Coping With Conflict

Coping With Conflict Image by: no lurvin here

Conflict occurs when the goals, needs or opinions of one person clash with those of another. Unchecked, this conflict can escalate into full-blown hostility and even violence. When viewed constructively, however, conflict can actually become a valuable and productive growth experience. What skills can we develop to help us handle conflict situations correctly, ensuring a positive outcome for both parties?

Defining Conflict

A conflict occurs when the actions of one party attempting to reach its goals prevent, block or interfere with the actions of another party attempting to reach its goals.

If the two parties have mutual goals, they will work in cooperation with each other. If their goals are opposed, they will experience conflict.

The definition of conflict varies from person to person and ranges from minor disagreements, antagonism and incompatibility, to hostile, heated arguments, bullying and even physical violence.

Conflict can also mean:

  • fight;

  • struggle;

  • distress due to opposition of incompatible wishes etc. within a person.

This article focuses on conflict within relationships. That is, how to cope with disagreements.

Reframing Conflict

When we talk about physical fighting, most people would agree that this sort of conflict is not desirable or healthy, and should be avoided. However, even when referring to everyday disagreements, many people say things like: "I don't like conflict" or "I avoid conflict at all costs" .What they are in fact referring to here, is disagreement - they don't like disagreeing with others and avoid it at all costs. This usually happens for one of the following reasons:

  • Fear of not being seen as a 'nice' person;

  • Fear of being seen as a trouble causer;

  • The (mistaken) belief that they are doing the right thing/a good thing.

The truth is, avoiding conflict is unhealthy, and can lead to patterns of interaction that are destructive in the long term.

People are unique. There are no two people exactly the same, and no matter how similar they are, there will always be ideas, issues, situations etc. on which they disagree. This is to be expected, and is not a problem in itself. It does become a problem, however, if the point of disagreement cannot be discussed, as this usually ends up causing more stress for all concerned. This happens because the resentment starts to fester and tension rises. What then happens is one of two things:

  1. The person eventually explodes in inappropriate ways or situations. The person ends up blurting out their frustration and anger in a hurtful way. Instead of discussing the issue with the person concerned in a calm and respectful manner, they may complain to anyone and everyone else who will listen. We have all heard people moaning about their partners in this way. Perhaps you have heard someone complaining about the service after they have left the restaurant, instead of speaking calmly to the manager about their issues? Perhaps you have heard someone complaining about their spouse to anyone who will listen (sometimes deliberately in earshot of their spouse!)

  2. The person bottles up their frustration and resentment, feels more and more hard done by, and eventually becomes depressed.

The healthy approach is to address and resolve conflict with the person concerned in a respectful manner.

If we want to be assertive - open, clear and honest so others know where they stand with us - we need to be prepared to open up points of disagreement for discussion. Raising the disagreement does not have to lead to an argument, but it should lead to a conversation or discussion. If both parties are listening to each other, it can be a valuable and constructive growth experience. The fact that we can cope with disagreement/ conflict is far more important to a relationship than not having disagreement/conflict.

Conflict in itself is not bad. Knowing how to deal with it is what counts. If we know how to cope with conflict, we will learn to be less fearful of it and learn to use it to enhance our relationships, be they personal, social or work related.

View conflict as an opportunity to analyse the situation objectively; assess the needs of all concerned; and come up with healthy solutions. Viewed in this way, conflict becomes an opportunity to create stronger relationships, creative solutions and clearer communication.

The Five Conflict Strategies

There are five basic strategies we can use to manage conflicts. Each of these strategies is appropriate at different times. Which strategy you use depends on the ratio of how important the goals are to you, versus how important the relationship is to you.

Smoothing – The Teddy Bear

The Teddy Bear is always there for you

When a friend/colleague feels strongly about something and you could not care less, then smoothing would be the most appropriate strategy.

If you act like a Teddy Bear, you give up your goals in order to maintain the relationship at the highest possible level.

When another person's interests are much stronger or more important than yours, smooth and give the other person their way. Example: Giving up the parking bay closest to the door, to a wheelchair-bound colleague.

Withdrawing – The Tortoise

The tortoise retreats from everything

When a situation is dangerous to you or out of control, then withdrawing might be the most appropriate strategy.

