Conflict is often viewed negatively, and the majority of people would choose to avoid it rather than face it head on, even though most realise it is a strategy that doesn’t work. Although conflict resolution can often be an uncomfortable process it is a driving force for change and if handled competently can create a positive outcome in relationships. We must embrace being comfortable with the uncomfortable to do so.
Most often, the main reason people avoid conflict is fear. By definition conflict is about opposition, incompatibility and struggle. None of that sounds positive. Conflict creates a stressful environment that causes the responses of freeze, fight and flight naturally in us. We freeze to go undetected, fight to kill, respond with fright to intensify awareness, and take flight to live another day. Most responses in these categories lead to destructive interactions. Your past experiences with conflict are likely the most painful moments of your life and can naturally impact on your current dispute. Conflict is often destructive, other times disruptive. Projects at work get delayed when disputes exist. A group momentarily stops enjoying a party when friends fight. A family shuts each other out for the remainder of the night after a disagreement over dinner. It is uncomfortable for everyone.
Naturally, we are social beings. We build alliances and desire to belong to a group. Being in a group and taking on functional roles ensures our safety and wellbeing. Disapproval or conflict can jeopardise belonging to our group.
In social environments, being agreeable can be positively reinforced in some of us. People tend to like people who don’t challenge them if a difficult or contentious issue arises. Therefore, some people may be passive, minimise or agree when conflict arises to avoid being uncomfortable.
We may fear backlash. We don’t want to damage our relationships, be seen as the bad person or we may fear our reputation will be damaged in some way. Our fundamental human need is to want to be viewed positively by others and keep the atmosphere comfortable.
These responses to conflict may have caused some attitudes or habits to form that prevent us from bringing about a resolution.
● We may feel that we must always win, closing the door to the other person’s perspective.
● Often, we are busy planning our defence and don’t listen to what the other person is saying.
● We interrupt or respond too quickly. Rather than hear the other person out, we close the door to communication.
● We may listen only for points of agreement rather than trying to understand.
● Maybe we’ve determined not to lose this argument again.
● Perhaps our minds wander. Since we can hear faster than we can speak, as listeners we have extra time and may not concentrate on the details being shared.
● We can be judgmental. We may think we already know the problem and the solution. These attitudes will likely shut down communication and possibly prevent problem solving.
The purpose of conflict resolution isn’t to avoid it. Conflict resolution aims to resolve problems to meet the needs and interests of each party to stop destruction, minimise disruption, and enhance the relationship. With this in mind, you could try framing conflict in an inviting manner unlike the fear and frustration we normally associate with conflict. It take confidence to be comfortable with the discomfort of dispute resolution.
Disputes and conflict rarely solves itself, so you must be proactive about its resolution. Knowing how to deal with conflict is important for anyone. However, often people have not been given the tools to effectively deal with conflict.
Consider the following tips:
● Address the issue early. The longer you let an issue fester, the more time you waste and the greater chance you have of it spiralling into other problems.
● Address the issue privately. Set up a time to talk in a private place, where you won’t be overheard or interrupted. Speak to the person with whom you have the conflict and try to resolve the issue one-on-one before involving others.
● Expect discomfort. Feeling uncomfortable is a normal part of the process for all parties involved. Acknowledge it and move forward.
● Be specific and objective. Identify the specific issue at hand and the effect it is having. Avoid generalising statements such as “always,” “ever” or “never.” Stick to the subject; try not to digress into broad personality issues or revive past issues.
● Focus on the outcome. Don’t dwell on problems or blame. Keep the spotlight on finding solutions and how you will reach the desired outcomes.
● Be open. Doing so establishes an atmosphere of mutual respect and cooperation. Listen to and consider others’ opinions, points of view and ideas. Understand and appreciate that they think differently than you. This may bring a greater, or different, understanding to the table that will help resolve the problem more quickly and effectively.
● Respond constructively. Let the other person know you value what he or she is saying, even if you don’t agree. Try to avoid responding negatively or directively, for example criticizing, ridiculing, dismissing, diverting (talking about yourself rather than about what the other person has said) or rejecting the other person or what they are saying.
● Know your triggers. Learn to recognise your personal warning signs for anger and figure out the ways that work for best for you to constructively control your anger.
● Maintain a sense of humour. Be willing to laugh, including at yourself. Maintaining a sense of humour can relieve stress and tension, and help get you and others through a difficult time.
● Learn to compromise. Compromise is important in any relationship. If you disagree on an issue, discuss the problem calmly, allow each person to explain his or her point of view, and look for ways to meet each other in the middle.
● Don’t attempt to resolve conflict when tempers are flaring. During an argument, often no one can agree on a reasonable solution. If that is the case, agree to take a break and come back to the problem later, when you have had time to settle down and think about the issue.
● Know when to retreat. The conflict resolution process will not always work. The level of the skills of some people may not be at the point where they can be full partners in this process. For example, you may have a spouse who does not want to, or know how to, solve the problem. You may also have a conflict with a co-worker, boss or higher-up who is known for irrational outbursts. You must take all these factors into consideration and know when it may be more appropriate for you to cut your losses and retreat.
● Practice forgiveness. There may be times when someone makes a mistake or says or does something hurtful— whether intentionally or unintentionally. While it’s okay to be angry, it’s also important to let go of the anger and move on. On a personal level, it is healthier to let go of negative emotions like stress and anger. And it’s difficult to maintain a good relationship if you can’t get past these feelings.
● AND be comfortable with being uncomfortable with dispute resolution.
There may be times when, despite your best efforts, you may not be able to resolve a dispute or conflict on your own. If so, get help.