Avoidance is a common response to dealing with conflict. It makes sense really, it’s the brain’s way of keeping us safe. Conflict sets off our stress response system (you’ve probably heard of this as fight, flight, freeze, or please), which has major implications for how we proceed in the situation. The problem with avoiding a conflict is that it’s typically a short-term solution, and may make things worse in the long run. It has more of a chance of getting worse than it does going away, so the sooner we undertake the conversation, the sooner we can come to a resolution.
This post first appeared on CharityVillage and is a companion article to the Do It Yourself Conflict Resolution Webinar.
For the most part, conflict has a negative reputation, but that’s not always the case. Conflict can be constructive and lead to beneficial outcomes, such as helping the parties to be heard, which can facilitate emotional processing, strengthen the relationship, and build trust. By hearing someone out you may shift your own perspective and be better able to generate creative ideas to move towards a resolution.
At the organizational level, conflict can help to clarify or improve policies and procedures, lead to transformation or social change, increase a sense of safety for employees, and demonstrate willingness on the part of the organization to address issues.
If you’re interested in trying to resolve a conflict and make it a constructive experience, here are 5 suggested steps:
1. Look at what’s making the conflict difficult in the first place
Why are we so scared of conflict? Is it the emotional intensity? Not being able to ask for what we need? Not knowing how to handle it? The fear of damaging a relationship? Fear of not having control of the situation?
Whether it’s your own conflict or you are managing someone else’s, the first step is to get really clear on why this has moved beyond just a regular old conversation. What’s causing you stress? What’s holding you back from dealing with it? What are you most worried about?
In their book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, Heen, Patton, and Stone set out three areas that can potentially make conversations challenging: differences in perspective on what actually happened, our identity or values being called into question, or the emotions that may arise.
The team over at Stitt Feld Handy have added three additional challenges: the assumptions each party might be making, what lies beneath (or what’s really behind the conflict), and where we might run into process or logistical issues.
Looking at each of these challenges can provide a lot of information as to how the conflict started, and what may be required to resolve it. The insights from each can better help you understand what’s making this situation so difficult, and where you may want to focus your attention with the other party.
You can read more about these 6 challenges here.
2. Set out your goal
It can be challenging to approach a difficult conversation when we’re not entirely sure what we want to accomplish with it. By getting really clear on what a resolution would look like for you, we can start to put language around our needs and expectations.
In mediation, we look at positions and interests. Positions are what we believe we want (and can get quite stuck on) if we haven’t explored our underlying interests. Interests are what we can get creative trying to meet if we are open to the possibility of other options besides our position.
You might consider some of the following questions:
- What need are you hoping will be met?
- What behaviour do you want to stop (or start)?
- What’s the interest behind your position?
- What would the impact be of the resolution you’re looking for or what would it help you accomplish?
By looking at the interests underneath our goals, we can be open to multiple options to meet our needs – possibly something we haven’t even thought of yet. Whether or not we choose to share this goal outright depends on your comfort level and the situation, but keeping it in mind can help you focus on what you want to accomplish and maintain the constructive nature of the conversation.
3. Rehumanize the other party
One of the traps we can fall into is role categorization in conflict – making ourselves the “victim” and the other party the “villain”. It’s really hard to work together or creatively brainstorm solutions with a “villain”.
So how do we move past this and work towards a collaborative effort? First, use the person’s name, not a label. If we’re calling someone an adjective that, let’s just say we wouldn’t use for a friend, we continue to place them in a role where they are the “bad person” and this dictates how we are likely to proceed, which is unlikely to be in a collaborative, problem-solving way.
Second, try to tell the story of the conflict from their point of view. What would they say happened? What would they say you did? This can be really helpful to not only take responsibility for our part of the conflict, but it can help us to anticipate what some of the issues will be that we need to address and try to resolve. We may find that we’re not the only one that has a legitimate reason to behave the way we are.
Last one, and this might be the toughest – try to find something nice to say about them. It can be a small thing, completely unrelated to the conflict, but it will help remind you that they are a person and not the fire breathing monster you are trying to avoid. As difficult as this one may be, it’s a reframing exercise that can help you to shift your perspective and move out of a stuck position. If your resolution involves some form of working together, wouldn’t you rather that be with someone you can think of at least one nice thing about?
4. Prepare yourself
We can’t avoid conflict, but we can find more productive responses to get it resolved. There are a few ways we can do this leading up to the resolution process. First, decide on the method you want to use. I know that an in-person approach isn’t available to everyone at this time, and it may not be the optimal way to proceed for you anyways. Do you need to see the person and would consider a video conference? Would a phone call work better? Or is an email or letter the way you feel most comfortable? I realize we may not all have a choice in how we approach the situation, especially in the workplace, so you may want to consider what it is about the particular approach you prefer that appeals to you.
Second, it can be helpful to really think through how do you want to be in the conversation? Not just the message you want to get across, but how do you want to appear, how do you want your tone of voice to be, what kinds of words do you want to use or avoid? Spending some time on this can be so helpful as we don’t always know how we’re coming off to others. I worked with someone recently who really wanted to come across as empathetic in their conversation, but when they tried out a few lines, they were quiet and looking down, making them look more withdrawn and disinterested than empathetic. Once they were aware of this, they were able to make a change to show up in a way where their body language matched their motivation.
This recent conversation is an example of a third suggestion here – practice what you’d like to say! We’re not going for perfect here, but it will give you a chance to try out some language around asking for what you need, giving difficult feedback, and anticipating how the other person may respond. You could practice with a friend, family member, trusted coworker, in front of a mirror, or by recording something on your phone and playing it back.
What this also does is prepare some of your brain pathways for the conversation so that you are able to minimize your stress response – you’ve already created some of the muscle memory you need in a more calm and constructive state.
5. Listen with curiosity
In the conflict, how you listen is critical to the resolution process. Too often we’re listening to someone just waiting for our turn to respond. Moving through conflict generally involves really taking the time to hear someone, and letting them know that we’ve heard them. You can do this by giving them some time to speak, validating their experience, and using phrases like:
- “Am I hearing you/understanding you correctly when you say that…
- “It sounds like you feel/are stressed about…”
- “Can you tell me more about…”
- “Would you be comfortable saying more about…”
One type of question to be careful using is “why” questions – “Why did you do…” or “Why are you…”. These may elicit a defensive response, where the person feels like they need to justify their behaviour or reasons. Try asking “What’s important to you about that?” or “How did you come to that decision?” or “What were you trying to accomplish by doing that?”
Bringing curiosity to a situation also helps us deal with the freeze response – when we are asking questions, we’re keeping the part of our brain activated that deals with emotional regulation, thinking and planning. Effectively, it helps us reduce our stress response and stay in a more functional state. By asking the other party questions, we also help them to stay in this thinking and planning zone, rather than their stress response.
This is one of the constructive parts of conflict management – when we can keep our brains in the thinking and planning zone rather than in a stress response, we are better able to brainstorm options and communicate preferences.
Notice how many questions were in this article?
Above all, it’s our perception of the conflict that will have the biggest impact on how we deal with it. I get it. Conflict can be scary and avoidance is a really appealing strategy, so I’m hoping the steps above provide a little more confidence that good things can come from approaching it.
When we look at conflict as a constructive experience, we have the opportunity to build connection, trust, ask for what we need, assert a boundary, or get really creative with our solutions and possibly come up with something even better than what was there before. It truly is possible.
If you need support working through and preparing for a difficult conversation, conflict coaching can help.