Navigating Conflict in Relationships with Lisa Gray

Lisa Gray episode art


In this enlightening episode of the Dead America Podcast, host Ed Watters sits down with Lisa Gray, a marriage and family therapist, to discuss effective conflict management in relationships. Lisa shares her journey from being an air traffic controller to becoming a therapist specializing in high-conflict couples. She introduces her book ‘Healthy Conflict, Happy Couple,’ which offers step-by-step guidance on managing conflicts to foster healthier, more intimate relationships. Lisa also delves into various therapeutic approaches, including Brainspotting, and provides practical advice for couples to understand and resolve conflicts. Tune in to learn valuable strategies for improving emotional intelligence and communication with your partner.


00:00 Introduction: The Power of Education

00:55 Meet Lisa Gray: From Air Traffic Controller to Therapist

02:15 Understanding Healthy Conflict in Relationships

03:52 The Role of Therapy: Tools for Conflict Resolution

05:59 Building Trust and Opening Up in Therapy

08:02 Maintaining Neutrality in Couples Therapy

10:36 Foundational Steps for High-Conflict Couples

15:39 The Importance of Daily Positive Routines

18:30 Exploring Brainspotting: A Unique Therapy Technique

22:17 Lisa Gray’s Book: Healthy Conflict, Happy Couple

27:06 Final Thoughts and Call to Action

instagram @lisagraymft and @therapybooknook

Lisa Gray

[00:00:00] Ed Watters: To overcome, you must educate. Educate not only yourself, but educate anyone seeking to learn. We are all Dead America, we can all learn something. To learn, we must challenge what we already understand. The way we do that is through conversation. Sometimes we have conversations with others, however, some of the best conversations happen with ourself. Reach out and challenge yourself; let's dive in and learn something right now.

[00:00:55] Today we are speaking with Lisa Gray. She is a marriage and family therapist and she has a book that she has written, it is Healthy Conflict, Happy Couple. Lisa, could you please introduce yourself and let people know just a little more about you, please?

[00:01:16] Lisa Gray: Yeah. So I, um, I started out my career as an air traffic controller and, uh, I quit doing that when I had kids and decided to transition to be a therapist. So I always joke that I used to have a job where everyone did what I say and now I have a job where nobody does what I say, but that's just a joke. Um, yeah. So I've been doing this for twenty years, I, um, I specialize in high conflict couples. So my colleagues send me those couples that kind of have tried every other therapist in town, or this is their last ditch effort to save their relationship.

[00:01:52] And, and so then when the pandemic hit, I thought, well, yeah, I'm bored. So my pandemic project was to write down everything that I usually say to all my clients every day and it turned into this book, Healthy Conflict, Happy Couple. So, yeah. People can read that to kind of learn how to develop the skill of having better conflict.

[00:02:15] Ed Watters: That's important. Uh, you know, being married myself for quite some time, the conflicts always arise and sometimes they can get rather heated. So learning how to control those conflicts are very important, Lisa. What's your trick on that?

[00:02:35] Lisa Gray: Well, I think, I think what most people do with that is they just try to avoid conflict because it's so uncomfortable when it does get heated like that, you know? And so over time you have these conflicts, it gets heated, that's uncomfortable, so you stop doing it.

[00:02:50] And one of my main arguments is when you stop doing that, you stop your intimacy kind of in its tracks because you, you can't be intimate with someone that you're not sharing stuff with, you know? And not all of that stuff is going to be stuff you agree on. So I think having, I mean, I'm not saying create conflict, but having the conflicts that arise is very important. And so the real trick is to figure out how to tolerate that kind of, uh, anxiety or your bodily reactions so you can have the conflict rather than just completely avoiding it, you know?

[00:03:27] Ed Watters: Yeah. I believe if, if you're really living a healthy life, you're going to have conflict every day. It's part of life. And not only in your relationship, but through everything that you do in your day. So it's very important to understand emotional intelligence, especially when it comes to your partnership. Uh, you say therapy is not a crutch, it's a tool. What does that mean?

