In sensitive situations at work do you sometimes find yourself sometimes either arguing or going silent about what you want? Do you hold back with friends from expressing concerns? with family members? This article offers alternatives to fighting when differences and disagreements emerge between people in any venue--work, friendship, home or whereever.
What is conflict? Conflict is disagreement, but contrary to popular belief conflict does not necessarily involve fighting. As I explain in my book From Conflict to Resolution, conflict exists in any situation where facts, desires or fears pull or push participants against each other or in divergent directions.
Bickering, arguing or getting insistent about your point of view indicate someone who is unskilled at handling conflicts in a collaborative way. So does going silent about your perspective. Like dropping a ball indicates someone who lacks catching skills or falling on ice skates indicates someone who needs more practice at staying on his feet, talking in an irritated tone of voice, becoming insistent on your way or going silent all indicate skill deficits.
Sure, everyone may drop a ball or fall on skates once in a great while, in a particularly tough situation, If you are going to enjoy your work and other relationships, the less often you become irritible, argumentative, or go silent, the better your partnerships will be for both of you.
What is conflict resolution?
Conflict resolution is the process of trying to find a solution to a conflict. Ideally conflict resolution is collaborative problem-solving, a cooperative talking-together process that leads to choosing a plan of action that both of you can feel good about.
In an earlier posting I talked about what I call "the win-win waltz" for couples.
This post deals with the topic of conflict resolution more broadly, focusing on what triggers conflict, what the options are for handling conflicts, and how to do win-win problem-solving instead of avoiding discussions about differences or resorting to arguments.
How can you tell when there is a conflict afoot?
When people sense disagreement they tend to feel uncomfortable. Discomfort, that is, slightly negative emotions, alert you to the reality that a situation of conflict is occurring. That is, one person wants, thinks or does one thing, and another has a different perspective or prefers a different course of action.
Decisions therefore are one danger point. Any time two people need to pick a shared course of action they are at risk for experiencing conflict.
Seeing things differently can also provoke conflict. Fortunately, there are ways to disagree that prevent conflicts from emerging in these situations. I write about these in my posting on How To Disagree Agreeably.
So for instance, if Mom wants young Teddy to go to bed and Teddy wants to stay up longer to play on his computer, that's a situation of conflict. Mom wants Teddy to do one thing and Teddy wants to do another.
Similarly, if your colleague wants to take a lunch break now and you would prefer to keep working on the assignment you are doing together for another hour before going to eat, that's a conflict.
If John says to his wife Jennifer, "You should really be starting to cook dinner earlier so our meals don't get so late," that statement will provoke a double conflict. There's the diverging ideas about when to start cooking dinner.
In addition, Jennifer will experience irritation because John's "You should..." will feel critical or bossy to Jennifer, and Jennifer does not want to be either criticized or told what to do. In other words, how people say things as well as what they say can create the irritation that indicates a conflict. My post on how to say what's on your mind without coming across as critical expands on this idea.
What are the 5 pathways of conflict resolution?
When conflicts occur, participants have the following options, five in all. Only one of these options leaves both participants feeling good. The other four options are sub-optimal resolution pathways. They create ill will, bad feelings, and have a corrosive impact on relationships and well-being.
1) Collaborative resolution: Talking together can bring a disagreement out in the open in a friendly manner so that both parties understand each other's concerns and then can conclude by finding a mutually agreeable solution. This process is the gold standard for what people generally aim for when they talk about conflict resolution.
2) Fight: Participants bicker, get mad and even fight about whose way will win, bullying their way to a solution via coercive powering-over.
3) Submit: Participants avoid a potentially hurtful fight by giving up on getting what they want, ending the disagreement with the by-product of one person feeling sad and depressed.
4) Flight: Participants flee by self-distraction, escaping from dealing with the dilemma by busying themselves with some other activity like an addiction or an obsessive-compulsive habit.
5) Freeze: Participants become immobilized in anxiety and tension by staying aware of the problem and at the same time not talking about it.
Individual therapy helps people to understand and to settle the conflicts that arise within themselves. Couple and family therapy also focuses on conflicts, the conflicts that disrupt loving relationships between family members. Mediators help people in the business or legal world to negotiate cooperative resolutions to their conflicts. But what if you don't have a therapist or mediator to help you out?
The good news is that by learning how conflicts get resolved cooperatively, you can do it yourself.
The three steps of collaborative conflict resolution.
A synonym for conflict resolution is shared problem-solving. The word "shared" implies cooperation. For this process to work, participants need to stay collaborative, like they are sitting on the same side of the table facing the problem, never flipping into oppositional or hostile stances toward each other. That’s key to sustaining the process.
Here goes: a quickee course in collaborative conflict resolution.
