How to Deal With Conflict

Three Parts:Making Smart Decisions in the BeginningDealing with Conflict in the MomentSuccessfully Ending the Conflict

Have you ever been in a conflict or been angry at someone and not known how to solve it? Healthy and creative conflict resolution is an essential skill that many adults don't know how to master. Whether it's defusing potentially damaging fights with a spouse or tackling tough problems in the workplace or at school, a couple key pointers will go a long way in equipping you with the right tools to resolve conflicts.

Part 1
Making Smart Decisions in the Beginning

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    Be prepared for strong emotions. Conflicts bring out our emotional natures, even if the conflict itself isn't an emotional one. While it's tough to cool down in the heat of the moment, it can be helpful to tell yourself something like "Okay, I know that arguing with Roberto usually gets my blood boiling, so I'm going to try to stay calm. I won't let my emotions dictate the tenor of the conversion. Count to three before responding to any of his statements, especially if I perceive them as accusations." Being prepared for strong emotions will allow you to sidestep some of them: Instead of being taken by surprise, you should see them coming far enough in advance.
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    Don't let the conflict fester, or it tends to get worse. Some (small) conflicts fizzle out and die if ignored for long enough; but most bigger conflicts, ironically, get worse if categorically ignored. That's because we perceive them as threats to our overall well being, and the tension of that perceived threat ratchets up when two or more people meet in a standoff, just like in an old-fashioned duel.
    • Lots of other things happen when you let a conflict fester. You start to overanalyze the situation, looking for cruel intentions where there weren't any to begin with. Friends and well-meaning partners unintentionally give you the wrong advice. The list goes on.
    • Better to approach the situation head-on from the beginning. If the other person or persons suggests a heart-to-heart, accept. If the other person seems standoffish, reach out to them. Like asking a special girl or boy out to prom, or finishing an important deadline, it'll just get more difficult the longer you prolong it.
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    Don't go into the conflict necessarily expecting bad outcomes. People who fear conflict are often been primed by past experience to expect a consistently bad outcome: Unhealthy relationships and abusive childhoods can leave them fearing conflict, to the point where they view any potential conflict as relationship-threatening and shy away from potential conflict so much that they ignore their own needs.[1] While this learned behavior is often rational, it isn't healthy, nor does it describe all conflicts. In fact, many conflicts are dealt with respectfully and with feeling, ending on a high instead of a sour note.
    • As a rule of thumb, give the person you're having a conflict with the benefit of the doubt. Expect them to be able to deal with conflict maturely and respectfully. If they prove that they can't, then you reevaluate. But don't jump the gun before the race has started.
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    Try to manage your stress during the conflict itself. Conflict can produce extreme stress because we're worried about how we'll come off to the other person, whether the relationship will experience a rift, or what we'll lose as a result of the conflict. This is definitely stressful. But while stress serves a very good purpose when you're running for your life or escaping a sinking car, it's not very productive in an argument. It produces argumentative, aggressive behavior, momentarily subdues rational thought, and causes defensive reactions[2] — all not-good things for a conflict.