[00:04:01] Lisa Gray: Well, I think it's just like, I'm always telling my clients, I'm trying to work myself out of a job, you know? So it's kind of like a therapy. I'm a therapist, obviously. I think therapy is really very helpful, but for most people, especially couples with conflict, they're coming in, I'm trying to teach them the skill and then have them practice it on their own so that they can go off and do it without me. So, you know, there are some people, obviously, who have ongoing

[00:04:31] stressors in their life, need ongoing support and therapy, and that's totally fine. But for, for couples in particular, I want to teach them the tools and teach them the skills and then send them off to do it on their own. And of course, I'm always there. They can come back if something happens to kind of refine those skills.

[00:04:49] But my intent is to teach them how to do it on their own, because we really get no other education on how to do conflict management. Like you were saying, you have conflict with everyone, not just your partner. But we don't really have a class on that in high school or anything so people just don't know the skills, you know?

[00:05:09] Ed Watters: Yeah. I really think that during our formidable years, that they throw you into the mix and kind of let that mix sort it out. And that shoves a lot of people off to the outside in our world and then they truly don't have any form of, you know, conflict resolution when you're in a social atmosphere. And we, we see that heavily today in our world.

[00:05:43] And we're seeing that fringe, so called fringe in our society, getting wrote off because they don't have the right conflict resolution. So, no matter what we do, it's very important. How do you get people to open up? Because everybody is like in a shell nowadays and they don't want to talk, especially to therapists, about their innermost personal feelings, thoughts, and ideas.

[00:06:19] Lisa Gray: Yeah. Well, I think, you know, you have a good point and, and unfortunately some of the people who really feel that way don't even come into therapy to talk to us. And, you know, there's, I can't really do anything to, you know, make someone come to the room with me. But once someone is in my office, um, I have the advantage that they've sought that out.

[00:06:43] So potentially they would like to talk about it, even if they don't know how. And, um, you know, building rapport. And this is why finding a therapist that you click with is such an important, um, piece of the puzzle if you're going to go to therapy. And so, you know, we as therapists think nothing about it

[00:07:03] if somebody says to us, I don't think this is a really good fit for me. Or if someone says, you know, I want someone who shares my ethnicity or I want someone who shares my beliefs, that's fine. You know, that, it's not necessary, but if that's what is going to help you open up, then it's fine to do that. So you don't have to stick with the first therapist that you find, you know, you should be kind of clicking and jiving with the person that you're sitting there with.

[00:07:26] And then over time, you're going to trust that person more and more to hear what you have to say. And I have a lot of clients I don't necessarily, I wouldn't say I necessarily agree with, but I'm, I'm good at kind of being with the person that I'm with and letting them have their own and develop their own thoughts and feelings and how to listen to others and all of that stuff. So, you know, some therapists are better than that, than, at that than others, but you have to find someone that you actually click with and trust. And then you'll start to slowly be able to, to speak, you know, what's important to you.

[00:08:02] Ed Watters: So when you're working with couples, how do you maintain a bias, uh, uh, or a neutral bias?

[00:08:11] Lisa Gray: Yeah. So, you know, I, I, I employ two, uh, associates in my, in my practice who I'm training to be therapists. And this is a conversation that we're having all the time as they're seeing couples is, how do you develop this skill? So it's kind, on the one hand, it's kind of like with my two kids, where I sometimes say like, Look, I'm not trying to be fair.

[00:08:33] I'm trying to give you each what you need, but I'm not necessarily trying to make sure that each of you has exactly the same thing. So when I have a really good rapport with a couple and, and they know I'm on their team, I will say, Look, your relationship is my client. Not either one of you in particular, your relationship's my client.

[00:08:53] So that might mean one day I'm really picking on you and it might mean one day I'm really picking on you. And I try to be an equal opportunity picker onner, you know? But I'm going to say what needs to be said for the health of your relationship, but I care about both of you. You know, it's just that

[00:09:10] each of you individually isn't necessarily what it's all about, you know? Although I will say there are times, because we're human too, we're therapists, when, when I just, I do kind of, am, I am drawn more to one person than the other. I do kind of like one person more than the other. And when that happens, I work really, really hard to connect with the other person because these two people love each other and there's clearly value in this other person and I need to be able to see that as well. So, yeah. You know, I just, I kind of set the stage by what my philosophy is in the first place. And then they don't feel, you know, and I invite them to say, Hey, you're picking on me too much or whatever. So that I, I'd kind of try to keep a very open dialogue about that. Yeah.

