The art of facing up to and resolving conflict
Conflict?!..no way I would rather avoid that whenever possible'.
We tend to believe that conflict is a negative thing. It is something that will cause upset and it is much better to put up and keep on going the way we are than to face up to and resolve it.
What if we can see conflict as a positive? The benefits of positive conflict and healthy arguments are that we understand each other better, recognise what is important and reconcile differences which in turn can strengthen relationships.
What if we can build common ground with others, express our perspectives in a truthful manner and turn discord to opportunity? In this way we develop skills and the ability to manage interpersonal conflicts, increase confidence and feel heard.
Let's take a moment to think about an area of our life where we don't agree with someone, we have a difference of opinion which is getting in the way of harmonious relationships. This could be with a colleague, a friend, a partner, or even family.
Let's shift focus on our role and think about how we are contributing to this situation, how we are behaving or responding. Then we are going to look at what we can do to increase our confidence to face up to it, manage it and resolve it more effectively.
We often like to do things the way we have always done them and we can feel resistant to change. It takes effort to see a situation from another person's point of view, we get used to responding in a certain way and there maybe clashes of values especially if what we hold dear is just not being understood.
Conflict is due to perceived threats or challenges and we tend to develop a habitual way of engaging and responding. Conflict can build up in how we perceive and then behave in a situation and, following on from this in turn, how the other person also perceives and then behaves in response. If we don't recognise this and put skills and strategies in place then conflict can escalate and spiral out of control.
Let's take an example of a few years back with my teenage daughter to see how this works, I call this the escalating spiral of conflict.
A catalyst or trigger starts the process. I ask my daughter to tidy her room and she rolls her eyes and says 'whatever' (catalyst or trigger!).
My perception - I perceive that this is disrespectful and my beliefs then drive how I respond.
My behaviour as a result of this is to respond by rolling my eyes and putting my hands on my hips!
Her perception is that my response is 'dissing' her and she becomes defiant. At this point I would have negative thoughts and mirror her behaviour.
This then gets into a downward spiral of confrontation leading to an escalation into a crisis of us both yelling at each other which started off as a small incident - the 'whatever' comment!. Any negative or irrational beliefs that we have about each other are reinforced. Suddenly we find that there is no motivation to change or alter irrational beliefs in the heat of this spiral of conflict and matching each other's negative behaviour, of course, only increases the confrontation.
The goal of tidying the room has suddenly changed to winning the argument. If I was to respond in a pro social manner in response at the start by changing my perception, maybe thinking she was having a difficult day, and then doing something differently, such as demonstrating an alternative behaviour or focusing on the actual goal, then rather than both of us losing we have more chance of both gaining! Win - win!
So how do you prevent the situation spiraling downwards, preventing the feelings of both parties becoming really intense? Who has to change in this situation? We can't demand others change, we can only share how we feel and what we would like the outcome to be and lead by example. We can slow the process down to recognise triggers ie' whatever' and eye rolling, manage our responses and focus attention on changing how we interact and problem solve the outcome.
When others violate a value of ours that we hold dear (being respectful) it can provoke a strong response. When we succeed in taking a step back and understand how things look to others, when we use empathy and see things from the other person's perspective we gain a deeper comprehension of them as a person and have more chance of resolving conflict.
So the key is the ability to take a step back and initiate that 'conflict intelligence'.
We are more likely not to be able to cope with conflict if we feel we are unable to cope. So let's look at what we can do in order to initiate conflict intelligence in a 4 step process.
The most useful part for a positive outcome is to be in the right head space, to have done the preparation and got those pesky emotions under control.
Step 1 - Prep it
Ask yourself is it the right time/place?
Are you in the right head space/have you eaten/looked after yourself/feel rested and is the other party also in a receptive place?
Are you feeling calm? If you put aside negative emotions and use positive self talk, or coping talk, then you are more likely to approach conflict as a problem to be solved and avoid the escalation spiral.
Focus on the outcomes
Have a think about what an outcome that has positives for all parties looks like. How can you come from a place of collaboration? What will a collaborative approach sound like? It's important to stick to the subject and the present and keep focused.
What is negotiable? What is within the limits of comprehension and tolerance levels? Are you going to set a time limit for discussion? At any point we have the right to take a time away from discussion and share this with the other party. Does a third person need to be present?
Veto the bad kitty!
