Conflict situations are all around us – in our workplaces, our family lives and in our friendship groups. They are an inevitable part of being a human being because each of us has differing goals, opinions, work styles, interests and motives.
However, I am sure you have experienced a range of different coping mechanisms when it comes to conflict. There are those people who seem to let the smallest things blow up into a full argument and others who are able to handle disagreements with grace and still maintain fruitful relationships. The difference is often a set of interpersonal skills, or emotional intelligence, that allows them to get past those ‘reflex’ reactions when a conflict begins.
There is no clear cut method for reducing conflict, but there are a series of things to consider when faced with a challenging conversation. Note: All of these approaches assume that the other person is not deliberately out to make your life miserable! Results may vary.
This is one of the biggest ways to stop a conflict in its tracks. Empathy means to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to try and understand what it feels like to be in their situation, to understand their motives and choices.
Empathy is not to be confused with sympathy which is usually seen as feeling sorry for the position someone else is in.
In an argument it is very tempting to be wrapped up in your own point of view / sense of justice / course of action and therefore empathy can be difficult to achieve. Someone with a high emotional intelligence will be able to pause their own agenda and really consider what the other person is going through. This is not an instant fix for the problem, but it does lead to compassion which lessens the anger of the situation and allows both parties to talk in a way that is more calm and human.
Listening - But for real
Achieving empathy only happens through listening. But a major problem is that we seem to ‘listen to reply’ rather than ‘listen to understand’. What this means is that we listen to fit our own means; to know when to jump in with our rebuttal, to find loopholes or pitfalls we can exploit. In a poor conflict situation both parties will go off on tangents ripping apart the technicalities of each others sentences rather than spending time understanding and talking about the real problem.
Interestingly if you look at the Mandarin symbol for listening it is made up of the symbols for other body parts. To listen effectively you must use your ears, your eyes, your attention and your heart. True listening is about fully taking in all methods of communication and dedicating yourself to the other person’s meaning.
Be sensitive to nonverbal cues
We listen with our eyes. We can feel with our ears. When you are talking to someone and they shout, fold their arms, make sharp gestures etc you can get a strong sense of how they are feeling. We use this information all the time to judge how to respond. But how often do we find ourselves rising to it?
For many people, when we are shouted at, it is natural to either shout back or withdraw. If someone intimidates us with body language we may shy away or square up to them. Knowing this is important for diffusing situations before they get worse. When you are having a challenging conversation, try to make conscious choices to communicate a sense of calm with your voice, facial expressions and body. Hard as it may be, it may stop things getting out of hand and even model a more positive lead for the other person to follow.
I have often found this phrase a helpful reminder; “Happy people don’t shout.”
If someone shouts at me I try to put my own defensiveness to one side and instead get curious. They must be experiencing something negative if they feel they need to shout – I wonder what it is. This helps me to remain calm and reminds me to listen and empathise.
Separate people from their behaviour
In a conflict, people can very easily make judgements about an entire person’s character. If you wronged me then I dislike / hate you. This type of thinking can make it very difficult to maintain a healthy or productive relationship with that person.
Instead it is better to remember that behaviour can happen for a number of reasons and that character isn’t always that reason. A person who steals may be a thief (the person), but it may also be that they were in a desperate situation and made one foolish choice (the behaviour). You can dislike that they chose to steal whilst empathising with their situation and still being open to them as a person.
This may not work over time as repeating negative behaviour can be an indication of character traits. However, making an effort to talk about the behaviour that happened and the choices people made in the moment will usually be less invasive than challenging them about their character.
Find the underlying issues
This is one of the hardest aspects of handling conflict as humans are ridiculously complex in the way they behave. What can seem like one issue turns out to be another altogether.
For example; I knew a couple who could have a full blown conflict over a cup of tea. If one did not make the other a cup of tea whilst making their own then it would result in tension for the rest of the day. But tea is not the issue here. The underlying issues were shows of affection, consideration of each others work schedules, making assumptions about the others needs and much more.
Sometimes what can seem like the issue is actually only the surface. Its possible that coaching, mediation or some serious discussion is needed to find out what the real conflict is. People have many triggers and hooks related to the way they perceive the world and often it is things surrounding self esteem, competence, belonging or status that actually get people riled up – even if it manifests around drink making politics.
Seek solutions together
Once you have identified the real reasons why this conflict occurs and truly understand each other’s situation then you can start to move forward into solutions – assuming that is what both parties want.
It is important that this is a joint process as it helps to foster a sense of positive and constructive relationship. If one person generates a solution and ‘enforces’ it then tensions could still occur later.
It is important to note that there could be different types of solution. A fantastic example is the folktale about the orange: A brother and sister are arguing over who gets to take the last orange in the house. The shops are closed and both insist they need it for school tomorrow. They enter into conflict, calling each other names, shouting I saw it first.
A solution at this point could be to cut the orange in half – a compromise. Neither party fully get what they want but they don’t feel they have lost either.
However – mum has a high emotional intelligence. Without shouting she tries to empathise with both her children. Why do you need this orange so much? After an open discussion they discover the boy is making orange juice in class and the girl is making marmalade.
Only once everyone’s agendas are known can the best solution be found. Synergy means achieving more together than you could individually. One orange can benefit two projects if the brother takes the flesh and the sister takes the peel.
Avoid toxic relationships
As I noted at the beginning these examples will only work when other people are willing to seek positive relationships – which the vast majority of people do. People may be misguided, focused on their needs or in need of training but they generally want to be kind. If your conflict comes from someone who is vindictive, totally resistant to change and unable to follow your positive example then it may be time to avoid this relationship.
It is a sign of very high emotional intelligence to be able to recognise when an interaction is no longer workable and needs to be left alone – especially when it comes to friends and family.
Obviously this comes with challenges if there is associated history, baggage, responsibilities or mandatory contact – but handling these with honesty about what you need to be healthy is a good step towards a less conflicted life.
Obviously there are still lots more techniques that may help reduce conflict, and there are many professionals that can help you with especially challenging contexts; workplace mediators, counsellors, coaches etc. But hopefully giving yourself and the other person headspace, a platform to share their view and co-ownership of the solution will all be positive steps to moving forwards and reducing further sparks.
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