If you act like the tortoise, you give up both your goals and the relationship - you avoid the other person and the issue. Example: When being mugged.

Forcing - The Shark

Nobody gets in the way of the shark

When it is important that your goals are achieved and you don't care whether you have a relationship with the other person or not, then forcing would be the most appropriate strategy.

If you act like a shark, you try to achieve your goals at all costs. Example: Captain on a ship insisting that safety procedures are followed by his crew.

Compromising – The Fox

The fox is cunning & gets something

When it appears that neither party can get what they want, compromising may be the most appropriate strategy.

If you act like a fox, you give up part of your goals and sacrifice part of a relationship that is moderately important to you. Example: He wants to take you out to the movies. You want to stay home and sew. You agree to stay home and watch a DVD together, while you do some hand sewing.

Negotiating - The Owl

Wise old owl uses her head for the best

If both your goals and the relationship are important to you, negotiating would be the most appropriate strategy.

If you act like an owl, you initiate negotiations aimed at ensuring that both parties achieve their desired goals while maintaining the relationship at the highest possible level. You try to achieve a win-win situation.

Creating Win-Win Situations

"...O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console
to be understood, as to understand..."

These words from the Prayer of St Francis are crucial if we want to cope with conflict, because a major source of conflict is that we often don't understand what the other person is saying. This is either because we are not listening properly or because the other person is not explaining themselves properly.

Conflict management, or conflict resolution, requires effective communication skills – especially listening. To resolve conflict, each side must able to understand the other's needs, wants and point of view.

A step by step 'formula' to create a win-win situation is as follows:

  1. Party A explains what they want in a descriptive, non-evaluative way.
    Party B reverses perspective by summarising what Party A has said.

    If party B has not understood party A, then party A explains again and the process continues until party A is satisfied that party B completely understands.

  2. Party B explains what they want in a descriptive, non-evaluative way.
    Party A reverses perspective by summarising what Party B has said.

    If party A has not understood party B, then party B explains again, and the process continues until party B is satisfied that party A completely understands.

  3. Party A explains their reasons for their wants, and how they feel about them.
    Party B reverses perspective by summarising these reasons and feelings.

    This process is repeated until Party A is satisfied party B completely understands.

  4. Party B explains their reasons for their wants and how they feel about them.
    Party A reverses perspective by summarising these reasons and feelings.

    This process is repeated until Party B is satisfied party A completely understands.

  5. Together party A & B brain-storm options that will maximise joint outcomes.

    (Note: When brain-storming, do not put limitations on your ideas - be as creative and ridiculous as you can be. Very often it is a silly idea which triggers off the solution).

  6. Agree on three good options that will maximise joint outcomes.

  7. Choose the agreement that seems to offer the best win-win situation. Follow through and implement it. Be sure to stick to the agreed conditions.

Practical Guidelines for Coping with Conflict

Conflict is not always just about disagreeing on a specific topic. Often, it is also about how we treat each other. When we treat people with disrespect, it is bound to cause hurt, upset and conflict.

When coping with conflict do....

  • Remove or move away from distractions such as your computer, phone and TV while discussing your disagreement.

  • Allow the other person to talk without being interrupted. If it is a group of people give each person a chance to speak. If the conflict is antagonistic, consider using a timer or clock to ensure each person is given the same amount of time.

  • Pay attention to what the person is saying instead of mentally rehearsing your next comment. Remember, "Listening is not waiting to talk" (Scott Ginsberg). Acknowledge you are listening with noncommittal responses. Encourage the speaker to share his or her thoughts and opinions. You may want to write down what the speaker is saying.

  • Ask open ended questions to clarify anything you did not understand. Then paraphrase what you believe you heard the other person say. It is important to use indirect statements instead of confrontation and to use 'I" statements such as "If I understand you correctly..."; "It seems to me..."; "My impression is..."

  • Choose your words carefully. Try to avoid using extreme words like everyone, no one, always, never and replace them with more accurate words like some people, sometimes. Think before you speak to avoid saying things you will regret later.

  • When it is your turn to talk, make sure you have the attention of the audience (whether it is one or 100 people). Establish eye contact and wait until your audience is focused before beginning.

  • Make your comments meaningful – have a list of points you want to cover and refer to the list if the conversation strays from the topic.

