy then proceeds to explain her emotions to Brian, beginning with the phrase, "I feel."

"I feel (enter emotion here) when you (enter comment or behavior here)."

It's important to frame whatever it is Brian did or said in very specific terms, and in behavioral terms. Cindy is best served by avoiding judging Brian's motives. He'll have an opportunity to express those in time. Brian, then, responds, by paraphrasing Cindy's words back to her, to communicate that he has both heard them and correctly understood them. "What I'm hearing you say is that my doing X made you feel Y." If Brian has correctly understood Cindy's emotions, and Cindy doesn't feel she has more to share, then her turn is over. If she needs to correct Brian's understanding, or if Brian's paraphrase expanded for Cindy what she wants to share, then they continue. In every instance, Brian's only permitted response is to paraphrase what Cindy has said back to her to ensure accurate understanding. This continues back and forth until Cindy has said everything she has to say, and is confident that Brian has understood it all. Once this is achieved, if Brian has anything he'd like to share of his emotions, then they switch positions. Brian shares his emotions and Cindy paraphrases the content of his words back to him, until Brian has said everything he has to say and he is confident Cindy has understood it all.

Once both parties have exhausted the emotions they have to share and understanding has been achieved, the FC can conclude. In that sense, there is some mutuality to an FC. However, it is crucial that the parties take turns, and that conversation components are completely one-sided.

Issues Conversations

By contrast, ICs are point-counterpoint. Brian brings up issue A and makes his case. When he's finished, Cindy respectfully addresses Brian's case first, bringing up those areas where she agrees first, then the areas where she disagrees. She mentions specifically why she disagrees with Brian in the areas that she does. She then makes her countercase suggestions. Brian, then, respectfully, addresses Cindy's countercase first. He notes the areas where he agrees with her, then areas where he disagrees, and is specific and thorough about his disagreement. He then suggests a compromise. This pattern continues until one party suggests a compromise that is acceptable to both parties. The IC then concludes.

It is very, very easy for an IC to stray into an FC. Emotions are largely organic and unpredictable responses, and therefore they can pop up unexpectedly in otherwise ideological conversations. For reasons we don't have the margin to explore right now, once strong emotions have entered a conflict and an IC, the parties need to switch as soon as possible to an FC. FCs always take precedence over ICs. It doesn't matter whether:

  • Brian realizes Cindy needs an FC
  • Cindy realizes Brian needs an FC
  • Brian realizes Brian needs an FC
  • Cindy realizes Cindy needs an FC

Once the realization is made, the switch needs to happen. The IC can be resumed once the FC is finished.


Let's recap. There are two kinds of conflict conversations: Feelings Conversations and Issues Conversations, and they are incompatible. FCs always take precedence over ICs.

Issues Conversations are:

  1. Two-way
  2. Point-counterpoint
  3. Based on consensus

Feelings Conversations are:

  1. One-way
  2. Statement-paraphrase
  3. Based on empathic understanding


We've included a flow-chart which we hope will help you to visualize the process. Feel free to save it, print it out, laminate it, frame it, do whatever you have to in order to make it useful for you. If you have any questions about this method of conflict resolution, click the CONNECT tab at the top of the page to send us an email.

Paul Morales