Coauthor of the international bestseller Dealing with People You Can’t Stand, Dr. Rick Brinkman, explains how to resolve conflict through these 5 steps.
Conflict is everywhere these days. Countries square off, political parties polarize, and media pundits throw bombs of inflammatory statements to create reactions for their own mercenary purposes. The same chain reaction of conflict happens between individuals when an employee refuses to listen to what you’re saying or when your spouse makes decisions without considering you. War, whether occurring on a macrocosm between countries or on the microcosm between people, is a series of increasingly larger reactions heading toward a final explosion.
So how do you stop the escalation of conflict, despite the fact that you’re feeling angry, frustrated, or overly emotional? Here are five simple steps to follow.
Maintain and Compose.
We all have hot buttons. During a disagreement, it’s easy to lash out angrily, but giving into those emotions is counterproductive. It creates a second problem for you – you now have to deal with the other person’s reaction to your reaction. To make matters worse, emotion clouds logic, making it harder to come to a reasonable settlement.
To put the brakes on runaway emotions, stop, take a breath, and compose yourself. One method is to walk away and revisit the discussion later when cooler heads prevail. You might say, “I really want our conversation to be constructive and I don’t think I can do that right now. I need a few minutes,” and then literally walk out of the room. However, sometimes this is not feasible. You can’t walk out in the middle of a business meeting or jump out of the car in the middle of an argument with your spouse. In a scenario like this, “leave” by controlling your reaction internally by taking a few deep breaths and letting your mind drift off to something pleasant.
You can also ask yourself how you can put the current situation in perspective. When my mother found her emotions getting out of control, she would let her mind drift back to the time she spent in a Auschwitz and like magic, the present situation would not seem so bad.
What do you want?
What outcome do you really want? While tearing someone’s head off would be satisfying in the short term, it’s certainly not an ideal long-term solution. If you are not clear on what you want, try writing out the situation in a journal or asking a friend’s advice. This way you can vent, get the frustration out of your system, while simultaneously getting some perspective.
Gather information to understand the other person’s point of view
Don’t assume you know the other person’s perspective or reactions. It is far more likely that they are viewing the situation in a whole different way, thus the conflict.
Gathering information means you need to stop and consider what their point of view might be. The second step is actually go talk to them. When you do, however, the purpose is not to explain your interpretation of events, but to really listen to their point of view.
Pick the right time and place
If you truly want to work out a conflict with someone, make sure you have adequate time scheduled to settle your differences. It is uncomfortable to be well on your way to working out a good solution only to be interrupted by time constraints. People’s emotional responses are amplified while under pressure.
Also, while things are better worked out face to face, don’t let distance stand in the way. Working through a misunderstanding on the phone is far better than letting anger, resentment, and misunderstanding build up between two parties.
I worked with a client who was having an issue with her adult son, who lived 2,000 miles away. He had written a five-page letter venting his anger about past events. His mother hadn’t responded because she felt this discussion really should be done in person. The problem was that now they hadn’t talked for 3 months. He even came to town once to visit with his wife’s parents and didn’t let his parents know he was in town. Although I agreed with her that getting together physically would be ideal, being on the phone would be better than letting months go by with no communication at all.
Establish positive intent and find common ground
I once mediated an estranged couple who was viciously fighting over their child. I started our joint session by saying, “I spent an hour with each of you alone, and what impresses me the most is how much you agree with each other.” They suddenly leaned back, crossed their arms and frowned, mirroring each other like bookends. I continued, “Correct me if I am wrong, but do either of you want your child to be traumatized? Do either of you want your child to develop emotional problems? Do either of you want your child to learn this pattern of communication you do so they can do it someday with their spouse?” They just stared at me eyes wide open and their bodies relaxed. “I didn’t think so. So my understanding is we are here in the best interests of David,” I said. For the first time in years, they were two allies with a very important common purpose, but a difference of opinion. When you establish positive intent for the meeting and make it clear that you’re there to work things out, it’s hard to fight.
Once you’ve established common ground, take turns expressing your point of view. You should also suggest that when one person is done speaking, the listener will make sure they understand by backtracking (saying back what someone says), clarifying (asking questions to find out more) and summarizing.
A good way to get this started with someone is by stating a fact you think may be true about them – for example, “I’m not sure but maybe you are feeling misunderstood by me or maybe at the meeting you were just pushing for what you thought was right.” By qualifying the statement and saying “I’m not sure, but here’s what I think” you’re opening the door for the other person to talk. Keep in mind if you want to be understood, you must demonstrate it by understanding the other person first.
Above all, avoiding or ignoring conflicts won’t make them disappear. In fact, it actually just compounds the situation and makes it worse for the next time. It can lie dormant like a volcano just waiting to erupt the next time both of you disagree, but next time with more force and fervor. When you take positive steps to resolve conflict, you not only heal the past but, more importantly, prevent future conflict.