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17 Rules to Guide You Through Any Conflict

Ways to reach a real agreement, whether with a partner, coworker, or relative.

Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Conflict is an inevitable part of a relationship. Whether it’s at work or at home, you’re bound to run into a situation in which you and another person don’t agree on an issue, a plan, or a problem to be solved.

Conflicts trigger our deepest emotions. Just watch two young children battle over the same toy. Filled with sheer rage, they each grab at the toy, and each other, until one of them prevails (or the toy breaks). Such conflicts set the stage for all of our adult struggles. The words we use may become more sophisticated, but the underlying feelings remain strikingly similar.

The key feature of Dana Caspersen's new book, Changing the Conversation: The 17 Principles of Conflict Resolution, in my opinion, is its emphasis on these underlying emotions. This graphically-oriented how-to book takes the reader through her 17 principles in a way that allows you to understand each principle, its “anti-principle,” its focus, specific examples, a way to put it into practice, and the choice it presents. Drawing from examples that range from relationships to office politics to parenting, Caspersen gives you the chance to understand what’s behind life’s everyday conflicts and how best, in turn, to consider handling them.

Caspersen emphasizes the importance of “changing your conversations,” allowing conflict to translate into a “moment of opportunity.” A conflict, then, becomes a “difficult situation” that you can use to challenge and change yourself and your relationships. By emphasizing the conversational aspect of conflict, Caspersen allows us to change the way “conflict is expressed…to resolve conflict from the inside, in a manner that works for everyone involved.”

It may not be all that easy to keep 17 principles readily in mind when you’re in the midst of a conflict, but you should be able to recall the three categories into which they fall. Essentially, the process involves a listening/speaking phase and a dialogue between the disputing parties. It's only at that point that you can reach a solution or agreement that works—at least for now. Caspersen maintains that we can never completely eliminate conflicts and rather than strive for this unrealistic goal, it’s healthier to figure out a way to handle them on future occasions.

Here, then, are the 17 principles, grouped by phase, and using the term partner to refer generally to the individual with whom you're in conflict:

Phase 1: Facilitate Listening and Speaking. Listening and speaking are the basic elements of a conversation. Too often we do one without the other. In the early phase of conflict resolution, you and your partner need to be able to be as nondefensive and nonjudgmental as possible. Don’t rush to a solution, because it’s only by seeing the situation in all its complexity that you’ll be able to “untangle the strands.”

1. Don’t hear attack. Listen for what is behind the words. If you assume you’re under attack, you’ll hear attack. Instead of hearing “attack,” try to hear “information.”

2. Resist the urge to attack—change the conversation from the inside. If you can avoid hearing “attack,” this principle will be easier to follow. For example, your partner may be asking you to clean the dishes up earlier after a meal than you would care to do. Rather than complain angrily about this night after night, you can instead express the way you feel about the situation. Here’s where an “I” statement (“I feel disappointed because I like a clean kitchen”) is preferable to a “you” statement (“You’re a lazy slob.”) As a general rule, this sentence can give you language to help you frame this statement: “When [this event] happened, I felt [this feeling] because [my need or interest] is really important to me.”

3. Talk to the other person’s best self. According to this principle (and its antithesis—provoke the other person’s worst self) you are best off approaching a conflict by appealing to your partner’s higher nature. Just as a sports team will “play down” to an inferior opponent, you and your partner can devolve into a shouting match if you each appeal to the other person’s worst impulses. Try to find the good in other people, and their good side will be more likely to show through.

4. Differentiate needs, interests, and strategies. People have basic needs (such as autonomy) interests (such as seeking to be educated), and strategies (such as applying to school). Caspersen puts it succinctly. “Every strategy is an attempt to meet a need or interest.” If you try to come up with a strategy before figuring out which needs or interests are being addressed, your approach will come up short. Asking yourself what’s so important about the conflict will help you identify your needs and interests.

5. Acknowledge emotions—see them as signals. This is perhaps the crux of the first set of principles. We often act on our emotions without recognizing that they're telling us something important. Emotions can help you understand what’s driving the conflict. If you take the time to identify the emotions, you’ll be better able to get to the root of the problem. Pretending you don’t have those emotions will only ensure that they continue to get in your way.

