Last year one of my readers asked if I would write about how to resolve conflict. I’ll admit my initial reaction wasn’t one of excitement. Conflict, in general, has been something I’ve tended to avoid most of my life. It feels uncomfortable in an awkward kind of way. Truth is — we all have to face it and learning how to resolve conflict is a skill more of us could use.
A few years ago, I shared a post on Facebook. I thought an article was funny and so I shared it on my timeline. I got some thumbs-up, and a few laughs and then a distant acquaintance blew me away with a comment. She went off on a tirade about how offended she was by the post and took an angle I hadn’t even considered when I hit the share button.
My reaction? I immediately deleted the post and went into hiding for a month. I was worried about who I had offended. What random thoughts were other people having about me because I was so bold in sharing something I thought was funny?
Sound familiar? For years I was a textbook people pleaser. I feared my own opinion because someone might not agree. The thought of defending an idea scared me into hibernation.
What is it about a conflict that makes it feel so uncomfortable?
Where Conflict Resolution Begins
Resolving conflict begins with your mind and your thoughts. The first step starts by becoming aware of your default way of thinking. The truth is, we all have different perceptions — take who’s right and who’s wrong out of the equation — we aren’t all the same, and it’s okay.
Shaped and molded by a commingling of nature and nurture, our minds are a blend of not only our DNA but the circumstances we have experienced. Born with certain aspects of our psyche, and others influenced by our relationships, experiences, and environment.
You may be naturally shy, but what if you are shy due to an overbearing parent who didn’t allow you to have a voice as a child. What if your behavior was modified by your environment, making you a passive person where your natural tendency may have been to be more vocal and outgoing?
Maybe you’re naturally outgoing, but what if your home experience caused you to be much more verbal to avoid negative consequences. In this instance, you may engage in confrontation out of habit when your natural tendency might be more inclusive or empathic.
Conflict Resolution Isn’t About Winning Or Losing
Growing up, you may not have thought much about conflict resolution. The term might have been foreign. You know you’ve had disagreements with people, but didn’t even think of it in terms of conflict and resolving conflict. You likely thought of it as winning and losing arguments. Thinking along those lines makes the stakes seem very high.
Conflict resolution is about shifting a disagreement towards a mutually beneficial result. If anything, it is a win-win outcome with no losers if things go well. Working from a solution-focused mindset is different than a winner-take-all attitude. The solution is not about overpowering or defeating someone to be the victor.
Going back to your nature and nurture conditioning — how you perceive the world is the most significant influencer on how you view conflict and resolve it. It’s essential to start to look at how your conscious and subconscious mind thinks about conflict.
The Conflict Triangle
Conflict brings out three little minions who love to war with one another — the Victim, Villain, and Hero. Each of us tends to pattern one of these minions when we are at odds with someone. They are sort of like a comforting companion when we are stressed. They reinforce our ego, telling us we are misunderstood, picked on, or can rescue others who don’t realize they need our help. The problem with this tricky trio is they are not serving our interests as we think. They are using our emotions to keep us locked into conflict. The very thing we don’t want!
Here’s how they work:
The victim tells us we aren’t responsible for what happens because we are weaker, at a disadvantage, or overpowered by the people we have a conflict with. The victim waits for someone else to make the situation better. Victims get their energy from being helpless and being rescued. People’s sympathy feeds their ego, which makes them feel special. The victim won’t stand up to conflict because a victim feels there is no use in trying.
The villain believes the person they are in conflict with deserves their anger because of what they have done. The villain loves the “I told you so” model of resolving conflict. The villain is a gossip who believes it is okay to share confidential information. He relies on blame and doesn’t leave room for compassion in a conflict. Fighting fair isn’t a goal; winning and proving the other person inferior is the objective.
The hero is co-dependent and doesn’t keep things honest. He rescues and reacts to conflict by stepping in and saving the day while sometimes denying natural and logical consequences for actions. Sometimes people need to experience the reality of what has happened, and a hero will circumvent this to reduce conflict, minimize fall out, and sometimes to look important.
While each of these characters seems pretty bad, they also have positive traits:
Victims tend to be very loyal and easy to manage. A victim who can find their voice can be an excellent balance of team player and solution-focused conflict resolutionist.
Villains tend to be very smart. A villain who can see past their superiority can become a fantastic advocate for grace when they can feel safe and allow multiple people to win in conflict.
Heroes tend to have a lot of compassion. If they can see the benefit in serving the bigger picture, they can be ready to help in supportive and appropriate ways.
Victims, villains, and heroes create the conflict triangle. Generally, when in the middle of a conflict, we usually fall into one of these categories. The key to changing this behavior is recognition and self-correction.
Identifying the role you and others play during a conflict can help align our actions in moving toward a resolution instead of getting stuck on the triangle. Being open-minded in learning new ways to communicate and approach conflict offers an alternative to the conflict triangle.
