Nothing teaches patience and persistence like learning conflict resolution skills. People in conflict tend to restate their grievances, become repetitious and circular, seem wed to their complaints like a familiar old shoe. Conflict resolution skills include learning a very high degree of patience. How does that happen? The key skill in building the capacity for patience is to recognize that when people repeat and cycle, it very likely means they do not yet feel they have been heard, or they have not been heard by the right people, or their story is falling on deaf ears. Maybe they were subjected to “pseudo-listening” – that kind of listening we all pretend to do when we are really checking our email! Mediators remind themselves constantly that their job is to listen deeply without distraction or judgment. It is to suspend judgment and work with people’s stress, repetition, even their agitation to explore what is going on at depth. Patience recognizes that if people seem stuck, some deep-rooted value or issue is unresolved and more attention must be paid. As Tolstoy said, “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.”
One outcome of mediation often is much better communication among parties. People who are trying to solve problems and “hammer out a solution” to something may be unable to agree, at least at first. But frequently they have gained something anyway – the mere chance to sit in the same room and talk together starts to shift perspectives. People who are communicating in good faith can begin to express more clearly what they want and hear more clearly what others want. They can become empowered to explore and keep going, trusting that more communication will bring favorable results. For example, a formal mediation might end without agreement – yet because the door has been opened, bad feelings may die down, conversations occur, and resolutions may follow in a few weeks or months. The power of being willing to hear from someone and talk to someone cannot be overstated. Open communication can break a tedious conflict cycle of negativity and pessimism. That cycle can be replaced with a new freedom to listen and learn. Talk is not cheap when it comes to conflict communication; it is the essential currency of problem-solving and achieving productive interaction.
A core conflict skill is learning how to build trust. Trust at some level is crucial to resolving conflict, indeed, to living a harmonious life. Trust starts with being honest and trustworthy yourself. It is built on open communication and following through with commitments. The skill of authentically listening to another’s story while staying in neutral gear – without jumping in with a premature criticism or judgment or opinion – is the building block for promoting empathy on which trust can build. So does asking questions of another so that they feel their stories matter. These attitudes and efforts in turn encourage people to gain confidence and faith in a process, a person, a promise. Trust-building is not fast or classically efficient; it takes time and investment, the slow shaping of mutual faith. But it is worth every minute.
Do conflict resolution skills serve any purposes other than to quell arguments or reach agreements? Of course they do! The same tools mediators and facilitators use to reach agreement also open the door to a whole world of smoother interpersonal relationships, better outcomes, and more productive day-to-day encounters. You don’t have to be a conflict management professional to find enormous benefits from the skills and techniques professionals use. What can you gain out of study and training in conflict skills? Our next five tips will talk about some of the advantages you can acquire: the power to build trust; communicate clearly and productively; learn how to acquire the patience of a saint; become practiced at sharing and switching perspectives; and keep calm and carry on. Stay tuned!
GROUP ONE: BACKGROUND ON CONFLICT
What do you mean? Humans wouldn’t even survive without the ability to form judgments! Think about when they were sitting around a campfire and had to decide is that noise in the bushes a predator or prey?! Don’t worry! In this context, Do Not Judge does not mean “don’t have opinions, don’t make decisions or don’t distinguish between right and wrong.” Obviously, we all do that all the time. However, in this context of conflict – your own or others’ – it means avoiding knee-jerk reactions or jumping to conclusions without facts. It means having the discernment and awareness to know when to take time to notice, question, and understand before cementing your own reactions. It means using your “stop” or pause period, as we discussed in the last tip, to remind yourself to observe without evaluating. Whether it is your own conflict or involves others, it means explore all the facts and perspectives first. This tip is a tough one, perhaps doubly so for those whose talents include being fast and decisive. But in conflict, neutrality, patience and persistence win out.
