Most of us hate conflict.
I personally spent years running from it. I was scared I’d say something I’d regret, so I wouldn’t say anything at all.
That seemed to work in that moment, but the inevitable result was that nothing would change. And on some occasions anger and resentment would then build up, and as a consequence I would explode at some point - something that wasn’t good for me, the other person, or the relationship between us.
Others use the opposite strategy, and are only too happy to tell people exactly how they feel. Often that’s done in a harsh way though, possibly getting some sort of resolution on the issue, but often with a lot of anger or resentment along the way, and again causing damage to the relationship.
So where’s the happy medium? How do we tell people how we feel in a way that is most likely to keep things calm and lead to a resolution of some kind? How do we encourage others to tell us their point of view in a calm and respectful way? How do we maximise the chances of a good outcome for both of us?
Here are my key techniques for doing exactly that.
1. Preparing for conflict
Preparing for conflict is like preparing for war. You have to get ready to fight - to attack and defend. For that you need to elevate your blood pressure, prepare your weapons and get yourself really tense so you can lash out when needed.
This is not a good way to enter a conversation with someone.
Preparing for conflict is a sure way to kill a conversation before it’s even started.
Instead, you need to prepare for conflict resolution. Prepare for conversation of respect. Prepare to listen. Prepare to ask questions. Prepare to understand. Prepare to speak respectfully.
This kind of preparation enables to you enter a conversation calmly and with compassion. When you listen, you’ll find others are willing to listen to you too. When you are respectful, others will respect you too. And when you truly care about the other person, they will care about you too.
With conflict resolution, each of you can walk away feeling good about the conversation you’ve just had. Conflict damages relationships. Effective conflict resolution can strengthen them and add understanding and respect.
2. Setting up your environment
There are several ways to can set up your environment to help maximise the chances of a good outcome for both of you.
Firstly, make sure you’re both calm first. Relationship researcher John Gottman found that a heart rate of 95 beats per minute or less is key. If one or other person’s heart rate is elevated past this point, the conversation is very likely to be doomed.
At that point it’s important to take some time out to enable people to calm down, then come back to it when you’re both ready to talk again.
In terms of your environment, somewhere neutral or positive for you both is ideal. If that space has any negative associations for either of you, one of you is at a disadvantage before you begin.
Sitting down is good too as it encourages calmness. It also puts you at the same height, which suggests equality, and that’s important because both people need to be able to talk as well as be listened to.
3. Let the other person speak
It can be really tempting to just dive in and say what we want to say.
For effective conflict resolution though, listening is often more important than speaking.
We all have the need to be heard, and the person you’re speaking to needs that just as much as we do, and possibly more so if they’re upset.
When they feel heard, they are calmer and more able to listen in return.
Give other people the chance to speak, and even offer to let them speak first.
Don’t jump in with your side or try and talk over them. Wait until they’re ready to listen.
4. Express your side of the story with “I Messages”
The way you express your side of the story really matters.
Your aim here is to do it in a way that is not likely to inflame the situation, and in a way that is mostly likely to be well received by the other person.
To do this, you really need to focus on yourself - your opinion, your perception of the situation, your feelings.
You also need to soften your language, and when referring to the other person’s behaviours, keep your language as non-judgement and objective as possible.
As soon as you find yourself focussing on ‘you’, you’re on dangerous ground, especially if you find yourself saying things like, “You’re such a…”, “You always…”, or “You never….”.
Compare these two examples:
“I’m a bit concerned about what just happened here.”
“You completely stuffed that up didn’t you!".
There’s a very big difference between the two, and the reaction you get with each one will be completely different too.
Let’s look at another example:
“When you throw a complete temper tantrum while I’m trying to talk to you, I find it really disrespectful! Nothing will ever get resolved around here if you’re going to act like a two year old!”
“When you leave the room when you’re unhappy with what I’m saying, I get really concerned that the situation won’t be resolved. Do you think we could talk about this?”
