In our homes, workplaces, and the world at
large, conflict can be a disruptive force.
On an interpersonal level, many of us
avoid conflict or recoil from it because
of negative experiences we've had in the
past. Yet, conflict can actually lead to
growth, creative solutions, and deepened
relationships. What spells the difference
is knowing how to handle conflict respectfully
Company owner Mark Burnes dealt with conflict every day. If it wasn't
with vendors and clients, it was with
his ex-wife and teen-aged son. Things
started to change when Mark began using
conflict resolution skills. "I
used to add fuel to the fire by getting
stuck in my position. Now I take a step
back, breathe deep, and listen. The more
I do, the easier it is to solve problems."
Mark learned that conflicts don't need to be volatile and negative.
Once he became less positional and more willing to hear the other person's
point of view, Mark experienced conflict as a tool for increasing understanding.
He discovered that how he dealt with conflict determined the outcome.
Even when the other person was on the offensive, he could bring down
their level of negative energy by remaining calm and trying to understand
their point of view.
What follows are six steps for resolving conflict that can be used
at work and at home. You don't have to use every step every time, but
knowing the basic framework will help you get started.
Step 1: Cool off.
Conflicts can't be solved in the face of hot
emotions. Take a step back, breathe
deep, and gain some emotional distance before trying to talk things
out. As success coach, Natalie Gahrmann says, "When I take the
time to breathe and regain my focus I can create the opportunity to
choose my response rather than just react. If I try to skip this step,
my words are too emotionally loaded."
Step 2: Talk over the problem using "I messages."
"I messages" are a tool for expressing how we feel without attacking or blaming. By starting from "I" we take responsibility for the way we perceive the problem. This is in sharp contrast to "you messages" which put others on the defensive and close doors to communication. "I find it important to have things handed in on time," will get a much less defensive response than "You're late with a report again."
When making "I" statements be sure to avoid put-downs, guilt-trips, sarcasm, and negative body language. Come from a place that's non-combative. A key credo in conflict resolution is, "It's us against the problem, not us against each other." "I messages" enable
us to convey this.
Step 3: Listen and paraphrase what was said
Being willing to hear the other person out is critical. Paraphrasing
what was said, demonstrates that we care enough listen even if we
don't agree. Rather than argue your point, try to understand where
the other person is coming from. It'll help you solve the problem
a lot faster.
Step 4: Take responsibility for your role in the conflict.
In the majority of conflicts, both parties have some degree of responsibility
for what went wrong. Yet most of us tend to blame the other person.
Refusing to see where we may
have contributed to the problem, escalates the conflict; taking responsibility
helps it get resolved.
Fifty-two year old Nancy Martin talked about how taking responsibility
averted a major falling-out with
her husband. "We were getting
ready to go to a family event, and
as usual I was running late. When my husband Bill spotted me checking
my e-mail, he hit the roof. I immediately reacted to his reaction,
and we were on our way to an ugly confrontation. But this time, instead
of letting things deteriorate, I decided to walk away for a few minutes
and calm down. I let Bill know what I was doing so he wouldn't think
I was just turning my back on him. I went into the bathroom, splashed
water on my face, took some deep breaths and thought about what I
would say. I also decided I would listen to what Bill had to say,
rather than just argue my point."
"When I walked back in the room it was an entirely different experience
from conflicts we've had in the past.
Bill told me that he was so frustrated
at having to wait for me whenever we went out. He also spoke about
punctuality as something he highly valued. As I listened to his words
a funny thing happened: I realized he was right. I did need to get
a handle on my habitual lateness. I decided to apologize. Bill was
so shocked he ended up giving me a hug and thanking me. What might
have become a full-blown fight actually turned into a moment of getting
Step 5: Brainstorm solutions and come up with one that satisfies
Resolving conflicts is a creative act. There are many solutions
to a single problem. The key is a willingness to seek compromises.
Step 6: Affirm, forgive, or thank.
A kind word at the end of a conflict gives it closure.
Saying "thanks for listening" at the end of a conflict, or acknowledging the person for working things out sends a message of conciliation and gratitude. We preserve our relationships this way, strengthening connections as we work through problems.
Learning conflict resolution has wide-ranging applications. Listen to the words of people from different walks of life talking about how conflict resolution has helped them:
Police officer: "Knowing conflict resolution has helped me come from a base of understanding no matter who I'm dealing with. Instead of just reacting, I calm myself and listen to what people have to say. If people feel like you understand, they tend to become less volatile."
Graduate student: "I had a major problem with my room-mate. I decided to tell him in a respectful way what was on my mind and I asked him to do the same. We listened to each others' point of view. By talking the problem out we gained empathy toward one another. The resolution came as we began to understand each others feelings."
A graphic designer in conflict with a colleague
over the use of space: "When I expressed my point of view through "I messages" without placing blame, we were able to come up with a fair solution, a compromise we could both live with.
Think of your own life. Who are you in conflict with? Imagine applying
this system to work things out. Think of the potential impact on your
relationships. Peace starts with each of us and sometimes we need to
take the first step.
The Win/Win Guidelines
- Cool off.
- Talk over the problem using "I messages."
and paraphrase what you heard.
- Take responsibility for your role
in the conflict.
solutions together and choose
one that satisfies both people.
- Affirm, forgive, thank, or apologize.