GROUP ONE: BACKGROUND ON CONFLICT
The single most important thing about handling conflict well is that you have to begin by stopping. Recognize your reactions and emotions, but stop negative self-talk, stop judging, stop the impulse to leap to a result, conclusion or imposition of your own will on the situation. Firmly tell yourself to take a break as soon as you realize you are confronting an interpersonal conflict or have been asked to or must intervene in a conflict among others. What are you stopping to do? To check in with yourself. Ask yourself “how am I reacting to this? Am I calm? Have I already taken a side? Do I need to walk away, count to ten, take a few breaths?” Your emotions and initial reactions to conflict are not to be condemned; they are what they are and may be deeply felt. But to move to the problem-solving step, you will need to use your “stop” to call upon patience, persistence, and self-discipline. Put this technique to work in day-to-day situations and see how beneficial it can be.
GROUP ONE: BACKGROUND ON CONFLICT
A helpful way to think about conflict is to recognize that people tend to handle conflict using a predominant personal conflict style. A popular scale for assigning conflict styles is known as the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode scale and many others are similar to it. Generally, researchers identify five conflict styles: avoiding, accommodating, compromising, collaborating, and competing. Each style is characterized by varying degrees of assertiveness and cooperation. For example, an avoidant style means preferring to walk away from conflict and just let things lie. Nobody wins, nobody loses. Conflict style is not absolute or permanent; most people have more than one style depending on the circumstances and most people can change styles to best address the dispute. Take a test to find out more about each of these conflict styles and about your own. You can find one similar to Thomas-Kilmann in the appendix of McGinnis’ Change Pain to Gain: The Secrets of Turning Conflict into Opportunity.
GROUP ONE: BACKGROUND ON CONFLICT
Interpersonal conflict handled well can have very positive impacts. First, conflict usually sends a loud and clear signal that something needs to change. In this day and age, change is the only constant and it is essential to respond to it. In the workplace, for example, conflict may be a message to management that something structural requires alteration for maximum company success. Second, conflict allows people to get to know themselves and others; when studying what we want and what others want, we gain insight and understanding of underlying needs and priorities, theirs and ours. Third, it tends to increase energy for creative problem solving, if only because relieving the conflict takes priority and gets people working toward solutions. Fourth, and paradoxically, it brings people together. People will sit at the table, at the meeting, in the conference call together because they have to work through something as a group and long-term, that may facilitate greater tolerance and unity. Finally, conflict is a huge opportunity for learning, not only about oneself and others but about organizational structures, problem solving skills, and how to increase productivity and success. Find literature, workshops or other opportunities to study these benefits in more depth.
GROUP ONE: BACKGROUND ON CONFLICT
It is safe to say that most people have images or metaphors of conflict that are dark and dangerous. Asked to come up with a word or two to describe conflict, people will tend to answer “fight” or “a festering wound” or “rowing upstream.” Metaphor and imagery are more than poetry; they are fundamental to how we see the world. Modern research has shown that metaphors have real cognitive consequences. A metaphor is not merely a figure of speech, but rather a construct that helps people interpret and perceive social realities. So, it stands to reason that if people can succeed in transforming their conflict metaphors and images to more positive pictures, they will succeed more surely at conflict resolution. Instead of a “fight,” conflict can be thought of as a “game.” Instead of “danger,” it can be viewed as “opportunity.” Instead of “wound,” conflict may be considered differences coming together. Practice transforming your conflict metaphors.
Our tips for the next twelve months will be presented as a series of four overarching subjects with six specific tips for each topic. The modules and tips can be read alone but also stand together as a super-abbreviated mini-course on conflict! The first module will be about interpersonal conflict generally – its origins, images, benefits, styles, using a “stop” to prepare to address conflict, and the overarching importance of being non-judgmental. The second set will focus on understanding goals for conflict resolution ranging from the development of trust among participants to achieving final agreements. The third module will be practical steps towards conflict resolution and management, featuring tips on six specific conflict resolution skills. The fourth theme will be group meeting facilitation and how to bring both conflict skills and facilitation skills to bear to create more productive group meetings. The tips are intended to benefit you whether you are intervening in a conflict among others, as a manager or supervisor might, or whether you are facing a conflict of your own. You can put these tips to even better use with more in depth education and training on each and every one.
