Resolving Conflict: A Primer

cartoon conflictThe 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.

  1. What are the core issues at the root of the conflict?

my way your way 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.

  1. 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.

  1. Take responsibility for your part.

chess board conflict

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Raising Empathetic Kids


The topic of bullying continues to play in the news, with increased incidences of cyber bullying taking center stage.  In some ways, this does not seem surprising: with the added relational distance created by technology, of course it is more difficult to feel compassion for people at the other end of the internet.  Minus the impact of face to face communication, it is easier to distance ourselves from the humanity on the receiving end of our digital communication.

But the receiver is a human being, with feelings, and thoughts and ideas.  Often, it is a young person with a fragile enough sense of self to take the criticisms of others to heart, sometimes with serious consequences.  What can we do about this?  As parents, one way we can address this growing problem within our culture is to raise empathetic kids.  This means teaching our children to consider the feelings of others and to be respectful of those feelings, even if they do not understand the other person entirely.

Foundational to teaching our children to be empathetic is helping our children identify and understand their own feelings.  When emotions run high, it can be tempting to address the circumstances and squelch the feelings, but if we take the time to help our children work through their feelings, we are teaching them a valuable life skill. This usually means stopping the action long enough to have a conversation with your child about what he or she is feeling, allowing them to express those feelings in appropriate ways, and then naming them.

Specific names are better than general ones; I feel hurt and disappointed is better than sad, frustrated is better than mad.  Being able to say what they are feeling and why to someone who is interested and caring is usually all a child needs to move past the feelings toward actions that are responsible and appropriate.


This is perhaps no more important than with our boys.  In a culture that prizes the “strong, silent type”, boys often do not gain the skill of understanding their own feelings which translates into relationship difficulties later on.  Teaching this skill to our boys may be the single greatest thing we can do to set them up for healthy adult relationships and ultimately, contribute to a bully-free society.  Once our children can handle their own feelings well, it is a small step to understanding and respecting what others are feeling.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Do you have it?

respect highlighter

There are a few things that are foundational to healthy relationships: commitment, trust, and honesty for starters.  Protecting these is an important part of maintaining the ties that bind, especially when it comes to romantic relationships.  Perhaps the most important element when it comes to these relationships is respect.  Closely tied to trust but distinct in several ways, very often when the respect is gone the end of the relationship soon follows.

How are you doing when it comes to respect with your significant other?

It is important to evaluate from time to time, and while it is easy to tell when the respect between you is gone, it requires a little more effort to detect respect “leaks” in order to repair them.  But repair them we must if we are in the relationship for the long haul.

The first step in evaluating the level of respect between us and our mate is considering our own attitudes.  What do we think about our partner’s weaknesses?  Are they something that we tend to focus on, or do his or her strengths balance them out?  Can we bring our concerns to our mate’s attention without meeting resistance and conflict?  Are there things we admire about them enough that we talk about them with others? If there are areas where respect is waning, what steps do we need to take to rebuild respect, and how willing are we to go through the process?  How confident are we that we can?

Just as important as considering our attitudes toward our partner is looking at how respectable we are.  Do we command our mate’s respect with behavior that is a consistent representation of our character?  Do we do what we say we will do?  Do we say what we mean and mean what we say, eschewing manipulation for assertive requests about what we want and need?  Are we honest and open about our own faults, and willing to be confronted and held accountable about them?  Are there areas that we hide from our significant other?

You cannot talk your way out of what you behaved yourself into. – Stephen Covey

When it comes to respect, talk is cheap.  As Stephen Covey notes, you cannot talk your way out of what you behaved yourself into.  You may say you respect your partner but your behavior will speak more loudly.  Also, when it comes to relationships, humility goes a long way, which is why it is important to look at your own respectability before addressing your partner’s troublesome behavior.  Awareness is the first step, but it takes action to rebuild respect once it has been lost.

A good therapist can help identify which actions will create or maintain high respect levels in your most important relationships.  Whether you tackle this on your own, or seek help from a professional counselor, not dealing forthrightly with this issue is the surest way to kill a relationship.  It may happen slowly over time, but happen it will.  Fortunately, the reverse is also true.  Fostering respect will surely improve things between you, and your significant other no matter where you are in your journey together.


The Power of Saying I’m Sorry

I'm sorry torn paper

In our media saturated culture, the words “I’m sorry” are used often and can mean different things. “I’m sorry” can  express feelings of shame or embarrassment (I’m sorry that I behaved that way), to denote sympathy (I’m sorry that you’re losing your job)  or feeling disappointed about a situation (I’m sorry that you weren’t happy with our service).   Used well, saying I’m sorry can help move a relationship forward by removing obstacles of hurt or disappointment. While this is true in any context, when it comes to our most important relationships with family members and friends, it becomes an essential part of building trust and respect.

Used wrongly, saying “I’m sorry” can have a negative effect.  We have all had the experience of an insincere apology, as when it is used as an excuse (I’m sorry but that’s just how I am), to blame the victim (I’m sorry if you misunderstood me), or as justification (I’m sorry that you felt that way).  We all can tell when someone is not really apologetic, regardless of what they say.

“I’m sorry” is most effective when it includes statements that show we understand how our actions or words affected someone else, and the more specifically and clearly we communicate this, the more powerful our apology will be.  Saying, “I’m sorry I said things that made you think I don’t value you” is much better than saying “I’m sorry I hurt you”.  When we can demonstrate that we understand exactly how what we said or did hurt the other, our apology can be a powerful way to move a relationship forward.

Of course this is not always easy.  When we’ve been hurt too, it can be very difficult to push our own feelings aside and focus on another person’s feelings.  It takes courage and trust in the relationship and in the other person to choose not to defend ourselves and instead defend the relationship. In reality, this is what we are doing when we apologize: we are putting the relationship first, and in doing so can strengthen trust and respect.

It may be that saying “I’m sorry” is most often overlooked when it comes to our children.  In our efforts to maintain order and parental authority, it may not always occur to us to apologize when we do things that hurt our children’s feelings.  Let’s face it, there are no perfect parents and we all make mistakes from time to time.  In those moments, it is important to remember to say I’m sorry to our children.  In doing so, we not only strengthen the relationship, we model something that will help our children strengthen their own relationships in years to come.  Now that is powerful.

Hello world!

Welcome!  I started this to generate a conversation about healthy living with an emphasis on mental health. I say healthy living because I take a holistic approach to counseling.  I believe that we are only truly healthy when each part of ourselves is doing well; physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually, and imbalance in any one part affects all the others.

With more than 20 years of counseling experience under my belt, I have had some conversations many many times.  My intention is to share some of those thoughts and ideas here, and in doing so start a conversation.

Thank you for visiting my blog.  I hope you’ll check back often.

All the very best,