[00:09:58] Ed Watters: Yeah. So [00:10:00] what's the best way to start a conversation with two people that have been broken, that seem to want to be together, because obviously they're there with you present, but yet, you can really see that these two need communication skill. How do you start with something like that, when they're constantly arguing?

[00:10:35] Lisa Gray: Yeah. Well, so, so I think, when I'm working, if I know in advance that I have a couple that's really high conflict that's coming in, but they want to keep their relationship, they're just very high conflict, I have to back up and start with some foundational pieces before we even get to talking about what the conflicts are, you know? So some of those foundational pieces is,

[00:10:58] like we've already talked about, having a commitment to have conflict. To not avoid it, but to face it head on. To, to have these attitudes about, like conflict is valuable and it's going to increase our intimacy so we're committed to having those conversations. And then teaching them how to just control the physiology of their bodies, like helping them understand how to recognize when they're getting really activated, how to, you know, take some, like what they personally need to do to calm down in that moment, how to have an effective time out. All of that stuff before we even really start talking about what the conflict is, you know? Because if you don't have those foundational pieces, you're just going to get caught back in the same, you know, like circle the same wagon. Yeah.

[00:11:50] Ed Watters: Yeah. So you set foundational rules when you come in to discuss things. And you're kind of the referee at, at, at many times on that. You know, and, and really going through counselors and therapists with my marriage, you know, because everyone really should seek some place to help you.

[00:12:18] You know, because you need that outside eyes, set of eyes looking inward to tell you some things. And sometimes that's very bitter to hear. But, it takes me back to when we first started seeking counseling and therapy for our relationship, we ran across a therapist, his name was Gary Smalley, and he, he talks, do you know of him?

[00:12:55] He's a wonderful man. Yes, it, it, it enlightened me so much, and it helped me regain focus on, hey, men and women are totally different, and it's okay to be different. And setting those boundaries, his, his, the whole thing was to be able to set boundaries and understanding that men and women are from different planets. What's your take on setting boundaries and being different setting those boundaries?

[00:13:39] Lisa Gray: Well, you know, it's, it's funny because when we're, when we're seeking a relationship, you know, we're, we're seeking someone who's different than us. We're seeking somebody who kind of like completes us, or compliments us, or, or whatever. But then when we get married, we kind of want that person to be more like us.

[00:13:57] You know, we're, we're always, and I, so I always joke and say, like, This is not a home improvement project, you know? Like, I mean, I can't even tell you how many times I'll say, like, Was this person like this when you got married, you know? And if they were, then it's not really fair to say, we're going to, we're going to try to completely change that.

[00:14:14] Now, I mean, obviously behavior can be modified, but you can't modify someone's temperament, or character, or basic personality. And so like some of it is boundaries and some of it is just a deep appreciation for the fact that this person is different than you and that's a good thing. It would be very boring to be married to yourself, you know? There'd be no learning that would happen there. So, yeah.

[00:14:43] Ed Watters: I couldn't be married to myself, that's for sure. I just kind of, uh, I, I, I give praise to my wife for being able to handle it, she's a wonderful woman. And identifying and letting the individual know how special they are daily. It starts when you wake up in the morning. We have a routine now, and we go through it each day. And sometimes, you know, it gets broken because of certain aspects of life. But generally, every morning, we have a particular routine. I love you, it's time to get up. And, you know, it really starts at the beginning of the day and setting those guidelines. What's your take on that?

[00:15:38] Lisa Gray: Yeah. Well, one of the things, yeah, I think that's a, I think, I mean, I don't know if you guys have just intuitively done that, but it's so wise. Because, you know, I have a chapter in my book on building the positive, which might seem kind of funny in a book about conflict. But actually, all the appreciation and all the positive things that go on, they're actually part of your conflict management plan, right?

[00:16:03] Because it's kind of like a bank account. It's when you first meet each other, you have a million dollars in the bank, right? So if an argument is a thousand dollar check, no big deal, you've got a million dollars in the bank. What I have with the couples who come see me is that they're actually still writing the same thousand dollar check.

