What Makes Conflict? How Are Conflicts Resolved?

Couples do best when both partners have strong conflict resolution skills.

Posted Nov 14, 2012

(c) Design Pics/fotosearch
Source: (c) Design Pics/fotosearch

In sensitive situations, do you often find yourself either arguing or going silent about what you want? Do you hold back from expressing your concerns out of fear of conflict?

This article offers alternatives to fighting when differences and disagreements emerge between people in any venue—at work, in a friendship, at home, or wherever.

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, as 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. 

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.

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—alerts you to the reality that a situation of conflict is occurring. 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 post "How To Disagree Agreeably.")

3 Steps of Collaborative Conflict Resolution

First and foremost, watch your emotional tone. A synonym for conflict resolution is shared problem-solving. The word "shared" implies cooperation. For the following 3-step process to work, participants need to stay friendly—as if 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.

Then, to settle a disagreement without getting mad, sad, or anxious, take the following three steps:

  1. Recognize that there is a problem that needs to be solved.
  2. Explore the underlying concerns.
  3. Create 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: Recognize that there is 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 maintain a positive tone of voice. 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 this summer. I want to travel and explore.

Barbara: (Sounding alarmed and even irritated) Not me. That sounds awful. I'd love to just 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 is to proceed immediately to step two.

Step 2: Explore the underlying concerns.

This step requires a shift 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 time off. At my job, I sit at my desk all day. On my vacation, I'd like to move around, to walk long distances, and to meet new people. Besides, new sights feel invigorating and 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, slow down, and recuperate. I also would love time to read, since I have so little time to read most of the year. 

Step 3: Create 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, walk, see new sights, and meet new people. You want to be able to sit still, read, and relax. How about if we go to the coast, to a beach resort? You can sit and relax on the beach; I can do beach sports like surfing or volleyball and 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 to 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 because the solution was responsive to the underlying concerns of both of them.

Disruptions to the 3-Step Process

The three steps above each have potential pitfalls that are important to avoid.

In the first step, it's important to refrain from expressing initial suggestions. Several disruptive problems may occur as a result. 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 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 away from cooperative pathways. (My post, "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, too, 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. 

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 a calmly cooperative mode before you continue talking.

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 manner (“I would like to …”), not a negative one (“You never...”). 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 the first step will go well.

​Remember, what causes conflicts to create bickering and fighting is typically not how challenging the issues are but which route of conflict resolution two people choose to take.

The second step, the exploration of underlying concerns, requires a 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. 

The second step 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 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; 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, modifications to an earlier suggestion 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 uncovered, 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.

Conclusions

The three steps described above apply to solving conflicts that have occurred within any realm: within one person’s wishes, fears, or values; between two 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.

To learn more about how to handle conflict in ways that enhance your relationships, check out Dr. Heitler's books and website.