5 Game-Changing Steps for Effective Conflict Resolution

Thomas Crum - how we handle conflicts

Conflict. Here’s a topic for everybody!

“I hate confrontation.” If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard this sentence. Or better yet, a dime for every conflict I’ve watched NOT happen because it’s too difficult.

Conflict in itself isn’t bad. It can actually lead to all kinds of creative ideas, breakthroughs, growth, and trust. Bad conflict is bad. And we’re all so nervous about conflicts going south that we avoid them like the plague.

We’ve learned to avoid them. When we’ve been in conflicts, a lot of hurtful things have been said. We’ve come away from past conflicts feeling misunderstood, controlled, disrespected, and hopeless.

Here’s the thing, though: Conflict needs to happen. Even–and maybe especially–on a team. We’re all in this together, but we bring different focuses, different experiences, different strengths, and different priorities to the table. And fitting those together can be a confusing task. Unfortunately, we tend to get emotional and do a really bad job at meshing all our great ideas.

So we’ve learned to hate conflict.

 

“Conflict can destroy a team which hasn’t spent time learning to deal with it.” – Thomas Isgar

I’d bet all those nickels and dimes that all these conflicts that we just can’t seem to get away from would go a lot better if we’d do some preparation ahead of time (like right now)–learn how to navigate them effectively, so that we have a program to follow in the heat of the moment.

Like any manager (or team member), I’ve experienced a lot of conflicts at work and have gotten to pick up some great tips. I’ve learned some really bad ways to deal with conflict, and I’ve learned a few really helpful strategies, too. I’ve also discovered that the lessons about conflict I’ve learned from work cross-apply to every other area of life.

I’ve got 5 ideas about conflict I’d like to share with you. These are 5 steps I now ask my team to take whenever I’m playing the role of mediator. And 5 steps I TRY to remember to take when I find myself in conflict, too.

They REALLY help me. I hope they help you, too!

 

(Before we get started, one little note about formality. Like awkwardly following this really structured formula when discussing bad feelings or difficult things–a note about that kind of formality: It’s really good.)

 

Step 1: Take turns saying what you want each other to know about your conflict styles.

“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.” – Dale Carnegie

Person A gets really nervous in conflict and has a really hard time coming up with words to say or specific examples to give. If I don’t know this, I’ll think Person A clearly doesn’t have a good point or thoughtful argument to make.

Person B has a really hard time controlling their emotions and their tone in an argument, because a lot of unfair conflicts have let them feeling really unsafe. They get that some of what they say is overkill, disrespectful, or too combative, and they’re sorry about that. If I don’t know this, I’ll just be offended when Person B gets heated and I’ll just write them off as being kind of a jerk.

Person C feels really uncomfortable when discussing feelings. If I don’t know that, when I tell Person C how crappy they’ve made me feel, and their face looks like a stone wall, I’ll assume they really don’t care.

What about your conflict style gets you into trouble? What if you started by explaining and owning that. If we can accept each other’s very human weaknesses, we may listen and understand much better, and the conflict may feel much less combative. It’s important to know that we’re all just human people trying our best.

“I don’t like that man, I must get to know him better.” – Abraham Lincoln

 

Step 2: Take turns saying exactly what you want out of this situation.

Strangely enough, we tend to get so emotional when in conflict that we often forget what we REALLY want! (Oh hey! I just wrote about that!) And just as often we just choose not to tell each other simply, clearly, and honestly what it is we want. We get so caught up in our feelings and hurt and annoyance and pride that all we want is to throw (or dodge) that next punch.

But remember that behind every conflict is a need or desire that someone believes is legitimate and important.

“Every conflict we face in life is rich with positive and negative potential. It can be a source of inspiration, enlightenment, learning, transformation, and growth–or rage, fear, shame, entrapment, and resistance. The choice is not up to our opponents, but to us, and our willingness to face and work through them.” – Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith

If we can uncover and share what it is we really want, we can move the conflict away from generally hating on each other, away from slinging random and unrelated criticisms, and away from pushing all kinds of grand agendas and changes that may actually be of no concern to us.

For example, maybe my problem is a really simple one: I feel like you think I’m stupid because you include everyone but me in your planning process. I also think it’s embarrassing that I have feelings about your opinion of me. I think you’ll just see that as being sensitive. So instead of telling you what I really want–for you to demonstrate that you value my contribution and to stop excluding me–I attack from other angles: “You’re a poor planner! You forgot to consider A, B, and C last time! You have an inappropriate cliquey relationship with others on the team! You always act like you know best!” But NONE of those were my problem, so asking you to address any of those won’t fix a thing.