[00:16:20] It's not that things are so much worse, it's just that there hasn't been any deposits for the longest time, you know? And so sometimes with a really high conflict couple, I'm, my first initial way of working with them isn't actually to go after the big conflict, which would be a withdrawal, it's more to like do with what you're talking about, which is to establish daily and weekly and regular routines that really deposit the good stuff into the account. Help them remember why they are in this relationship in the first place and have some sort of a daily contact where they're connecting as people and they're valuing each other.

[00:16:57] Then we have some stuff in the bank to actually work with when we go after some of the heavier conflicts. But yes, I think, people tell me all the time, they don't have time to do what you're saying. And I don't buy it because we all scroll social media for at least 15 minutes a day. You know, we, we do the things that we value doing. And so if couples spent that fifteen, twenty minutes every day really having a ritual, having a time together, being with each other, it would add a lot of value and help them manage conflict. Yeah.

[00:17:35] Ed Watters: Yeah. Uh, I, I say buy yourself a twenty-eight foot travel trailer and just live in that together for two years and really test your boundaries and your strengths together because that is the most important thing to be able to be with the person you love.

[00:18:00] And when you can't run away when you get mad or, you know, you've got to be there, it's, it's very important to understand the one that you love. So, working with people, you have different types of therapy, individual therapy, couples therapy, but the one that really sparked some interest was Brainspotting. It's the first time I've ever heard of this. Could you talk to us a little bit about what that is and how you use that in your practice?

[00:18:42] Lisa Gray: Yeah, so Brainspotting is an offshoot of EMDR. So EMDR is eye movement, um, I forget what the D stands for, reprocessing. And they use it a lot with veterans who have PTSD. And the, the idea behind it is that, you know, there's a, trauma gets stored in the brain and generally trauma is stored in the brain where, like not in the same place as language. So you can, for many people, you can talk about your trauma all day long, this is what happened, sometimes you even retraumatize yourself talking about your trauma. And

[00:19:21] it's not that that's not useful, it's just that it doesn't dislodge it from where it's stuck in the brain. And so there, there's just all kinds of research about how, um, certain, certain places that you gaze with your eyes are associated with different places in your brain. So, so EMDR is a very, um, structured protocol that takes a long time to train and it's very effective.

[00:19:50] But for people like me who don't, I don't specialize in trauma. But of course, if you see people in any capacity, you're going to run across people who [00:20:00] have trauma. Brainspotting is kind of a simpler offshoot of EMDR. And so, you know, what you do is you think about, you know, you talk about kind of the trauma that you're trying to dislodge and then you find an eye location

[00:20:15] where you feel that the most intensely. And then you just hold your gaze at that eye location while you continue to talk about whatever comes up in your mind, and it might not even be related to the trauma. And, and you'll feel as you go through that, the feeling of the trauma sort of diminishing, like if you had a scale from ten to two or, or whatever, and so you just kind of like find, and, and if you read enough about it, you can even do Self-spotting.

[00:20:44] Which is, you know, you're by yourself and something comes up for you and you start kind of talking aloud about it. And you just find the eye location where that feels the most intense and just kind of keep verbally processing it. But it's a, it's a fascinating, um, I mean, I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen it in action working. But there's something about where your eye, eyes are located that connects with a certain part of your brain where that trauma might be stuck and it just kind of dislodges it and moves it along. Yeah, fascinating work.

[00:21:17] Ed Watters: Yeah, there's a lot of similarity to the tapping that I've heard about. So, yeah, it was very interesting.

[00:21:28] Lisa Gray: Yeah, yeah. It's like a left, right brain thing so tapping, um, bilaterally works. But also like there's Binaural Music. So you can, you, you'd have to wear headphones, but there's music that goes from left to right.

[00:21:43] Um, you can move your eyes from left to right, but that kind of, um, bilateral movement helps to connect what's in one side of your brain to the other side of the brain and is very calming. So it's one of the things that I actually suggest. Even to, for some couples, it works while we're working through a conflict or whatever for them to be tapping left and right on their leg or, or snapping left and right with their hands. Cause it's a calming, calming activity, is one of the suggestions that I have for calming down your physiology.