You may find it unusual to think about expressing appreciation in the midst of conflict, but it can be a highly disarming and successful step in reaching amicable accord. Appreciation may be overt: “Thanks for taking the time to talk this through.” Or it may shine through your actions: you have taken your time to listen, have offered a calm place for discussion, and shown respect for the process. Of course, this is true not only when conflict has already broken out, but way before that. That is, sincerely expressing appreciation to people throughout the day and for all their work tends to build trust which in turn tends to eliminate conflict or lead to healthier expressions of conflict. Don’t try to fake it, however; learn how to find something genuinely admirable and welcome in another’s actions. Even this “soft” skill can be taught with advanced training.
Start out any conflict discussion with the presumption that everyone is acting in good faith. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, but giving them the benefit of the doubt is more likely to lead to useful problem-solving than starting in deep suspicion and assumptions of bad intent. How? Focus on the problem, not the person or their motivations. Heidi and Guy Burgess suggest you imagine you are both sitting on one side of a table. Across the table from you both is “the problem.” You are working together in good faith to address that problem, not to attack or doubt each other. You will be more likely to ask questions, probe the other person’s interests, explore your own and try to figure out how to satisfy both of you. So much better than if you were staring angrily across the table, stewing in a miasma of wariness, apprehension, and distrust. Perhaps it will turn out that they are not acting in good faith and do have bad intentions; then you may need to try another route such as asking for outside neutral help from a mediator. But you lose nothing by training yourself to begin in a spirit of belief.
One of the secrets of turning conflict into opportunity is recognizing that burning anger is not conducive to positive problem solving. While it is common to feel anger, it can upset the apple-cart, harming your ability to think clearly, to process rationally and to communicate well. While you are freshly angry, consider avoiding conflict altogether for a time until calm can return. Here is a helpful exercise you can do when preparing for a discussion of an anger-inducing conflict (as suggested by Dennis Rivers). 1. When I saw/heard _____; 2. I felt_____; 3. Because______; 4) And now I want __________; 5) So that ___________. Here’s an example of how this might work. Say you were angry over a nasty email that a co-worker sent to you. Before you talk with them, do the exercise. “When I saw that email, I felt very angry because it was untrue and hurtful. And now I want you to apologize so that we can clear the air and go on to improve our relationship.” Your conversation will now likely be much calmer and more productive. Try out this technique and remember you can get advanced training and education on handling not just anger but all emotions when in conflict.
Think about this anecdote. A new neighbor moved in. Accustomed as the neighborhood kids were to walking across each other’s lawns, a couple kids did just that at the new neighbor’s house, not even realizing the change. He was irate! He didn’t yell but he did grouch at the kids that they had disturbed his new grass seed. He was right – trampling over newly planted seed is just not the best idea. This is exactly the kind of neighborhood dispute that can escalate. OR NOT! Instead, the parents went over to talk. They explained the prior owner’s informality about the lawn but promised that the kids would be taught to respect the seedlings and avoid the baby lawn! They offered to buy some new seed or help sow. The new neighbor apologized for being grumpy and explained how hard he had worked that day at reestablishing the lawn. A warm chat ensued and not only was conflict averted, but a welcoming atmosphere was established. Great example of “just talk!”
Thousands of tiny hair cells enable us to hear. Rods and cones make seeing possible. We can sense the air, vibrations, tones. The structures that enable us to communicate are so intricate, delicate and strong that they are almost beyond belief. In conflict, every one of those senses can – must – be engaged to fully enter into someone else’s reality, perspective, place, in order to bring about peace. We listen intently with ears and heart; we watch for body language and tone; we feel shifts in the air, the atmosphere of a gathering. Not one single thing is more important to conflict resolution than this kind of intense attention. Whether it is your own conflict or when you are called upon to help others, keep those miracle sensors activated!