I need to get really honest with myself about exactly what it is that I want out of this conflict. And then I need to be really honest, direct, and clear with you about it, too. If we can both start with saying exactly where we’re going with all this conflict stuff, exactly what we’re asking for, the rest of the conflict will be much more clear and simple–much less tangled and confusing and rabbit-traily.

 

Step 3: Take uninterrupted turns sharing what this situation has made you FEEL.

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” – Winston Churchill

Time to share our FEELINGS. But first, why would you say exactly what you want (step 2) BEFORE sharing your feelings (step 3)? Doesn’t that seem backwards? Here’s why: Feelings are really awkward and subjective and can be hard to listen to. Feelings can have a million reasons behind them. And if you start with your feelings, there’s a good chance I’m not really listening: I’m trying to figure out what you’re trying to get out of me. Instead, let’s make really clear what we want first, come to terms with exactly what is being asked of each other, and then we can just listen in the context of the real issues at hand, instead of guessing and worrying and interpreting the feelings we hear.

Notice, too, that we’re NOT sharing what we think the other person MEANT by their actions in the situation! We’re sharing how it is making us FEEL: “This feels to me a lot like you don’t think I have valuable ideas.” That’s a crappy feeling that you can probably identify with. On the other hand: “You’re trying to keep me from having a say.” Sure, that may be how I “FEEL” about your actions, but that is just my interpretation and you are probably incredibly uninterested in my judgment of you. So we’re not sharing our assessments of the other and their motives and behavior. We’re sharing a feeling we don’t want to live with that we’re getting from this situation. That’s a much more likely place for us to understand and appreciate each other’s point of view.

Finally, we need to do each other the respect in this part (every part really, but it’s especially important and hard during this step) of NOT INTERRUPTING. Feelings are the yuckiest part of it all, and they’re incredibly easy to misread, they can take a while to explain, and they’re coming from a very vulnerable place inside of us–if we’re being honest. So cutting you off so I can explain away your feeling before you’ve even finished it or felt heard–that’s about the surest way I can prove to you that I’m not interested in your point of view. It’s disrespectful and hurtful. So we’ve got to listen–truly listen–to what each of us is feeling in this situation.

“When people respond too quickly, they often respond to the wrong issue. Listening helps us focus on the heart of the conflict. When we listen, understand, and respect each other’s ideas, we can then find a solution in which both of us are winners.” – Dr. Gary Chapman

These feelings we’re sharing are the fleshed out explanation behind why we need what we’re asking for in this situation. In step 2 I say what I want. In step 3 I tell you why this is so important to me. You need to hear both.

And we may be surprised at just how much we appreciate each other’s point of view and how crappy this situation is for each other if we truly listen in this step.

“An enemy is one whose story we have not heard.” – Gene Knudsen Hoffman

 

Step 4: Take turns genuinely acknowledging that each other’s experience is REAL.

“Listen first. Give your opponents a chance to talk. Let them finish. Do not resist, defend or debate. This only raises barriers. Try to build bridges of understanding.” – Dale Carnegie

If you followed the part about truly listening in step 3, this next step shouldn’t be too hard. But it’ll still be hard. In fact, I think the hardest part of conflict may be listening, and the hardest part of listening may be respectfully acknowledging that what you’ve just listened to is a real and valid experience or concern in the other’s mind.

“When we aren’t curious in conversations we judge, tell, blame and even shame, often without even knowing it, which leads to conflict.” – Kirsten Siggins

As long as we insist that the other is unreasonable, dramatic, crazy, stubborn, over-sensitive, stupid, or just completely wrong–we’re not going to reach a place of agreement with them. You may not be interpreting the situation the same way they are, but until you can accept and appreciate that their experience of the situation is a genuine and important one, there will be no bridge for each other to cross, no path to come to agreement.

On the flip side, sometimes being heard and understood is honestly all we really need or want in a situation. Maybe at the end of the day, I really don’t need you to include me in your planning process next time, but I just desperately needed you to understand that this is how it feels to me and that it hurts, and I just want some assurance that you respect me.