[00:22:14] Ed Watters: Interesting. Yeah. So tell us about your book and why you wrote the book.

[00:22:23] Lisa Gray: Yeah. So I had a couple, back before the pandemic, I had a couple at one point and I, what I really wanted was, I'm a reader, I read 200 books a year so I'm aware of all the books that are out there and I wanted a book for them that, that walked them specifically through how to have a conflict from A to Z, like the nuts and bolts of conflict. And there's a ton of great relationship books out there, I've read most of them. And, but there's maybe like a chapter on conflict or a section on conflict

[00:22:59] and, I, I didn't want all the other stuff. Like, you know, they, like all couples, they had all kinds of problems. But for this specific moment in time, I wanted a book that only talked about the conflict piece and how to do it. And I just couldn't find one that, where the whole book was just that. And so I decided, well, you know, I'm going to write down how I do it with my couples.

[00:23:23] And so that became this book and it's like a three step process. Well, first it's the foundational pieces like I talked about before. But then an actual three step process to take a particular conflict, work through that conflict, and get to the other side. And it's really step by step, very structured, and, you know, I'm hoping that couples can read the book together and actually be able to follow very precisely this model of how to have a conflict.

[00:23:54] Ed Watters: Yeah, I like that. I'll, I'll actually pick up a copy. Me and, or my wife and I, we always read books together. That's one of those routines that we set is each, each Saturday, we sit and we read out of a book together. And generally it's to build our rapport with each other. And it's about these topics that really a lot of people find taboo, but you need to have them in order to maintain a balanced relationship.

[00:24:34] Uh, it goes back to what we were talking about earlier, being man and woman, we're different. So staying up on what our society is talking about is very important because that, that really structures a relationship in many ways, doesn't it?

[00:24:56] Lisa Gray: Sure. Yeah. I mean, we exist in the world, in the context of the world, you know? And so, like, being able to converse about everything that's happening, like, I feel like one of the things that happens with couples is they just, they assume that they know the other person, you know? I mean, it's easy to fall into that trap when you've been with someone for a while. Like, I know what he's going to say about that.

[00:25:17] But the truth is, kind of like you're saying is, the world is changing every day and we're changing every day. So if I leave the house in the morning and I listened to a news story on the way to work, or I talk with somebody who has a particular issue, I'm a different person when I come home that night than when I left this morning. And if my husband and I are not talking about those things and how we feel about them, then over time, you know, no particular day is going to make a huge difference, but over time we just know less and less about each other. And that's no good, you know?

[00:25:51] Ed Watters: That's, that's so big, you know? And, and another one that I find is being truthful no matter what. So many people would rather put it under the rug and tell a little white lie other than just say, Hey, I messed up and we need to talk about this. Being truthful is big.

[00:26:14] Lisa Gray: Yeah. I mean, yeah. One of my, one of my big pet peeves is when, you know, you ask your partner, Hey, what's wrong? Because you, you intuitively know when something is not right with your partner, you know, and the person says, Nothing. Even though something is, but they say nothing's wrong.

[00:26:32] And I always tell my couples in therapy, I'm like, You might think that's no big deal, but it is a lie and it's a betrayal of your relationship when you say nothing and there's something. You know, you don't have to be ready to talk about it right that moment, but you have to at least say, Yes, something's bothering me,

[00:26:51] I'm not quite ready to talk about it. Can we talk about it after dinner or whatever? But you can't say nothing if there's something because that's not true and it undermines your relationship every single time.

[00:27:03] Ed Watters: That's right. Uh, big, that's huge. So is there anything important that we have not discussed today that you'd like to share with us?


[00:27:13] Lisa Gray: Yeah. I mean, I'll just run through my model really quick so that people have the information. The, the first step in my model is the setup to the argument, basically. So one of the, if people ask me, you know, what's your number one piece of advice for couples if you could only give one piece of advice? And I always say,

[00:27:35] stop talking when you're already mad. Because when you're already mad is, is the only time that most couples talk about stuff. And in fact, it's one of the reasons why couples therapy even works because you're in a place to talk about a problem when you're not in the middle of the problem, you know? So the very first step for a successful conflict is to say, I mean, if I asked any couple on the street right now, What are your problems?

