Can't We All Just Get Along? Keeping Your Cool in a Conflict

In their efforts to “win” and be “right,” people often let disagreement escalate into a futile and frustrating struggle for power. But conflict doesn’t have to be adversarial. When handled carefully, a conflict can defuse hostility, generate alliances, and stimulate creative solutions. In the case of confronting an issue that has been ignored or avoided, conflict can be especially liberating. And the basic tools of conflict resolution can be learned and practiced by anyone.

Because conflict is an inevitable part of life, it makes sense to learn some simple conflict resolution strategies. Below, I’ve presented my take on the National Multicultural Institute’s nine-step model for conflict resolution to help get you started.

First, take a moment to reflect on a stressful conflict from your recent past. Then as you review the following guidelines, mentally compare each suggestion to what actually happened in your conflict. Imagine how things might have gone differently and pinpoint your particular strengths and weaknesses. Finally, consider how you might adapt your approach to improve the outcome of future conflicts.

  1. Listen with respect and openness. Before you even begin a discussion, calm yourself and step back from your emotions. Try not to take the situation personally, even if you feel defensive or under attack. Let go of grudges and preconceptions so that you enter the conversation with an open mind. Imagine that you are hearing everything for the first time.

  2. Look at the situation from the other person’s perspective. It’s easy to get trapped in tunnel vision, in which we convince ourselves that our way is the only way. Especially if the conflict surrounds a longstanding problem, it’s difficult to see things as the other person might see them. But it is crucial to set your pride aside and really listen. Avoid assumptions and ask questions if you don’t understand. Verbally summarize what you heard them say and ask for confirmation or clarification.

  3. Let the other person hear an explanation of your perspective. Explain your viewpoint clearly and patiently. Make sure to separate the person from the problem. In other words, focus on behaviors or situations that you want to change rather than personal traits. If you remain calm, use “I” statements and non-judgmental language, and stick to the facts during this step, then you increase the likelihood that the other person will listen.

  4. Recognize similarities and differences. Part of this involves defining the problem to ensure that you are talking about the same issue. Too often, people skip this step and simply assume that their respective complaints or goals are mutual. But it’s necessary to state the problem explicitly to avoid circling and frustration. Once you establish that you’re talking about the same problem, there are always at least one or two points on which you already see things similarly. If you can’t find any common ground, you might need to return to step one. As you identify differences, be careful not to use an accusatory or judgmental tone of voice.

  5. Acknowledge any cultural differences. Sometimes gender, race, religion, and other aspects of cultural identity and values remain an unspoken but powerful factor in a conflict. It’s not always easy to bring these into the open, but open acknowledgment of cultural differences can help define the relevant issues and sort out underlying unconscious motivations.

  6. Look for common ground. Find something—anything—to agree on, even if it’s just being able to name a common goal. Remind yourself that everyone will benefit if you can see this as a cooperative process.

  7. Recommend action. Be creative. Brainstorm as many possibilities as you can without worrying about how to achieve them. Even outlandish ideas might inspire other, more viable ones.

  8. Determine what adaptations each person is willing to make to find a satisfactory alternative. Where can you be flexible? What are your priorities and needs? See if you can sacrifice a little to accomplish your broader objectives. This is when keeping the “big picture” in mind matters most.

  9. Negotiate an agreement. Be realistic. You may decide you need to meet again for further discussion. You may have to check with other stakeholders to get their approval for your solutions. Or in some cases, you may just have to agree to disagree. If you find yourself stuck, consider hiring a professional mediator.

In the heat of the moment, it sometimes feels more important to be right than to maintain a respectful, win-win attitude. But if you approach your conflict with goodwill, calm, and trust in the collaborative process, you’ll find that even monumental conflicts can be overcome.

In most cases, conflict is about more than one issue; it’s about a relationship. Recognize that with a little give and take, the conflict resolution process has the potential to strengthen your rapport with others. And each successful resolution will give you the confidence and abilities to negotiate future encounters with ease.

To learn more about win-win conflict resolution, I highly recommend that you read Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.
This book explains how to see situations from other perspectives, how to maintain goodwill as you negotiate, and the finer points of getting your needs met without competition and hostility. You can read excerpts from the book or purchase it at Amazon.com.

Sources: National Multicultural Institute (NMCI), Nine-Step Model for Conflict Resolution; The Media Trust, Conflict resolution: Detailed facts and guidelines.

1 comment:

Sharon and Mike Williams said...

Very practical and useful advice. As usual you have hit the nail on the head.