Resolving Conflicts

by Naomi Drew M.A.

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 yet assertively.

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.

The Win/Win Guidelines - six essential steps for working out conflicts:

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 closer."

Step 5: Brainstorm solutions and come up with one that satisfies both people.

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

  1. Cool off.
  2. Talk over the problem using "I messages."
  3. Listen and paraphrase what you heard.
  4. Take responsibility for your role in the conflict.
  5. Brainstorm solutions together and choose one that satisfies both people.
  6. Affirm, forgive, thank, or apologize.

Copyright, Naomi Drew, 2006



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