What makes an argument unhealthy tends to link to negative intent. If the intent is linked to the need to win, rather than sorting out collaborative outcomes or compromise, then we may notice some of the following unhelpful responding techniques:
'Hitting below the belt' or using comments intending to wound
Blame and critising
Bringing in the past - 'baggage'
Intimidating body language
Emotional loading/mind games
Changing the subject/avoiding the subject
As a dear co facilitator used to say 'is it better to be right or to be happy?'
Recognising unhelpful strategies in a conflict situation and being able to remain calm and ignore them but bring the focus back to the issue you are discussing is fundamental.
The opposite of many of these behaviours lies with taking responsibility and working to common rather than 'fighting talk' ground. We may want to discuss setting some ground rules that bring in ideas such as agreeing not to use unhealthy techniques, to take it in turns to talk in order to slow down any reactive responses and listen and try to see it from each other's perspective. You may wish to have a time away agreement if emotions become too strong and are clouding judgement.
Step 2 Define and explore point of views
We often don't have a chance or the confidence or maybe the feeling of psychological safety to speak our needs and get across our main messages when in conflict. If you have a look at the work of Amy Edmondson her research into psychological safety shows that the most effective teams were the ones that had problems, because they were able to seek feedback and discuss errors and share difficulities. If we increase our awareness of ourselves and others even when things are not going so well then we are more attuned and much more effective and productive in general.
There is often two sides to the story as the saying goes and we are all made up of a range of perspectives, values, needs, hopes, feelings, beliefs, expectations, biases and differences in being able to articulate what is going on for us. Most of this is, like an iceburg analogy, under the water and not seen.
It is helpful to be prepared to find out what we specifically disagree on, what we expect from each other, what we don't know about the other person's perspective but are willing to learn. It is worth considering too if there are barriers in the way of being able to understand and hear perspective, negative self talk or beliefs taking place that obscure the real facts about the situation.
The key is to seek more information and be prepared to express our own point of view and acknowledge difference. What, for example, needs to be discussed that is not evident as it's under the water? What do we need to learn about each other that we didn't know before? Could there be underlying factors for the other person that we have no knowledge about that is impacting on their communication style? What is the impact on both parties?
Step 2 is about instigating a conversation to find out more and pin down the exact issue and explore differing point of views.
Step 3 Find solutions
This is the time to get creative and use divergent thinking skills. What are the solutions that would be acceptable to each party involved? If I took the time to find out about my daughter, for example, I would probably discover that we have the same goal, of her room to be tidy, but it was the manner in which I asked her to tidy up or she was struggling with a friendship issue and it was just bad timing.
What is the best option that creates a win - win for both? Compromising may mean you have to give up something to get there. It addresses the issue more directly than avoiding the conflict but in less depth than collaborating. Collaborating involves an attempt to work with other parties to find some solution that satisfies both concerns. Collaboration is to find an integrated solution when it's too important to compromise.
So we can find solutions by talking to each other, by meeting half way and proposing immediate and long term solutions that addresses each other's needs.
Step 4 Action and evaluate
In devising solutions it may feel that we are already there with resolving conflict but in fact we need to keep working at it if we want each party to be clear about actions moving forward and maintaining changes. We can devise an action plan for who will take responsibility for when actions will happen. We can keep evaluating what is working or what still needs to change.
Are we both feeling respected and that the plan is clear? If not then at any point the other steps can be revisited. Just keep communicating! Take the time to mutually appraise what’s working, and whether or not the original situation is still a conflict situation and a trigger for negative beliefs and thinking.
These are just some of the ways we can face up to and manage conflict and a taster into the work that I do as a coach and trainer. I hope you enjoyed my article and it provoked some ideas. If you are interested in finding out more about developing your conflict resolution skills tailored specifically for you or your team or any other form of coaching do get in touch. If the blog has brought up any questions for you I would love to hear from you.
My background is 20 years in working for the National Probation Service, including rehabilitation for substance use, anger management, domestic abuse, hate crime and developing emotional management, life, relationship and thinking skills. I train consultants in the NHS in coaching and mentoring and reflecting on feedback for trainee drs and run my own coaching practice which operates using a person centred approach drawing on coaching psychology approaches. I also offer coaching for businesses and couples coaching.
If there is any coaching or training in which you would be interested please get in touch for a free chat or to access support for any of the areas covered in this article. Feel free to book your free 20 mins coaching consultation with me!
Thank you for reading!