Settling a conflict without getting mad, sad or anxious generally involves the following three steps:
Step 1. Recognition that there is a problem that needs to be solved.
Step 2. Exploration of the underlying concerns
Step 3. Creation of a mutually agreeable solution
To illustrate each step let us take an example of a couple, Jim and Barbara, trying to decide on a summer vacation.
Step 1. Recognition of a problem that needs to be solved
To begin a process of conflict resolution you need to recognize that a conflict exists. Sometimes that's the hardest time to stay in a positive tone of voice. So if you feel yourself becoming tense or irritated, instead of continuing in a bickering mode, pause and say to yourself, "Here's an opportunity to use my new skills. My irritation indicates that there's a conflict here!"
Jim: Let’s take a trip to Peking. I want to travel and explore.
Barbara: (Sounded alarmed and even irritated) Not me. That sounds awful. I love to stay at home. For summer vacation the last thing I would want to do is travel.
Note that the first step in moving forward toward resolving a conflict consists of both sides saying what is initially on their minds. Both sides speak; both sides listen to the other, even though what they want seems to be in conflict.
Danger: Participants who at this point head straight for the third step, finding solutions, will find themselves locked in a tug-of-war, a power struggle over whose way will prevail.
Far better: proceed immediately to step two.
Step 2. Explore Underlying Concerns
This step requires a change from looking at possible solutions to exploring the underlying concerns that your initial suggestions had been meant to accomplish. Solutions are plans of action. Concerns are underlying desires, fears, and other factors that matter to you in a given situation.
Jim: I was thinking of an exploring vacation because I want to be physically active during our vacation. At my job I sit at my desk all day. On my vacation I would like to move around, to walk long distances, and to meet new people. Besides, new sights feel invigorating, fun.
Barbara: That makes sense. As for me, I want to stay in one place because I have been working such long hours. I just would like to rest. I want to relax, to slow down, to recuperate. I also would love time to read, since I have so little time to read most of the year.
Step 3. Find a Mutually Agreeable Solution
Agreement and resolution come when the two people involved in a conflict create a plan of action that includes ways to meet the underlying concerns of both parties.
Jim: So I want to be able to move around a lot, to walk, and to see new sights and meet new people. You want to be able to sit still, to read and relax. How about if we go to the seacoast, to a beach resort? You can sit and relax on the beach; I can do beach sports like surfing and volleyball and also take long walks along the shoreline. You can relax alone in the sun. I can meet the people sitting near us on the beach, or participating in water sports with me. We can go to a place that is new for us, which I would like; at the same time we can stay in that one place rather than travel, which you would prefer.
Barbara: Sounds perfect! It’s a deal!
Note that even though this couple's eventual solution was different from the initial suggestions of both parties, because the plan of action was responsive the concerns of both people it felt better to both of them than either of their first ideas. That is, the solution was “win-win” not because one or both of them "got their way" but rather because the solution was responsive to the underlying concerns of both of them.
Please feel welcome to print out the chart that diagrams on elaborates these three steps that's in my earlier posting on the win-win-waltz. Post the chart (or this article) on your refrigerator or someplace similarly handy to pull out as needed.
Remember, what causes conflicts to create bickering and fighting is typicallly not how challenging the issues are but which route of conflict resolution two people choose to take.
DISRUPTIONS TO THE 3-STEP PROCESS.
In fact, the three steps above have potential pitfalls that are important to avoid.
Pitfalls to avoid in the first step, Expressing Initial Suggestions
several disruptive problems may occur. One person may never say what they want. One may present their suggestion as a criticism instead of a request. And one side (or both) may not listen to the other.
Not saying, not speaking up about what you want, will block launching a satisfactory process. If no one, or only one and not the other, says what they want, a collaborative conflict resolution process gets aborted.
At the same time, saying what you don't want or launching the discussion in a critical way also risks veering the conversation off the cooperative pathways. My posting on Getting Off On the Right Foot so Your Viewpoints Won't Get Left Out offers sentence starters that have highest odds of leading to a productive conflict resolution sequence.
Listening also is essential for the process to move forward. Listening effectively requires an attitude of taking the other person’s perspective and concerns seriously. Dismissive listening that brushes away, minimizes or criticizes what the first person has said brings the progress to an immediate halt. My post on listening skills details how to be sure that you are receiving data from others in a way that keeps dialogue moving forward collaboratively.
Tone is also vitally important. A relaxed friendly tone enables people to think most creatively. It also encourages generosity. By contrast, irritation or anger can immediately flip collaborative conflict resolution into oppositional fighting. In these cases, taking a break is vital so you can both get back to calmly cooperative mode before you continue talking. I talk about how to keep your emotions in the calm zone in another post.