Again, one is really inflammatory and likely to make the situation worse, while the other is much softer and likely to open a conversation where both people can speak and be heard.
5. Respond to them by reflective listening
The way you respond to what the other person says is perhaps even more important.
This is the bit people usually miss in conflict resolution and it’s to the detriment of the conversation.
This is the bit that lets the other person know they’re being heard.
The power of this is immense. It helps them calm down as they feel listened to and respected. They know that you are trying to understand and are more willing to listen and try and understand in turn.
This is done by reflective listening what the person says to you.
This means you reflect back the messages you’re getting from them.
You can do this by repeating back their words, paraphrasing what’s been said, or reflecting back the emotion you’re perceiving from them.
Reflective listening the other person’s message also has the added bonus of giving you time to think about how you wish to respond to what you’re saying, so it’s a real win-win.
Let’s look at an example of reflective listening in action:
Boss: “I’m a bit concerned about what just happened here.”
Employee: “Yes, that was so frustrating! She was being a real cow! I told her when she placed the order we wouldn’t be able to get in done in the time frame she wanted! It’s simply not realistic, yet she called me incompetent!”
Boss: “You feel like she was being really unreasonable and rude.”
Employee: “Yes I do! And I tried so hard to get it together for her in the timeframe she asked for. But it just wasn’t possible if she wanted it to be done properly!”
Boss: “So you tried really hard to make it work for her anyway.”
Employee: “Yes, I did. And that’s why I got so upset when she was mean about it! I worked so hard, and it only needed another day to get it done the way she wanted. I tried explaining all that to her but she didn’t want to listen.”
Boss: “It sounds like you feel you’ve given it your all and tried really hard to communicate clearly around what was and wasn’t possible.”
Employee: “Yes, I really did… I guess I shouldn’t have been so short with her when she was rude to me though. I know she’s on a tight deadline and it must be stressful for her trying to get it all together on time.”
Boss: “So you think she’s stressed about it all…”
Employee: “Yeah, I guess she is. And I really can have it ready for her tomorrow if I work hard at it.”
Boss: “It sounds like you’d like to finish the project for her.”
Employee: “Yes, I would. It’s so close to being done, and I think she’ll be really pleased with the result. I think I’ll give her a call and apologise for being short with her. I’ll also make a time with her to come and pick it up tomorrow.”
Boss: “That sounds like a great idea. Thanks for working so hard on it.”
Notice how reflective listening allows the person to talk the problem through, feel like they’re being heard and understood, and come to their own conclusions.
This is much more effective than if the boss had just told the employee off for being rude and not getting the job done on time.
The employee would have ended up feeling upset and misunderstood, whereas this way, the conversation didn’t look like conflict at all, just a respectful conversation.
Putting it all together
So, putting that all together, the conflict resolution sequence goes like this – if at all possible, everyone needs to be calm first.
Then, find a neutral or positive space and both sit down. This puts you both at the same level.
Give the other person a chance to speak first if you can, or open the conversation with a gentle ‘I Message’.
The person will then respond to your ‘I Message’. You reflective listen their response.
At this point, they may continue talking as they have more they wish to say. If so, keep listening, then reflective listen their response again.
Keep doing this until they they’ve nodded their agreement that you have correctly received the message that they sent your way and are ready for you to respond.
At this point, you can then deliver another ‘I Message’.
They’ll then respond to you, you reflective listen their response, and the conversation continues.
These skills take time to master. They need to be practised and the best kind of practice for this is out loud. Please try it out with a friend, and when you know you have a situation you need to discuss with someone that could be tricky, prepare well.
Remember, prepare for conversation of respect. Prepare to listen, ask questions, speak respectfully, and aim to understand.
When you listen, you’ll find others are willing to listen to you too. When you are respectful, others will respect you too. And when you truly care about the other person, they will care about you too.
Remember, conflict damages relationships, however, effective conflict resolution can strengthen them, and add understanding and respect.