How do you usually handle conflict? Do you know? Various conflict styles exist and one of them may be your predominate choice when faced with a disputatious mess. Do you stand and fight, run and hide, look to please and give in, try to create a middle ground, or embrace the chance to create new solutions? No style is “wrong” – they are just different and being aware of them can help you make a deliberative choice of what style to adopt in a conflict. Husband wants fast food and you prefer Italian sit-down? The style you use may depend upon: how much does it really matter to you? What is at stake? Can you decide to take turns choosing – give him this one and you get the next? Can you compromise on Italian fast food? Once you are aware of conflict styles, you can choose what might be right for you in any given situation.
When Julius Caesar crossed the river Rubicon, a Roman civil war became inevitable. The die had been cast (yes Romans played with dice). In other words, sometimes a single step will commit you to a course of action that you may or may not want to take. In a conflict situation, ordinarily it is optimal to strive hard to do the opposite: keep your options open, remain flexible, be creative, stay poised for successful resolution. Crossing the Rubicon weakens or destroys your chances of achieving agreement, foments distrust rather than trust, makes a conflict much worse and may send you down a path you do not truly want. To be sure, sometimes you may have to take an unalterable stand as a matter of belief, justice, morality or fairness; but make sure you have paused for consideration, analyzed the alternatives, and made a conscious choice.
Conflict inevitably involves emotion. Tears, shouts, hostile body language, insults, whatever – when people are in conflict, raw emotions surface. Your job in the face of this is to weather the storm. Some of us hate stress and conflict so much that it is painful to put up with people’s volatile behaviors. But recognize that your own emotional resilience does not need to depend upon them; it depends upon you. Seek emotional support for yourself, develop your sense of humor, realize you control how you react, be attuned to your own feelings, adopt an attitude of gratitude and optimism. Above all, recognize that “bad” or “difficult” behaviors do not automatically equate to someone being a “bad or difficult person;” they may simply be a person experiencing a deeper hurt or need. Protect yourself but try to listen.
Resolving conflict takes monumental patience. The patience to ask questions when you would love to jump immediately to a judgment or conclusion; the patience to listen; the patience to recognize that people in stressful situations tend to repeat themselves, cycle, keep returning to the same points; the patience to remind yourself that you don’t know what you don’t know. The person you are dealing with may have deep concerns you can’t even guess at. This skill of patience, like most, can be learned through practice, practice, practice. Practice patience in rush hour, in listening to a co-worker complain for the umpteenth time, in waiting in an ungodly long line, in every situation where you can afford to experiment. It will pay off when you meet with conflict.
It can be tempting to label a person behaving in a negative way as a “bad actor” or a “troublemaker.” But peacemakers need to recognize that it is behaviors that are problematic, not people. Often, a behavior can be addressed without condemning or judging or devaluing the person. For example, an “interrupter” at a meeting may be engaging in that behavior because they are afraid they will never be heard. Address that directly be reassuring everyone that they will get their turn, rather than lecturing about interruptions.
Oftentimes, conflict escalates when people “push each other’s buttons.” The academic literature is full of studies on triggers for conflict like fear, uncertainty, unbalanced rewards and costs, or incompatible goals. You won’t have the luxury of an academic study of underlying triggers in a conflict unfolding before you, but with good listening, you can often hear and see likely candidates. Watch for statements and actions that cause people to withdraw, wince, strike back or otherwise react. Try to help them to name, recognize and understand what is happening. Getting such things out into the open can help reduce the unconscious power of triggers.
Being neutral does not mean being indifferent, cold, or uncaring toward anyone. In fact, think of it as being equally biased in favor of everyone! When trying to solve or diminish a conflict, even your own, it is important to care about the best interests of all involved – a lopsided bias on one side or another will lead to nothing but deepening trouble. In fact, this is so important that you should keep a running checklist in your mind: am I saying or doing anything that suggests I agree with or like or support one person to the detriment of another? If you are, step away for now.
The environment can play heavily into how conflict escalates or resolves. A room set-up can emphasize any number of relationships and interconnections like hierarchy, equality, observers/actors, depending upon how chairs, tables, pillows, couches and other objects are arranged. If you are bringing people in conflict together, spend some time thinking about what arrangements are best for these particular folks, keeping in mind everyone’s safety and comfort.
