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Conflict Resolution Tips from a Veteran Divorce Lawyer

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Human Ecology alum Gabrielle Hartley ’92 is the author of The Secret to Getting Along (And Why It’s Easier Than You Think)

By Beth Saulnier

Gabrielle Hartley ’92 is a veteran divorce lawyer and mediator who specializes in keeping cases out of court—aiming to help estranged spouses come to an agreement that facilitates a happier future. Hartley’s experiences inspired her to co-author the 2019 self-help book Better Apart: The Radically Positive Way to Separate.

The guide featured a blurb from actor and entrepreneur Gwyneth Paltrow, whose first marriage famously ended in a “conscious uncoupling” from musician Chris Martin.

And in May 2023, the Human Ecology alum published a followup: The Secret to Getting Along (And Why It’s Easier Than You Think): 3 Steps to Life-Changing Conflict Resolution.

Cornellians tapped Hartley, who practices in New York and Massachusetts and does online mediation, for some insights into how to cope with conflicts—including when to avoid them.

Gabrielle Hartley

These days, how much do we need tools for conflict resolution?

Turn the television on; scroll through your social media feed. There are areas in which it’s badly needed in the world—but it’s also needed in smaller ways, in our households and extended families.

We are living in an age of immediate gratification. We want to be right, or we want to move on. And it’s very destructive for our human experience.

How so?

In our society, there’s an unprecedented amount of finger-pointing and polarization of opinions; it can almost feel impossible to communicate in a way that’s not going to upset somebody in some way.

But at our core, we’re all people who want to enjoy our lives, and we’re more similar than dissimilar. The problem isn’t so much in what we’re fighting about—it’s in how we fight, and how that feels.

Nowadays, it’s easy to unfriend someone on Facebook or block their calls. Why must we do the hard work of resolving conflicts?

Connection is so important. For optimal health and wellness over the course of our lives, humans need relationships. And we’re complicated beings; we disagree.

But there is nearly always a way forward—not a perfect way, but a better way—by understanding the emotional story and by taking control of your part in a disagreement. Think of alternate ways to have your needs met, and you can resolve practically anything.

You mentioned that how we argue is a big problem. What’s the top thing to avoid?

Don’t react in the moment; take a step back and give yourself time. In the moment, you can feel your heart rate elevating and your focus waning. When that happens, you’re not thinking clearly. Arguments escalate, and they snowball.

There is nearly always a way forward—not a perfect way, but a better way.

It’s so easy to fly off the handle; how does one avoid it?

I recommend around five rounds of deep breathing; with your eyes closed, breathe through your nose for five counts, pause for five, and breathe out slowly through your mouth for five. It takes under a minute and a half.

After that, check in with yourself. How am I feeling? Maybe you need more time to think. Often, we just react—but you’ll have the best outcome when you pause and take time to process.

What has working in the divorce field taught you about resolving conflicts?

Our emotions cause us to act in ways that are so destructive—but once we understand one another’s motivations, we can nearly always find a resolution. I love helping people resolve what they and their lawyers characterize as “impossible” cases. Just listening to what’s going on for the other person creates space for so many possibilities.

Can you give an example?

This one is very common: you’re getting divorced, and both people want the house. So they think they need to go to court—but I’ll say, “not so fast.”

One person may really want it because they’re worried they won’t be able to get a new mortgage, or their mom lives down the street.

The cover of "The Secret to Getting Along"

The other person may want the house—but what they really want is confidence that their kids will visit them, even if they live somewhere else. It’s not about the house at all. They just want stability.

In this case, it may make sense to begin a clear parenting plan to give them confidence they’ll still see the kids if they move out of the home.

When the other person’s needs are met, their anxiety will diminish—and you’re much more likely to get what you want.

Let’s take a classic, low-stakes conflict. What do you do when you can’t agree on how to load the dishwasher?

First, ask yourself: how important is this to me? It might be really important to one of you and not the other. Maybe order is more important to them, so you can offer a solution: “Would you like to be in charge of the dishwasher, and I’ll take on another household task?”

It’s really about making space so the heat comes down. In my house, I didn’t care about loading the dishwasher—but it mattered to my husband, so I gave him that job. For me, how the pillows go on the bed matters.

There’s the adage “It’s better to be happy than right.” How do you interpret that?

It means “think about why you want what you want, and give in wherever you can.” The expression “choose your battles” is also true. Some things are worth throwing down for, but most aren’t. In our intimate relationships, we get into behavioral patterns where we’re stuck in this right/wrong paradigm.

In your new book, you note that a fair amount of conflict is caused by acquiescence. Could you explain that?

You might be a people pleaser, and you’re so uncomfortable saying “no” that you say nothing—and nothing is perceived as a “yes.” That can really escalate; silence is the death knell of resolution. So rather than being quiet, say “I’m not sure how I feel about this; give me time and we’ll circle back.”

The expression ‘choose your battles’ is true. Some things are worth throwing down for, but most aren’t.

Is part of the lesson that to prevent a bigger conflict, you might need to have some conflict?

Yes, you have to be willing to stomach disagreement. But in tolerating that small disagreement, you’re sheltering yourself from a much worse problem.

We’ve seen Twitter wars or been “flamed” over email. How have social media and the Internet impacted how people deal with conflicts?

Electronic communication can make conflict harder, because it’s so easy to react. If you’re in a heated conversation, take that pause and then circle back. Don’t just shoot off an email; sleep on it. At 3 a.m., things can seem really important—but at 7, you may realize it was a stupid thing to obsess about.

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In today’s politically divisive world, many of us have relatives or old friends with whom we vehemently disagree. What’s the best way to deal with that?

I have this situation in my life. I say to this particular uncle, “You have two more minutes to talk about politics, then I want to hear about what you had for dinner last night.” I don’t cut him off, but I also don’t engage. If it’s really bothering you, you can say, “Let’s not talk about politics; it’s not going to take our relationship anywhere positive.”

If someone isn’t super hot-headed, you can take turns talking for five minutes and really listening to each other. That can pave the way to greater understanding, even if you have completely different perspectives.

We’ve talked about relationship-based conflicts. But what about isolated instances, like if someone cuts you off in traffic or in line at the grocery store?

It helps to assume best intentions and give the benefit of the doubt. If someone almost hits your car on the road, it can make you upset, even rageful.

But you could tell yourself a story that the driver is rushing to a family emergency—something that supports a more positive reason why the person is acting that way.

The cover of "Better Apart"

The person who cuts in front of you at the grocery store? You could decide they’re on a very tight timeline before they have to pick up their kids.

So it seems like you’re saying that we should engage in conflict when it’s healthy and productive—and avoid it when it’s not?

The reason to embrace conflict is that it can bring you better outcomes. That doesn’t mean embracing destructive arguments—it means leaning into productive conversations about areas where we disagree. That’s the whole point: we can learn from each other and grow, and our relationships can get deeper.

Top: Illustration by Seung Yeon Kim / Cornell University. All images provided.

Published July 7, 2023


  1. Holton Falk, Class of 1978

    Simple and clear tips, that we often forget to do!

  2. Richard D. Tunick, Class of 1967

    Interesting insights.

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