Mindset Skills to Resolve Conflict
Since conflict begins in your mind long before it expresses itself in a disagreement, it makes sense to develop mindset skills to help with resolution. Misunderstandings come from differences in perspective and a lack of common ground. The gap between “them and us” creates the conflict. Closing the gap may resolve the dispute, but how we arrive at a resolution is the crucial part.
Multiple possibilities lie within every conflict and are the most effective mindset skill to move from forcing resolution or compliance to finding meaningful solutions. Here are some mindset skills to consider:
One of the fundamental human needs is to feel accepted. All too often, people in conflict are coming from vastly different perspectives, which cause a rift and an us-vs-them mentality. Modeling acceptance and finding similarities instead of focusing on differences can close the gap and make the conflict smaller.
Being able to recognize failure, mistakes, and doing the wrong thing is one of the greatest gifts we can offer to those we love. Children who see their parents make and admit to mistakes, and then seek forgiveness or restitution will one day make better parents. Studies also show these children have a lower risk for domestic violence as adults. They are better in the workforce and have more successful relationships than those who did not have that behavior modeled for them.
Being able to hear and engage with someone truly is an art. Active listening involves repeating what you hear, asking for clarification, using non-verbal body language, and ensuring all parties are on the same page before moving on. Active listening goes a long way towards creating empathy, good faith, and resolving conflict quickly.
Contention can become heated. Once things go past a minor annoyance to downright conflict, our emotions are on high alert. Managing emotions allows us to identify what triggers our negative emotions so we can find ways to derail those feelings before they take root.
Similar to modeling acceptance, practicing empathy taps into your understanding of how the other person feels. The circumstances may not be the same, but our range of human emotions are. At some point, you felt the same feeling as the other person. Tapping into those emotions and expressing empathy minimizes the them-vs-us gap and helps us find a resolution rather than widening the gap. It’s about understanding how someone feels without trying to rescue or diminish their perspective.
Sometimes people say or do the wrong thing. Offering compassion can take the sting out of an already tough situation. Sometimes we need kindness to overcome shame or guilt. And sometimes compassion is what bridges the gap between us.
Choosing Words With Care
You may have come from a family where quick wit and cunning words put people in their place and won the victory in a conflict. On the triangle, a villain may use generalizations like “you always…” or “you never…” to win an argument. Generalizations, accusations, and negative talk do not breed trust; they breed contempt and defensiveness. Focus on choosing words with care. Learn to communicate to invite discussion, but derail conflict. Seek to understand better rather than to shut down and overpower.
Forgiving is a significant aspect of conflict resolution. Often when we have conflicting ideas, we react to our emotions rather than thinking things through. It is normal to regret these knee-jerk reactions is why forgiveness is an integral part of the resolution.
When someone is sorry, it seems easy enough to forgive. Intentionally forgiving results in better relationships and is the result when both parties feel heard and apologize for any wrongdoing. Forgiveness should be absolute, genuine, and without any contingencies. There is nothing worse than apologizing only to be reminded of your offense the next time there is a conflict. The end goal should be a complete do-over.
Forgiving someone who shows no remorse is a bit more tricky. The truth is, forgiving is more for you than it is for anyone else. Holding on to resentment and anger only hurts you while the other person has moved on with their life. Focus your efforts on releasing the lingering feelings associated with an unresolved conflict.
Compassion and kindness can go a long way in helping to release those feelings. Think of a toddler throwing a temper tantrum — flailing on the ground, yelling and screaming. Not only are they rude, obnoxious, and annoying, they are probably tired and hungry. Compassion and kindness allow you to forgive their behavior in light of the fact they are not in their right mind. A little nap and snack will have them back to normal in no time.
Try to show compassion and kindness when you bump up against people who are tired, hungry, overworked, and undervalued. Your willingness to react with tenderness will make avoiding conflict easier.
Be patient and kind towards yourself and others. Practicing these conflict resolution skills will help you interact with others on a more intentional way. There are some simple truths to remember as you move forward:
- Some people are unaware of their negative impact
- Everyone is fighting some battle
- Not everyone has the resources for change
- Some people thrive in drama
- Consistent kindness always prevails
- Sometimes you lose a struggle, but you can still win a war
The key is persistence. From your behavior to redirecting the behavior of others, sometimes it just takes time and patience. One thing is sure; doing the right thing always feels good. Even when it isn’t well received. Be clear with your intention and do the right thing for a peaceful conflict resolution. Hold your ground, keep your temper, and use the tools.
How Do You Resolve Conflict? Share your ideas in the comments.
- Can You Forgive Without Forgetting?
- Listening With Your Heart
- Kindness Matters
- How to Love the Difficult Person in Your Life
Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., Lawrence Robinson, and Melinda Smith, M.A., “Conflict Resolutions Skills.” HelpGuide.org