Something about providing food and water to people can start things off on the right foot. When people in conflict gather, a nourishing snack or drink can temporarily unite them in a human experience that is literally global. Sharing food and drink is a benign act and can take the edge off anger or anguish. That is why mediators sometimes bring a sweet treat or fruit or bread in order to warm the atmosphere. Of course, be alert to allergies and sensitivities, but you are likely safe with water, coffee or tea!
You’ve heard that mediators encourage people to walk in each other’s shoes, perhaps literally asking people to switch shoes (see Tip #13). Asking someone to look at a situation through another’s eyes and from their perspective is hard work. One technique you can use if you have the time is to introduce a classic empathy-building exercise: telling the story of Red Riding Hood from the point of view of the wolf (called the Maligned Wolf exercise)! Letting the wolf speak can help illustrate how drastically one’s perspective changes the narrative.
Before you approach a potential conflict situation, educate yourself as much as you can about what you will be dealing with. Is it an employer-employee disagreement over work rules, an argument about territory, an ancient conflict with a lot of history? Who are the participants and what has brought them to this situation? How deep, broad, or intense are the disagreements? Find out as much as you can about the facts and feelings involved, including your own, before you even begin any interventions.
Silence during a conversation can speak volumes. While it can be used as a weapon and make people uncomfortable, it can also serve to create respectful space. When dealing with conflict, try introducing a few beats of silence; you may even announce that is what you are doing to head off potential discomfort: “Let’s just sit quietly with these ideas for a minute.” A few moments without talking can give everyone a chance to reset.
Questions are key to conflict resolution. But a question is worthless if its impact is to solely make your own point, create uncertainty, cause discomfort, or be merely rhetorical. An artful question is sincere, well-tailored, neutral and open-ended. “Can you fill me in on that?” “What are you hoping for in resolving this conflict?” “Where would you like to take this conversation?” It may even be formulated as a statement, “Let’s talk more about that.” Practice artful questioning.
Conflict professionals always emphasize listening as an important step in conflict resolution. But what does it really mean? Deep listening means eyes, ears, mind, heart. Think of it as a “whole body exercise”: your ears hear, your eyes take in body language, signals and clues, your mind analyzes and your heart empathizes, all while singularly focused on another. You are not thinking about what you will say next, but only about the complete message your counterpart is conveying. Deep listening can lead to insight and understanding.
Conflict can create tension, stress, unhappiness, worry. It can disrupt relationships, taint workplaces, ruin friendships. But if we begin to understand the dynamics of conflict, we can begin to transform it into an opportunity. Stay tuned to learn more on how interpersonal conflict arises, how it persists.
Conflict is often born when we leap to the end before we understand the beginning. Picture someone saying, “I don’t believe you,” met by the response, “Well, it is true.” Neither speaker even knows what the other really means. What if, at the first potentially provocative, annoying, or conflict-ridden statement, we instead said, “Tell me more,” or “I’d like to understand that better,” or “Talk to me about that.” The more you learn, the clearer the picture. Alternatives to conflict will become more apparent
Conflict cannot be addressed, solved, managed or transformed unless everyone affected is willing to listen, to LISTEN LIKE CRAZY! Listen doesn’t mean just “hear.” It doesn’t mean tapping impatiently on your desk, mind wandering, while someone explains their grievances. It means to focus deeply, sincerely, and with authentic curiosity on what someone else is saying. It means avoiding the temptation to instantly respond, refute, argue. How? Consciously practice deep listening as much as you can, as often as you can.
So often during conflict, we automatically attribute bad faith or ulterior motives to others. For example, when somebody says, “I don’t believe this,” we may hear, “He is accusing me of being a liar.” Yet the speaker really meant “I don’t have enough information.” If we start every one of our listening adventures by assuming the speaker is expressing themselves in good faith, we increase our chances of transforming conflict, seeing its opportunities, before it even starts.
Open-ended, well-intentioned questions. You can’t understand someone else’s perspective without asking questions to probe their state of mind and purpose. Not questions like, “How can you possibly say that?” but questions like, “Can you tell me more about what you mean?” The art of gentle questioning with a view toward actually eliciting what others really mean is invaluable.
