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!
A Buddhist nun once said to me, “when you point the finger of blame at someone, remember that there are a few fingers pointing back at yourself”. At the time, I was indignant! I wasn’t at fault in the situation I was telling her about, the other person was entirely to blame. She asked me whether there was anything that I could have done, or not done, that might have avoided the situation, or at least made it less of a problem now. She was right, there werethings that I could have done. I could have been more assertive in raising the problem earlier and I could have not overreacted to later behaviour.
In conflict, we are very quick to blame the other person, and also to deny that we have done anything wrong. But the language of blame is not very productive in resolving conflict. In most conflict situations there is not a black and white answer to who is right and who is wrong, and no amount of discussion is going to resolve that kind of argument.
However, if we start talking about contributions then we often start to get somewhere. A question I often ask parties in conflict is how each of them might have contributed to this situation arising. Usually, both parties are quick to come up with examples of how the other person contributed to the situation.
What is most powerful in resolving conflict, however, is each party being willing to admit that they themselves might have contributed to the situation in some way. This doesn’t mean that they are admitting that they are to blame for the situation, rather that they have done something, or not done something, that has contributed to the situation arising or not getting resolved earlier.
Typical ways that people contribute to conflict situations are: avoiding the problem so that it escalates, not being assertive and raising their concerns early, not being willing or available to communicate with the other person in order to try to sort it out, and making assumptions about the other person’s intentions.
Like tango, it takes two to conflict! Both parties need to contribute to the conflict for it to continue to exist. When both people recognise this, and are willing to talk about their own contributions to the conflict situation, a shift happens towards resolution. Both people realise that, just as they both contributed to the situation arising, they can also both contribute to resolving it!
So next time you find yourself in conflict, ask yourself a few simple questions: Is there anything that I could have done differently that might have avoided this situation arising? Is there anything that I have done, or not done, that has made this situation get worse?
When both people in conflict seriously consider those questions, they are one significant step closer to resolving it, but more importantly, they are also likely to identify some ways to avoid such a conflict arising in the future!
Barbara is having a bad day. She is in a grumpy mood, and when Gloria asks her a question, Barbara snaps at her “It’s not my problem, figure it out yourself”. Later, someone accuses Barbara of ‘biting Gloria’s head off’ for no reason. This upsets Barbara even more. Barbara thinks of herself as a nice person and she is most definitely NOT the kind of person who snaps at someone without a good reason. (Only, this morning, Barbara really didn’t have a good reason, other than that she was in a bad mood.) So how does Barbara deal with this contradiction between her self-image and her behaviour? She comes up with a reason (some might call it an excuse) for her behaviour. She doesn’t exactly lie, but her mind plays a little trick on her. It helps her to find something that Gloria did wrong that justifies Barbara’s response. For example, Barbara’s mind might exaggerate a little, convincing herself that: Gloria is alwaysasking questions and should learn how to do things herself. This might be something that Barbara had never actually thought before, but it comes to mind now as something that would explain her behavior in some kind of logical way, and it sounds rather convincing.
The problem with this kind of ‘excuse’ is that it leads to another contradiction – Barbara has made this statement without very much evidence. In order to feel confident that she is not the kind of person to make accusations about others without evidence, Barbara now (probably unconsciously) goes on a little mission to find other evidence that supports her statement that Gloria doesn’t know what she’s doing and is always asking for assistance. Suddenly, Barbara notices anything Gloria does that might support this view, and ignores anything that seems inconsistent. This kind of filtering of information leads to a further problem. Barbara begins to really dislike Gloria. She starts to honestly believe that not only is Gloria incompetent, but she is also a bad person. Again, this justifies her focus on the negative aspects of Gloria. The conflict escalates and before we know it there is a full-scale workplace war going on. Poor Gloria probably has no idea what hit her!
The real problem is that poor Barbara probably has no idea either! She is probably not conscious of the little tricks her mind has played on her in order to make her feel secure and consistent. She has probably forgotten that this all started one day when she was in a bit of a grumpy mood and behaved in a way that she would not be proud of. She has probably not noticed the slow but steady escalation of the situation, and she is now so deeply entrenched in it that simply pointing it out to her is not going to help – she is going to be even more defensive and become even more entrenched.
This kind of situation is caused by a phenomenon known as “cognitive dissonance”: when we are faced with two contradictory phenomenon and our mind tries to reconcile them so that we don’t have internal conflict. The problem is that in ‘fixing’ our internal conflict, we can often create and escalate ‘external’ conflict.
Part of the solution to the problem is to recognize (early!) that nobody (including ourselves) is ever perfect. That Barbara is a nice person, and that she sometimes has bad days and behaves in a less-than-perfect way. That Barbara likes to make informed decisions, and sometimes still jumps to a conclusion too quickly. It’s also useful to occasionally ask ourselves whether we really have the whole picture in relation to a particular situation. To slow down and actively check for information that might contradict what we feel is obvious. This is particularly important whenever we find ourselves feeling defensive – this is typically when cognitive dissonance is likely to kick in – and this is the time when we have to be especially careful to control our mind, rather than let it control us!
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!
We all know how frustrating it is when we have something important to say and the other person just isn’t listening to us. When we are in conflict, this becomes a pattern that makes it more and more difficult for two people to communicate effectively. Both people get frustrated because the other person isn’t listening! When this happens, our natural tendency is to talk louder, more forcefully and more emotionally, in the desperate hope that suddenly the other person will hear what we are saying to them. The only problem is, while you are talking, the other person is busy planning their response, identifying all the holes in your argument and composing a blistering reply. In other words, they are still not listening!
It’s counter-intuitive, but the best way to get someone to listen to what you have to say is to listen to them first. This doesn’t mean just standing there letting them rant and rave until they take a breath, and then jumping in with your response. This means REALLY listening to them: consciously making an effort to pay attention to what they are saying and how they are feeling without interrupting or responding. Then, most importantly, you need to show them that not only have you heard what they said, you understand what they are saying.
The best way to show someone that you understand them is to summarise back to them what they have said. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with them! You simply want to acknowledge what they have told you. A good way to start is to say something like “So, let me get this straight, what you are saying is that you feel … because I …”. Don’t get into an argument in the middle of this – it’s really important at this stage that you simply show them that you understand what they are saying without contributing your own comments or responses.
Ideally, if you have summarised what they are saying more or less correctly, they are going to have to agree with you. What you are looking for is a response like “YES! Exactly!” This is your opportunity to invite them to show you the same courtesy that you just showed them. Start off with a statement that explains that you would simply like to share with them your perspective of the situation. For example, “I experienced this a little differently. For me, …”. If they start interrupting you, remind them that you listened to what they had to say without interrupting or arguing with them.
If you have first given the other person a chance to have their say, they are much more likely to listen to you more attentively now. They don’t need to plan their argument in response – they’ve already told you their side of the story and you showed them you heard and understood what they said.
Counter-intuitive, but it works! Listen first and you are much more likely to be listened to!