When we are in conflict, we often feel stuck, perhaps between a rock and a hard place!  It’s important to remember, though, that we always have many choices about whether and how we respond in a conflict situation. Our first two obvious choices are: (1) do something, or (2) do nothing.  Assuming that we would like to do something, then our choices really expand. We have options about what exactly we could do, when, how, where and with whom, we could do them.

Being a good conflict manager is about identifying the variety of choices we have about how to respond, and making an informed decision about what we do next (rather than simply acting in a reactive way without thinking through the consequences).

Here’s an example. Let’s say that someone you work with has done something to upset you.   Perhaps you overheard them criticising your work to another colleague. You think this criticism was unfair, and you would prefer your workmate to discuss any problems she might have with you directly, not with other people behind your back.  So what are your choices about how to respond?

Firstly, you have a choice about whether to raise this with your colleague directly or to do nothing. Is the matter serious enough to have a difficult conversation about it?  If you decide not to talk to her about it, are you definitely going to be able to forget about it, or is it going to fester and change your behaviour around your colleague in the future, perhaps having a negative impact on your working relationship?

Assuming that you decide you really do want to talk to your colleague about what happened, then you have a wide range of process choices:

When would be the best time to talk to her?  Sooner or later?  On a particular day of the week?  At a particular time of the day?  During work hours or after hours?

Should you discuss this with her in person?  Or by telephone?  Or by email? Or though an intermediary (e.g. another colleague or mutual friend)?

Where would be the best place to talk with her?  In the office?  At a nearby café?  At her desk? In a meeting room?  In the staff room?

Who should be involved in the conversation?  Just you and her?  The other colleague who she spoke to about your work?  Your supervisor?  A mutual friend or support person?  A mediator?

What, exactly, do you want to say to her?  What are the main points you want her to understand?  Do you have any questions that you’d like her to answer?  What are some different ways you could frame your statements/questions in order to keep the conversation constructive and not escalate the conflict?

Once you start considering all the different options you have available to you, you can also think about the potential consequences of these choices.  What would be the impact of each of these choices on you, on the other person, and on other people around you (e.g. your other work colleagues)? What would be the impact in the short-term and in the long-term of your various options?

Frequently, in conflict, we respond automatically, without thinking through our options and without considering the consequences of our actions.  However, a little bit of planning and a proactive approach to conflict can make all the difference!

Are you a conflict avoider?

Many people, when they find themselves in a conflict situation, feel helpless and powerless to do anything about it.  However, in any conflict situation, there are always a number of choices about how to deal with it.  At the very least, there are always two choices: do something or do nothing. There are also usually even more options when we start to consider variations on how, when and where we might do something!

Frequently, though, we tend to avoid making a choice about what to do, and desperately hope that the situation will just resolve itself or miraculously go away.  Somehow we convince ourselves that doing nothing is the best (or at least the easiest) option.

Avoidance is usually not the best way to respond to conflict, as nothing is likely to be resolved if the people in conflict do not communicate about their needs and concerns. However, in some circumstances, avoidance can be appropriate.

If interacting with the person with whom you are in conflict is dangerous, avoidance might be a sensible choice.  For example, if I return home to find someone breaking into my house, and they are carrying a gun, approaching them to try to explain to them why I would prefer that they not steal my belongings is probably not going to be very effective, and could be quite risky.  The wisest move would be to avoid the interaction and refer the conflict to someone who has more power than I do to manage the situation, for example calling the police.

Even if the situation is not a dangerous one, avoidance can be useful as a short-term approach to managing conflict.  For example, while one or both the parties in conflict are very emotional (angry or upset), communication between them is unlikely to be particularly constructive. Sometimes it’s also just not the right time and place for the interaction.  Taking time out to calm down and think clearly about what needs to be discussed can be very useful, so long as it’s used to prepare for a constructive interaction in the future, and not as a long term avoidance strategy.  This stops being an effective response to conflict when the parties continue to avoid one another indefinitely, and emotions escalate rather than calm down.  The longer this goes on, the less likely the conflict is going to be resolved. When an outcome to the conflict is actually important to people, but they do not engage with the other person in an attempt to resolve it, resentment builds up and the conflict often becomes bigger and more difficult to resolve.

Finally, permanently avoiding having a conversation about the conflict can be an appropriate response where a person can honestly say that the conflict is not worth engaging over, and where the person is truly able to let go of the situation without resentment.  This often happens in relationship conflict, where the issue is something fairly trivial and where the relationship is more important than the matter that the parties are potentially in conflict about.

Remember, avoidance might make you feel better in the short term by postponing that difficult conversation, but if the situation really matters to you, the longer you leave it, the more difficult that conversation is likely to be!