Conflict can be escalated by knee-jerk responses, intemperate reactions, thoughtless words. When in a conflict situation, push the PAUSE button instead. Take a beat or two to monitor your own reactions. Give yourself time to think. Ask yourself if you even need to respond, and if you do, do you need to respond now? Averting a collision is far more valuable than fixing it after the fact.
Research has shown that physical exercise can increase one’s sense of calm and well-being. In the midst of conflict, a simple break for walking around can reset your frustration level to “lower,” give you time to think, reduce your stress hormones. You can even try walking and talking with your “opponent” as a healthy outlet. If walking is not in the cards, just try stretching where you are.
In a group conflict, even if you have a direct stake in it, you can play the role of “Undercover Mediator.” Rather than jumping in with your own opinion right away, consider staying neutral for a time. A neutral mediator shows no preference for either side and does not judge. An undercover mediator simply uses mediation tips and tools to establish a full and fair dialogue, setting the stage for successful resolution. Watch for tools that you can easily learn and use in upcoming tips: listen, reflect, reframe, summarize, encourage perspective-taking, silence, no judgement.
Repeat or paraphrase what you have heard someone say. This is not like the annoying childhood game of verbal “copycat,” but rather an approach to developing understanding. When someone hears back what they have said, it can help them feel heard; allow them to recognize what they said is not actually what they meant; correct what they said; and move to a new understanding of their own concerns. In turn, you gain new understanding of them.
Framing is the perspective or frame that we bring to an issue or concern. People in conflict often use negative or even toxic frames. Reframing by someone else can help shift the discussion from negative to positive, from past to future, from resistance to cooperation. It sands off the rough edges and opens discussion, rather than letting people stay stuck. For example, in an employment termination case, the fired employee says to the employer: “I can’t believe you fired me and just threw me away.” Your reframe: “I hear you say that you don’t feel you were treated respectfully.”
In any conflict within a group – for example, a workplace meeting – add “summarize” to your list of tools. Imagine two other members are in a heated disagreement; rather than jumping in with your own opinions, try to summarize their differences. Often, hearing a third party’s summary will help the debaters understand both their own position and the other’s in a different light. It is one step towards resolution.
Breathing is a proven source of calmness. Whole cultural traditions and religions are based on the breath. So, it stands to reason that taking 3 deep breaths will help when confronted by conflict. Consciously take a deep breath in, followed by a long, slow exhalation. During inhalation, oxygen will fill your lungs and nourish your body, while your exhaled breath will rid your body of toxins.
Perspective taking means trying to fully understand another’s point of view. One mediator I know used to literally ask participants in conflict to switch shoes and try to imagine what the original shoe-wearer sees, thinks, feels, believes. Another has people physically switch chairs. You don’t have to take it that literally, though, to encourage yourself, or people in conflict, to try and see through one another’s eyes.
Conflict can be born of cultural miscommunication. For example, someone may be a loud talker who gesticulates and expresses herself dramatically, while another may be naturally quiet and believes the expressive talker is conveying insult or offense. Cultural differences are as ubiquitous, broad, and deep as there are people. We can’t understand every nuance of culture, but can ask ourselves when in conflict, “Am I reacting to a cultural difference that maybe I can try to understand better?”
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it is also “one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.” (Samuel Johnson) Genuine and authentic curiosity about what someone else thinks and why they think what they do is a great first step toward managing and ameliorating conflict.
The World’s First Empathy Museum opened in 2015 and travels around the world attempting to teach empathy. One of its projects is the Human Library, where instead of borrowing books, you borrow a person to talk to. Its founders are convinced that empathy is not only the foundation of personal relationships, but can transform world conflicts. Practice empathizing with a friend, stranger, someone different from yourself because this skill will prove invaluable in dealing with conflict.
In conversations, candor counts. People cannot gain strength and clarity about what they need and want without hearing and telling truths. Without candor, any conversation or attempt to reconcile conflict is doomed to failure in the long run. Some would say even “little white lies” are damaging. It is essential that people trust you to bring them the truth in all the big things.