Sometimes when I say that I teach conflict resolution the response is a quizzical look as the person waits for me to explain. Or perhaps they’re just looking at me funny and I still haven’t got the hint!
So what does conflict resolution (CR) actually mean? And what effective tools does it provide for interpersonal relations in every day life, to make a difficult conversation mutually beneficial?
In a nutshell conflict resolution can be defined as: two or more parties discussing their difficulty with the aim of finding a mutually beneficial agreement through understanding.
The word ‘conflict’ creates different reactions in people, such as: fear, disdain, shame, detachment, acceptance and even a sense of intimacy and yet it is very much a part of life. It is another term for an argument we might have with a spouse over equality, or a teenager about the washing up, or a colleague over deadlines and so on.
Any breakdown in clear communication creates a state of ‘conflict’, which in turn offers an opportunity for growth, change and understanding.
In and of itself conflict can be both debilitating and invigorating. For instance, an argument or continued clashes with a loved one or at work can be emotionally, mentally and physically draining and also saddening. On the other hand, a respectful debate or good old rant about what bothered us on the way home from work, or a demonstration about the state of the world, can leave us feeling fired-up and more alive.
How we feel towards it will determine our instinctual reaction: fight, avoid and freeze, but we don’t have to get stuck there.
Conflict resolution skills provide us with tools to steer through heightened emotions and help us prepare for, and manage, difficult conversations.
We may not always want to resolve something, or perhaps are too hurt (and proud) to make the first move. In other circumstances however, the situation or the other person do matter to us and for sentimental reasons or for the sake of family or workplace relations, we want to find a way through our disagreement.
To reach resolution we first have to let go of wanting to be right and replace that with a good dose of:
- Humility and
With these cornerstones in place, conflict resolution offers us the added skills to manage another’s anger, handle blame in a way that opens communication and help us to manage our own triggers and reactions.
Through non-violent communication skills we take responsibility for our feelings and actions and consider the other person’s too; we give up wanting to win against them.
This style of communication is respectful, assertive and open and develops:
- Mutual understanding
- Equally beneficial agreement, and
Conflict resolution strategies are based on equality and respect, by:
- Respecting one another’s needs as equally valid
- Speaking in a respectful manner, in the first person and with equal airtime
- Arriving at an agreement that suits both or all sides (win-win)
Added to that conflict resolution gives importance to understanding. When we let go of trying to deliver a message and being the righteous winner, we can concentrate on listening the other and understanding the different perspectives and perceptions that co-created the situation and find ways to resolve it together.
This type of dialogue enhances understanding and helps to rebuild trust as old resentments are resolved. This in turn can help those involved to reach an agreement on equal terms and, consequently, stick to it.
True resolution based on respect and equality cannot happen if we:
- Pretend there isn’t an issue
- Refuse to talk
- Seek to impose our dictate on the other, or
- Punch our opponent out!
These measures come under the banner of ‘settlement’, and are based on one person winning over the other and sowing the seeds for future resentment. A more acceptable type of imposed win-lose settlements are regularly found in the courts of law, as opposed to mediation, a form of conflict resolution.
So how do we get to resolve conflicts with family, friends and work?
Resolving a conflict takes courage and time. It’s being brave enough to sit with the difficulty of confronting the situation, and the other person and sharing experiences of what happened and how each other’s actions affected one another.
To be effective, we need to do some groundwork and also ensure that both or all people are ready and willing to talk. What if the other doesn’t want to talk? Then do your own homework anyway and turn the problem into an opportunity for learning, growing and changing as result of it. You might be surprised by the ‘aha’ moments you may gain from doing it.
But this entails rolling up the sleeves and doing some good old sifting through ‘our stuff’.
We start by separating:
- Our needs from our wants (What we can’t do without and what we can)
- Fact from interpretation (The meaning we gave their action or inaction)
- Intention from how something impacted on us (Did they intend to hurt us or is this how it affected us?)
- Taking responsibility for our own actions, assumptions, triggers
- Thinking in terms of “I need” vs ‘You are a … *%$! ” and letting go of blame
The greater the time we spend preparing, the more we’ll we be able to understand one another and identify commonalities and differences.
When it comes to talking, asking open questions in a gentle tone can help diffuse heated discussions, clarify requests and avoid further misunderstandings and assumptions.
These start with:
- What (What do you mean by that? What do you need?)
- Where (Where are you thinking?)
- When (When do you suggest we could do that?)
- Why (Why do you say/need that?)
- How (How do see us moving forward?)
Be aware of your tone when asking and answering questions. Make respectful curiosity your ally when asking and don’t go on the defensive when answering theirs. The aim is understanding and mutual cooperation not a quick round of ‘Cluedo’!
The other key here is to explore their perspective and their needs before launching into how we see things and what we want them to do differently. Allow them also time to reflect and answer; we all talk and think at different speeds.
When we foster equal and respectful dialogue based on seeing the situation as a joint problem to be solved, we are going into the process of conflict resolution. The difference between this and punishing or blaming conversations, is that we look at the situation and the behaviour as ‘the problem’, rather than either us or them.
Indeed, letting go of blame allows us to see the bigger picture as we explore ways forward that work for both parties, without guilt, shame, threats or dictates. Conflict resolution is about moving towards understanding, empathy, compassion and ultimately, forgiveness.
In cases of workplace or commercial disputes, mediation as a form of conflict resolution is also highly effective in allowing all parties to feel heard and understood and arrive at agreements that work for all.
For more on how to resolve and manage interpersonal difficulties: the next Conscious Communication Skills workshop is on January 31st in Bristol, UK.
To book your place, or for further information about what I offer please email me: [email protected]