Part 2
Dealing with Conflict in the Moment

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    Pay attention to your non-verbal cues. Most conflicts are mediated through language, but that doesn't mean that the only thing you need to pay attention to is the phrasing of your words — which are, by the way, important. Pay attention to the way you carry yourself — your posture, the tone of your voice, your eye contact. Like it or not, these things communicate more than you think about your willingness to resolve the conflict:
    • Keep your posture "open." Don't slouch, sit with your arms crossed, or face the other way. Don't fidget with something like you're bored. Sit or stand with your shoulders back, your arms at your sides, and facing the subject at all times.
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    • Keep eye contact with the other person. Show them that you're interested in what they're saying by being alert and showing concern in your face.
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    • If you're on friendly terms with the person, don't be afraid to give them a reassuring, gentle touch on the arm. Literally reaching out to them is a sign on sensitivity and can even activate an opioid region in the brain responsible for maintaining social connectedness![3]
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    Resist the urge to overgeneralize. Over-generalisation is dangerous because suddenly you're attacking the whole individual rather than something they occasionally do. It's a much bigger battle, and people take the threat a lot more seriously.
    • Instead of saying "You always cut me off and never let me finish my sentence," try going with the more diplomatic "Please don't interrupt me; I let you finish talking and I'd appreciate the same courtesy."
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    Use "I" statements instead of "You" statements. This accomplishes two things. First, it semantically makes the problem less about them and more about you, inviting less defensive behavior from them. Second, it helps explain the situation better, letting the other person understand where you're coming from.
    • Use the following formula when crafting an "I" statement: "I feel like [emotion] when you [describe their behavior] because [give your reason]."[4]
    • An example of a good "I" statement might look like this: "I feel put down when you ask me to clean up the dishes like that because I've spent the better half of the day preparing a nice meal for us and I never get any acknowledgment from you."
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    Listen for the things that really matter for the other person, and respond to them. Don't derail the train by getting sidetracked on the small stuff. Listen to the other person's complaints, focus in on the truly important underlying message, and try to address it. If the other person doesn't feel like you're ready to deal with the heart of their message, they're very likely going to escalate the conflict or simply tune out and abandon any attempt to resolve it.
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    Manage how you react to the other person's words. Like begets like, so reacting the right way ensures a friendly exchange instead of a heated outburst.
    • How not to react to the other person:
      • Angrily, hurtfully, heatedly, or resentfully
    • How to react to the other person:
      • Calmly, thoughtfully, non-defensively, and respectfully
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    Don't hold them hostage, manipulate them, or otherwise withdraw from the situation. These are big no-nos, and a lot of us do them without even knowing that we do them. We can hold other people hostage by withdrawing love, for example, and refusing to show affection until we've gotten what we want. We can manipulate them by shaming them, for example, and criticizing their need to talk about something that we think is petty or inconsequential. We can withdraw from the situation by refusing to listen to what they are actually saying, for example, and By focusing on minor points instead of the major thrust.
    • All of these things communicate something very clear to the other person: That we're not interested in making the situation better, that we only want what's good for us, not what's good for both. This is a death sentence to successful conflict resolution.
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    Never practice mind-reading and don't jump to conclusions.[5] We all hate the person who constantly finishes our sentences for us, because the assumption is that he knows what we're feeling better than we do. Even if you feel like you understand what the person is saying and where they're coming from, let them say it themselves. It's important, both for catharsis and communication, that they feel completely in control. Don't be the know-it-all Houdini who can't keep his mouth shut enough to actually engage with what the other person is saying.
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    Don't play the blame game. When we feel attacked by another person, we usually lash out at them in self-defense. Because the best defense is a good offense, right? This is a refrain that couples, for example, know all too well: "I'm frustrated that you didn't follow through with what you said you'd do. You knew I wanted the house to be clean before my parents came." "Well, you have no right to feel frustrated. I had planned out this day months ahead, and what's a little dirt going to hurt, anyway? You're the one who's always carrying these crazy expectations."
    • Do you see what's going on here? The one spouse is getting frustrated, and the other spouse is blaming them for being frustrated in the first blame. Well, you probably know how this conflict is going to end: With the one spouse taking offense at the blame game, and suddenly the argument isn't about following through with promises, it's about really deep-seated issues that are blown apart by the circumstances of the argument.

Part 3
Successfully Ending the Conflict

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    Show compromise early and often. Throw away the idea that you're going to get completely what you want without having to sacrifice anything. That's probably not going to happen. You're going to have to compromise, and you want to show compromise because you care about the other person, not because you know it's something you're being forced to do. The one gesture comes from a good place, the other from a not-so-good place. A couple things to keep in mind when you compromise:
    • Under-promise, over-deliver. This is the manager's mantra, but it may as well be yours. Don't promise the other person the world just because you're sick of the conflict and want it resolved quickly. Promise the other person slightly less than what you think you can deliver — be realistic about it — and then wow them by exceeding their expectations.
    • Don't punish them after you compromise. Don't purposefully do a bad job at whatever you said you'd do because you don't really believe in the compromise. This will only prolong the conflict.
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    Use safe humor to ease the situation. After emotions run high and all the logical arguments have blunted your ability to think clearly, a little bit of humor can really ease tensions between two people. Try a mildly self-deprecating joke to show the other person you're not so high and mighty. And remember to laugh with the other person, not at them, for best results.
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    Take a step back from it all if you're too caught up in the moment. A lot of couples, for example, give themselves a 20-minute cooling off period in which they let their emotions and stress calm down before tackling an issue. This makes communication easier, and results better. Sometimes, all it takes is a little self-imposes perspective on the situation to see the forest from the trees:
    • Ask yourself — how important is this thing we're arguing about? In the grand scheme, is this going to make or break my relationship with this person, or is it something I can let slide?
    • Ask yourself — is there anything you can do about the situation? Sometimes, we get mad about problems over which other people have no control.
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    Forgive and forget. Show a conscious willingness to forgive and forget, and assume that the other person is coming at the conflict from the same angle. Many conflicts, though they seem important in the moment, boil down to simple misunderstandings. Be judicious and forgiving, like the person you want to be.

Article Info

Categories: Managing Conflict and Difficult Interactions