In sum, for an effective launch to cooperative conflict resolution, both sides must express their initial desire or thought, laying out the wishes in a positive (“I would like to …”_), not negative (“You never...”) manner. Both sides must listen like a sponge, listening to absorb and understand rather than to criticize and brush aside the other’s point of view. Add symmetry of air time plus a cooperative, friendly emotional tone and it’s likely that Step One will go well.
The second step of a cooperative resolution process, Exploration of Underlying Concerns, requires commitment to a process of discovery. The goal is to find out what factors are necessary in order to find a solution that pleases both sides.
If either person is interested in WINNING instead of in learning each other’s concerns for the benefit of both of you, the process will abort.
Similarly, if either party listens to the other with a goal of proving “I am right and you are wrong,” the discussion will turn turbulent and end prematurely. The impulse to win by causing the other to lose is like boulders in a stream of water; it blocks the flow and causes turbulence.
Step Two also requires the ability to explore a problem in depth instead of leaping to an immediate solution. Exploration is difficult because it requires people to look below the surface, to ask themselves “Why do I want this?” Much of a therapist’s work consists of skillfully helping people to explore their underlying concerns, much as a midwife skillfully assists a baby’s emergence from the womb.
As in the first step, symmetry is vital to successful second-step dialogue. Both sides must express their underlying concerns; and both sides must listen thoughtfully to the other’s concerns.
The third step, Finding A Solution that works for both parties, tends to flow with relative ease if the first two steps have been successful.
Still, one requirement is that thinking be open, so that new solutions, solutions that meet both people’s primary concerns, can be discovered. Sometimes also modifications to one of the earlier suggestions will make that one workable. Still, both people have to remain open to a new plan rather than attached to their first idea.
Another requirement is a belief that mutually gratifying solutions can be found; without this belief the attempt to create solutions never gets launched.
Lastly, no one gets to suggest what the other person should do. Doing the thinking for the other person is generally unhelpful. Instead, participants each need to focus on what they themselves might be willing to offer toward a total plan of action.
Once mutually agreeable solutions have been agreed upon, it's helpful for both sides to check that they are thoroughly satisfied. This checking can be accomplished by each participant asking “Is there any piece of this problem that still feels unfinished or uncomfortable?” A small adjustment to the solution at that point can prevent later dissatisfactions with the agreement.
Why The Other Four Conflict Resolution Processes Are Problematic
Anger emerges when people feel that they cannot get what they want, or that their point of view is not being seriously considered by the other participant. Anger from one person is likely to provoke anger in the other. Each side may then try to escalate over the other in order to dominate and win, and a fight is on.
Fighting produces winners and losers, and in the process abandons the actual problem and focuses instead on how much hurt they can cause to the other. That’s why a fight typically leaves the original problem unsolved. Each fight therefore increases the likelihood of further fights, a pattern of perpetual conflict, and can lead to verbal or physical violence.
Avoiding conflicts sometimes looks preferable to fighting. The difficulty with avoidance is that the problem does not get attended to or solved. If the problem continues to hover in consciousness without leading to open discussion, individuals will feel anxiety; couples will experience tension.
Obsessional thinking, compulsive behaviors and addictions are evidence of avoidance even of thoughts of the problems by means of distracting alternative activities. Disengaged marriages result when spouses avoid conflicts altogether.
Depression occurs when one side wins and the other loses. The feelings of hopelessness and of anger that underlie depression come from feeling that one’s concerns have been ignored, that one is not being listened to, that one cannot get what one wants, or that one has lost.
Fighting, avoiding and giving in all can have serious consequences. They create negative emotions that harm elationships. Also these less-than-satisfactory conflict resolution processes leave the realistic problem in life un-solved. Clearly, peaceful win-win conflict-solving pathways are preferable to either fight, flight or submit responses.
CONCLUSIONS ABOUT CONFLICT AND CONFLICT RESOLUTION
The three steps described above apply to solving conflicts that have occurred within any realm: within one person’s wishes, fears and/or values, between people, between groups, or even between nations.
Staying on pathways of collaborative communication is vital to successful conflict resolution. Any slippage will inadvertently risk triggering process-induced conflict. Learning these skills can give you guardrails that keep you safe.
What's vital on the listening end is that we learn to listen seriously to our own wishes and concerns, and also to hear the wishes and underlying concerns of others. I call that dual ability bilateral listening, that is, two-sided listening. Bilateral listening is a hallmark of personal maturity because it enables people to create solutions that encompass the concerns of both participants.
To the extent that we succeed in learning to do collaborative conflict resolution, we will become more effective and productive at work, live more harmoniously as families, and be able to hope for a more peaceful and harmonious world.
Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, is author of Power of Two, a book, a workbook, and a website that teach the communication skills that sustain positive relationships.
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