The ability to resolve conflict effectively may be the most essential relational skill one has. The more important a relationship is, the more likely it is that conflict will occur, and accordingly, the more important it is that we are able to resolve them to the satisfaction of both parties. Unfortunately, not everyone has developed these skills or sees the emergence of a disagreement as an opportunity to hone them. In fact, it is fairly common to find that one often used strategy for dealing with conflict is to ignore, avoid, and pretend.
The ignore, avoid, and pretend strategy goes something like this: Tension that arises when certain subjects are broached is ignored until an explosion occurs, in which all opportunities to have a conversation where the concerns of both parties are addressed is avoided at all costs, and often the other party themselves is avoided until the “storm has blown over”, then you pretend that it never happened and never talk about the problem subject(s) again. Sound familiar? Even if this is not our strategy for dealing with conflict, most of us know someone who employs it, and it can be maddening, and ultimately destructive to important relationships.
It goes without saying that this method does not enhance relationships, and yet it is frequently the strategy of choice. While the reasons for this may be numerous, I have come to the conclusion that invariably, the application of this strategy is less a conscious choice than it is a fallback position employed by people who just do not know how to resolve conflict.
Thus, the intent of this article: to present a primer for resolving conflict. I submit some thoughts on effective conflict resolution for your consideration:
First, when you sense tensions rising between you and someone close to you, start reflecting on the reason(s) for the tension. What is the core issue at the root of the tension? What points of view are in conflict? Sometimes, bringing up these questions for discussion is all that is needed to explore the issue, allow time and space for productive discussion of differences, and compromise, collaboration or agreement to disagree, to take place.
Sometimes not. Sometimes, trying to nip the tension in the bud fails, and an explosion occurs despite our best efforts at early resolution. Sometimes the issues are just too sensitive or threatening and the only way both parties can risk enough to present their perspective is if there is emotional upheaval. That’s not necessarily bad, if respect is maintained. Sometimes we just need to be screaming at the top of our lungs to say something that is difficult to admit or to say. It is important to not see conflict itself as a bad thing, especially if we are trying to break the avoid, ignore, and pretend cycle.
Even in the midst of a blow up, it is important to try to stage engaged, and stay respectful. Remember that it is your differences that make the relationship interesting and engaging, and try to embrace them. If you are upset, take some time to calm yourself and gain a better perspective. Give yourself room to reflect and commit yourself to finding resolution if at all possible, then consider the following.
- What are the core issues at the root of the conflict?
It has been said that there are three sides to every story: My side, their side and what is really going on. Take some time to consider each of these. Maybe your frustration comes from not being able to articulate what you think or feel well. Consider carefully what the core issues are for you, and strive to be able to clearly explain your point of view. Write it down, or spend some time talking to a safe person who is completely outside of the situation if you need to. Know your side.
Then, consider their side. What has the other person told you is the core issue to them? What can you extrapolate from your discussions, and from what you know about them to discover what they would say it is? Can you clearly explain their point of view in such a way that they would agree that you “get it”? If not, you have some more listening to do, and your next step might be to go back and ask questions until you do clearly understand what they are thinking, feeling and saying.
Finally, look at the wide-angle view. Are there overarching themes or issues that you both need to consider, that would bring clarity and unity to the conflict? Is there a bigger issue at stake? Are there other factors that have not been considered by either side? Is there more information needed that could be helpful? Sometimes this information is not gained until resolution occurs, and sometimes it will only come from the other party. Regardless, it is a good idea to remain open to the possibility throughout the process.
Once you have either the first two or all three of these pieces of information, you can move on to the next part of the process.
- Be honest with yourself.
Once you are able to articulate the perspectives of both yourself and of the other person and perhaps any overarching themes, you need to honestly evaluate what is really going on with you. What is your motive for engaging in the conflict to begin with? Are you trying to gain something in the relationship that you need, like respect, or just feeling heard? Do you want to be right at all costs? Are you open to another point of view about this particular subject, or is it a differing view about any subject that threatens you? Do you feel threatened by the other person as a whole, or is it what they are saying, thinking and/or feeling that feels threatening? Do you clearly know your part of things, and have you taken responsibility for your own choices, actions and words? Where have you gone wrong, and do you need to make amends about anything?
These are all questions that can be difficult to contemplate, and they require a measure of humility and self-reflection and gut-level honesty. Seeking the help and support of a professional counselor at this (or at any) point in the process can be helpful, and nowhere is that more true than at this juncture. Don’t be afraid to seek out some help if you need to.
- Take responsibility for your part.
Taking responsibility means admitting some things to ourselves. Sometimes, it means admitting them to the other person. Saying, “I was wrong” goes a long way. So does, “I’m sorry”. We don’t always need to admit that we are wrong, or to apologize, but when we are, we must. Nothing opens the heart of another person better than these admissions, and you may find that the other person is much more willing to listening to your perspective once you do. You never know.
Conversely, do not take responsibility for things that are not yours. Sometimes in an effort to stop feeling uncomfortable and make peace, we take on responsibility for things that are really the other person’s to deal with. This in itself can cause conflict, and not seeing this for what it is muddies the water and makes resolution difficult, if not impossible. This is true of not taking responsibility for our part too. Very often, stalemates are caused by either one or the other, so it requires careful consideration and honest reflection to be sure you are taking responsibility for your part and nothing more.
- Be proactive.
In general, I try to listen first and speak last. I emphasize the word “try”. This is not always easy, especially when I am passionate about my ideas and views. However, if my ultimate goal is to have healthy and productive relationships with those closest to me, then I will try to listen and seek to understand the other before I attempt to express my side, especially when conflict has erupted. The goal is to be able to say to the other what I understand their perspective to be, in my own words, and have them confirm to me that I do in fact understand them. I have found that if I will patiently take these steps first, I will eventually have an opportunity to explain my side too. It may not all happen in the same conversation, but it will – and certainly should – happen.
Once both sides have aired their views, then look for the things you agree on. Be willing to change what you think or feel, and if appropriate, say that you have changed these things and why. If you simply cannot agree, then agree to disagree, respectfully. Some of my favorite people in the world see things very differently than I do, and I have come to value their perspectives because I learn so much from them. I may reject large parts of what they think but I can usually find some common ground in how they feel and why. Human experience is universal, even when we draw different conclusions from our experiences.
- Look for positive change.
One sign of a resolved conflict is that the relationship is enhanced by the new information gained in the conflict. You should talk things through until there are no “touchy” or hurt areas. You’ll know things are better when you can laugh about the most sensitive parts, and most of all, when you feel closer to the other person because you know them a little better. This is perhaps the most important, and rewarding part of the entire process, and the reason it is so vital to learn and practice conflict resolution skills. Moving successfully and effectively through conflict will make our relationships closer, stronger and better than if we choose to ignore, avoid, and pretend. In the end, a little bit of pain can yield large gains.