  • Be prepared to concede on issues that are highly emotional to the other person, and push for concessions for yourself on issues they are not so emotionally invested in. Remember, "When you're at the edge of a cliff, sometimes progress is a step backwards." (Source unknown). The ability to read the feelings of others during a negotiation is crucial to success. Conflicts involve emotions – it is not just what the person says that counts, but how the person feels about them. (Note: Being able to read body language and being skilled at empathy are extremely helpful skills).

  • Allow the other party to vent if they are very angry. This helps release some of the pent up emotion. Do not tell them to "calm down" as it often aggravates the anger. Such comments are not empathic at all. Instead after they have finished ranting, calmly summarise what they have said with words like "If I understand you correctly..." Be empathic.

  • Take time out if things become too heated. This allows all parties time to cool off. Then you can come back and readdress the issue. The idea that you must never go to bed on an argument is an old wives' tale! When you are tired and it's late, it may be far better to agree that you will discuss it the next day, rather than say things you both regret, which is what will happen as you get more tired, irritable and irrational. 24 hours is considered an appropriate amount of time in an office setting.

  • Manage yourself – your emotions, words and actions. Ultimately, managing conflict is about managing yourself. Simple techniques like breathing deeply, listening attentively and choosing your words carefully can defuse a hot situation and help you and others move towards a win-win situation.

  • Smile. The tone you set can adjust the attitude of the person. If you are friendly first they are more likely to be friendly back. Set up the interaction to be a positive one and it probably will be. Don't go in with the attitude "I am going to win; you are going to lose."

When coping with conflict do not...

  • Make assumptions and guesses about the other person's feelings and motivations. "Assumptions are the termites of relationships." (Henry Winkler). Assumptions and guesses are based on your own interpretations and motivations, rather than the other person's, and they are often faulty and negative. An example of this is assuming that someone arrived late because they don't care about you. Such assumptions just cloud the issue and create hostility.

  • Generalise. A generalisation is a sweeping statement that usually blows things out of proportion. For example, "You are always late!" or "We always have to do what you want to do!" "You never let me choose." Think about whether this is really true before making such a statement.

  • Blame - blaming another person for the situation is about not wanting to admit to any weakness, or trying to avoid the 'shame' for being 'at fault'. It usually ends up being an attack on the person rather than staying with the issue. Once again, this increases hostility and leads us away from a mutually beneficial solution

  • Need to be right / win all the time. Having to be 'right', or needing to 'win' all the time, blocks the possibility of a compromise, or a real solution. Allowing yourself to see an issue from another person's perspective can produce solutions that you may never have thought of alone. There is not always a 'right' or a 'wrong' way; each point of view can be valid. If we focus on 'winning' the argument, the relationship loses! Try to find mutual understanding and come to a resolution that respects each person's needs.

There is a very poignant quote which says something like: "Don't try to win until you have counted the cost of winning"  (Source unknown).

  • Bring up past injustices and wrongs -Bringing up past conflicts is often an attempt to move the discussion off-topic and avoid responsibility for one's own actions or lack of engagement. Stick to the topic at hand. If you are resolving conflicts as they arise, you won't have any past injustices to bring up!

  • Show contempt for the other person - Contempt is the body language that indicates you think little of the other person. It doesn't matter what words you use, your body language reveals your contempt and we are far more likely to believe what people do than what they say. Examples of body language that shows contempt include: Interruptions, eye rolling, sighs, not listening, not attempting to understand, turning your body away from the other person etc.

Please note: Contempt is the key indicator of a failing relationship.

  • Stonewall the other person. Stonewalling is when we ignore the other person. For example, when we put an iPod in our ears; walk away; cover our ears with our hands or when we start humming. Not feeling heard and understood is probably the greatest complaint of couples and is the cause of much resentment and unresolved conflict.

  • Be defensive. When you are defensive, you refuse to listen, attack back and escalate the problem e.g. "Yes, but that's not as bad as when you....." Defensive people often deny any wrongdoing and work hard to avoid looking at the possibility that they could be a contributor to the problem. Really listening and empathising with the other person is a powerful tool in conflict resolution!

"Anyone can be angry - that is easy.
But to be angry with the right person,
to the right degree, at the right time,
for the right purpose,and in the right way - that is not easy."

Aristotle (Greek Philosopher, 384 BC - 322 BC)