[00:28:05] What are the things you argue about? They can tell me, they don't have to wait till they're in the middle of it to know what they argue about. So you can, the first step is to set it up, to say like, Hey, I'd like to talk to you about our finances, or I'd like to talk to you about our sex life, or I'd like to talk to you about our in-laws, or whatever,

[00:28:21] what's a good time for you to do that? Your partner gets to pick the time, not two years from now, sometimes, sometime in the next like week or so. And then, then both people know there's going to be a discussion, both people know what the topic's going to be, both people have some time to think about it,

[00:28:39] and when you sit down to talk about it, you're not already in the middle of an argument about it. So you're starting from way more foundational, peaceful place than if you're trying to talk about it when something has already kind of activated all the alarms. So that's really a crucial first step to any conflict is to say, and if something has popped up, to say to yourself, I really want to talk about that. Not going to do it right now

[00:29:05] when I'm mad, but I am going to ask my partner if we can set a time to talk about it later, you know? So that first step is really, really important. Yeah. And then most of my couples over the years, what I've found is, when they do, when they do sit down to have the conversation, they're trying to move into solutions

[00:29:26] way before they've understood each other fully. So this temptation to start trying to solve the problem before you've even really listened is a huge problem. Because if you and I are having an argument, I have my solution, you have your solution, and if we move too fast into solutions before we understand each other, those are the only two options we're going to see.

[00:29:49] The one I want, the one you want, you know? So with my couples, I make them actually split it into two completely separate conversations. So they set the [00:30:00] appointment for the conversation and the first conversation they have is only for understanding each other, no problem solving allowed. So you have a chance to say how you feel about the topic, what you, you know, what bothers you, what you'd like to see happen.

[00:30:15] Then I have a chance to talk about how I feel about the topic, what bothers me, what I'd like to see happen. And then when we feel like we have total understanding about how each other feels, we're done with that conversation. And then we set the appointment for the second conversation, which is the problem solving conversation. So breaking it up like that can be very helpful because it just reduces the temptation to try to run off and solve the problem and not really be listening to what your partner's saying.

[00:30:45] Ed Watters: Yeah. Huge, I like that. So what, what is a good way for people to reach out and contact you and get involved with you?

[00:30:56] Lisa Gray: Yeah. So my website is Lisa Gray MFT. My last name is G, R, A, Y, and the MFT stands for Marriage Family Therapist. So my website's Lisa Gray MFT, my Instagram is also Lisa Gray MFT. And then I review the 200 books a year that I read on my Instagram that's called Therapy Book Nook. So those are kind of the three main places that they can find me. And then I have a Linktree on there so they can find my, you know, podcasts I've been on and such. And then my book, Healthy Conflict, Happy Couple, can be found on Amazon, um, or your local independent bookseller.

[00:31:31] Ed Watters: And do you have a call to action for people today?

[00:31:34] Lisa Gray: Well, you know, I'd like for people to go check out my book on Amazon and, and just kind of see if it seems like it would be a great, um, thing to help their relationship. Just like, if people could come away from this with a commitment to have the conflicts that they need to have so that they can have healthier relationships, whether that's my book or whether that's finding a therapist that's a good fit for them. I just feel like if we could all learn how to have healthy conflicts and talk to each other in this world, we'd just all be living in such a better space.

[00:32:11] Ed Watters: Yeah, I like it. Uh, it all starts with a good conversation. And that means we have to learn to listen, that, that's a big thing in life. We all have opinions and we all have problems. But once we start taking the time to listen to everybody else, it will make our life so much better. Uh, Lisa, I, I think you're fascinating. What you're doing is a very good thing. I've talked to a lot of therapists and a lot of counselors, and you seem to be very knowledgeable and, uh, some, someone that might be more apt to being open to listening to people that feel lost. So thank you for that. And most of all, thank you for being here today with us.

[00:33:12] Lisa Gray: Thanks for having me Ed, this has been a great conversation.

[00:33:19] Ed Watters: Thank you for joining us today. If you found this podcast enlightening, entertaining, educational in any way, please share, like, subscribe and join us right back here next week for another great episode of Dead America Podcast. I'm Ed Watters, your host, enjoy your afternoon wherever you may be.