6. Differentiate between acknowledgment and agreement. Let your partner know that he or she is “being heard,” as the saying goes. Don’t assume you and your partner do, or should, agree on every occasion. You can use phrases such as “It sounds like,” or “I hear you say that,” perhaps followed up with “Is that right? What are your concerns?”

7. When listening, avoid making suggestions. No matter how obvious the “solution” seems to you, it’s important that you hear the other person out. Not only may your partner be going in a completely different direction than you imagined, but by waiting, you also communicate an air of respect. You can ask clarifying questions (“Is this what you mean?”) that show you’re interested, but don’t try to jump-start a solution out of your own discomfort or impatience.

8. Differentiate between evaluation and observation. Create a “no-judgment” zone for your partner in which you make observations (“You came home at 6 pm instead of 5 pm three times this week”) rather than evaluate or judge (“Why are you always so late?”). By noting a behavior instead of evaluating it, you avoid putting the other person on the defensive, which, as shown in the previous principles, can create continued resentment and misunderstandings.

9. Test your assumptions—and relinquish them if they prove false. Being a good scientist involves being willing to make hypotheses that you can test empirically. Similarly, in a conflict, simply state your observation (“You came home at 6 pm…”) along with a question to make sure your observation is correct (“Is that right?”). In this way, you are able to show that you’re open to being proven wrong rather than insisting that no matter what, you’re always right.

Phase 2: Facilitate Listening and Speaking. To change the conversation, you have to get inside it. The open mind is fine to get the conflict resolution process underway, but then you need to maintain it as you work it through with your partner.

10. Develop curiosity in difficult situations. You may not always like the answers that you get during a conflict, such as the infamous question “Is it me or is it you?” but you still need to maintain an open mind to be able to hear what your partner has to say.

11. Assume useful dialogue is possible, even when it seems unlikely. Opponents at the opposite ends of a bargaining table often make dire predictions about the likelihood of reaching agreement. However, if you assume the best can happen, perhaps it will. Try to find out what’s keeping you from having that useful dialogue occur, such as asking yourself, “What is making it difficult for us to talk in a productive manner?”

12. If you are making things worse, stop. As people’s emotions escalate in a conflict, it becomes increasingly difficult to pull away. Have an open mind toward recognizing that you may be the one preventing you and your partner from reaching a positive outcome. This doesn’t mean that you always have to give up in every situation, but you can benefit from recognizing your own contribution to a conflict, especially if it’s the kind of conflict you have time and time again.

13. Figure out what’s happening, not whose fault it is. Finger-pointing is one of the most destructive conflict resolution strategies there is. Everyone in a conflict plays a role in keeping it going, no matter how large or small. Rather than try to assign blame, try to take the long view to understand what got you to the position you and your partner are now occupying.

Phase 3: Look For Ways Forward. Planning for the future, and the possibility of future conflict, is the last phase of conflict resolution. As you'll see, though, it's not the "end."

14. Acknowledge conflict. Identify your needs and interests as well as those of your partner, recognize that they’re at odds, and then try to come up with a workable strategy to resolve those differences. You may find that there are multiple issues involved. Make a to-do list of the ones that seem most vital, along with workable steps for tackling them.

15. Assume undiscovered options exist. You may feel at your wit’s end, but if you take the positive viewpoint that change is possible, you may be able to come up with creative solutions to which your partner agrees. Thinking outside the box, perhaps by taking a little break (as in Principle 12) may allow you and your partner to refocus on a solution you can both live with.

16. Be explicit about agreements. Any good resolution will involve some type of agreement; rather than make assumptions about what that agreement is, be sure that both you and your partner are clear. It may seem strange, but by putting those agreements in writing, you can reduce the chances of misunderstandings in the future. Similarly, if situations change (such as your partner gets new work hours), you need to revisit your prior agreements.

17. Expect and plan for future conflict. It would be nice if we settled arguments once and for all and they never appeared again. However, certain themes are likely to recur over time, particularly in your closest relationships. The better you can listen, speak, delve into a conflict, and then come up with an agreement, the less likely a conflict will come back to haunt you. However, the reality is that our needs and interests will never completely coincide with others, even those who you hold nearest and dearest.

In summary, this intriguing book covers a lot of ground. The basic themes of communication, respect, curiosity, and willingness to consider alternative points of view can get you through many of life’s toughest moments with the people who matter most to you.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015

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