Conflict is opportunity. Although many of us find conflict stressful, conflict has many benefits.
As a mediator, I have witnessed the strong emotions produced by conflict. I have also seen how conflict dealt with in a healthy way can enhance our problem-solving capabilities, increase productive communication, promote self-awareness and build relationships. When we avoid conflict or become confrontational or aggressive, this erodes relationships and creates feelings of resentment.
Conflict is a natural part of the human experience. Conflict is not wrong or bad; it does not mean you are failing. Conflict shines a light on something that is not working, so use this opportunity to learn about yourself and others.
The next time you are facing a conflict, consider these five steps when formulating your response:
1. Seek out the source
Identifying where a conflict is rooted helps to determine a path forward. The most common sources of conflict are disagreements, stress, misunderstandings, personality differences and differences of opinions. When seeking out the source, it is important to acknowledge your role in the conflict as well as any specific patterns you have noticed.
2. Listen for feelings first, then facts
Conflict resolution requires strong verbal and non-verbal communication skills. As conflict often involves high emotions, active listening can help to discharge some of that emotional energy and lead to more fruitful dialogue. Listening well requires patience, focus, presence and paraphrasing.
Paraphrasing helps the one affected by conflict feel that they are being listened to and understood. It also helps the listener confirm that they understand the other person and are not making false assumptions about the other person’s message. Paraphrase using your own words. This lets the other person know what you think they said and allows time for them to correct you if you got it wrong. Either way, you will know more about how the other person is feeling and can explore what underlies the conflict.
3. Identify and discuss interests
Interests are internal thoughts and feelings, often held privately. These can motivate us to take a particular position in a conflict and hold tight to what we think is “right.” Interests may be hopes, fears, concerns, expectations, assumptions, beliefs, feelings or values. Instead of arguing for a position, try to identify common interests and dialogue around these.
Listen for the ten most common interests:
4. Don’t focus on being right or winning
When thinking about what has contributed to the conflict, try to remove yourself from the situation and evaluate it based solely on the specific actions that took place, regardless of which side you’re on. Focus on working with others to determine what is right, not who is right.
Speak only to direct examples and instances of action and be the first to apologize if you need to. Ask: how can we work together to resolve this so both of us feel heard and have some of our needs met?
5. Keep the circle small
Conflict can escalate quickly and be toxic to workplaces and families. While it might be tempting to vent to other people and try to get them on your side, this can inflame conflict and cause polarization or “camp building.” When conflict escalates beyond the interpersonal to between groups of people, it can be very difficult to resolve without an outside neutral party.
Triangulation is counterproductive, as it causes additional relational strain with others and takes the focus away from the primary issue at hand. While it may benefit you to get emotional support and advice from others, rely on those who are not directly involved and seek assurance they will keep what you say in confidence.
Keeping these steps of effective conflict resolution in mind can be very useful when working through conflict at work or at home. Remember, resolution could take more than one attempt. When you manage your own emotions well, are open to hearing from others, can admit your mistakes and see conflict as an opportunity for learning and growth, resolution is much more likely.
What other strategies have you found helpful in working through conflict at work or at home?