And honestly, appreciating each other’s point of view is not that complicated, and no, you don’t get to just say they’re crazy. If we got to just say they’re crazy and wrong about their experience, that’s what we’d say every time. If a situation leaves you feeling something, that is a real feeling to you, and that is important. It’s how you see things. That matters. I don’t have to agree with your assessment. I don’t have to see it your way. I don’t even have to agree to what you’re asking. But at very least, I need to acknowledge that your position is a real position and that I care about your experience. Because until I do, we are not on the same team.

It is key to remember here that what matters is the extending of a caring hand. This step is not about whether you agree with the change they want to see. This step is simply about choosing to be on a team together. We’re all in this together, and until we treat each other like we are, whatever resolution we try to come up with won’t be good enough.

“Respect is essentially a yes to others, not to their demands, but rather to their basic humanity.” – William Ury

 

Step 5: Take turns saying what you need and asking for agreement and commitment.

So here’s the bad news: When you get to step 5, you might still not come to an agreement. And if you can’t come to a resolution at this point, other options may need to be explored–ending your working relationship, asking for management intervention, etc.

But–if you don’t do all that stuff in steps 1 through 4, you will almost definitely NOT agree when you get to step 5!

In other words, no matter how you handle the conflict, there’s no guarantee that it will end in agreement. There’s no magic elixir for conflict. But laying the groundwork of learning how to communicate with each other, being clear about your needs and intentions, being honest about how you feel, listening to and appreciating each other’s points of view, acknowledging each other’s value and each other’s needs–laying this groundwork just makes agreement much more likely and palatable.

So now that we’ve hashed it all out and agreed to be on a team: Given each other’s experiences and needs, what exactly would we each like to ask of the other one? And can each of us agree to these requests? Or come up with another satisfactory version? By now we should both be helping each other look for ways to make this work well for both of us, and if we put our heads together as teammates, we can definitely come up with a solution or two.

And then what it all ultimately comes down to: Are we willing to agree to each other’s requests? And can we commit to follow through with these new solutions? We’re on a team, so we’re going to have to–if we want to be on a team.

Compromising, helping, acknowledging, making room, being respectful, going the extra mile, including each other, accepting needs, finding solutions acceptable to everyone–that’s the tough stuff that makes or breaks a team.

So take turns: Say what you need. Get specific. Ask for agreement. Commit. We’re in this together now.

And if you can’t agree–and maybe you really can’t–you’d better be really careful that it’s not just you being unable to be on a team with other humans. Because if you refuse to resolve a conflict, there’s a good chance (sure, not a guarantee, but a really good chance) that the problem is you.

“I have come to the conclusion that the greatest obstacle to getting what we really want in life is not the other party, as difficult as he or she can be. The biggest obstacle is actually ourselves.” – William Ury

 

What do you think? Would these steps help you next time you’re in a conflict? Could you walk your team members through this formula?

I’d love to know what else works for you when it comes to mediating or resolving conflicts, too, if you’ll comment below. I know these 5 steps aren’t the only good strategies out there!

Here’s to being on a team with the people in your life!

Priority #1: What do you dread?

I have a natural tendency to ignore stressful things until they go away. (Which they don’t.)

It’s not really a natural tendency. I think I learned it through some very tough young adult years full of confrontations and stalemates. But I want to say it’s “natural” to give myself some credit: It’s not “The New Me.” I’ve been trying to kill it for years. It’s putting up a good fight, though.

I’ll call this tendency “Avoidance.”

A breakthrough in my fight against Avoidance came a couple years back when my insightful manager started using a kind of a mantra with me: “Rip the Band-Aid off!” It was excellent advice. She helped me see things in a new way. Dealing head on with a stressful issue is always, always, always (always) less stressful. It’s like when you were a little kid wiggling at your Band-Aid, tears brimming in your eyes. It hurts less if you just rip it off–no matter how scary.

But dealing with problems is not always as quick and easy as “ripping the Band-Aid off” sounds, so I want to explore this idea a little further and in a bit of a different way.

 

Sometimes you have an extra difficult choice to make, and it’s one that looks less like a quick fix and more like a long, exhausting journey. And you can choose to avoid it.

Picture yourself at the most out-of-shape you’ve ever been. I remember gaining 75 pounds after I got back from Africa 6 years ago. A bachelor, full of emotional stress, not sleeping, and eating free burritos every day. Suddenly my body was almost 150% its former size. I felt stupid and unattractive. I felt incapable. Defeated. You know how I felt and you know how hard it is to make the change I needed to make.

I dreaded seeing myself in the mirror, putting on clothes, letting my family see who I’d become, being shirtless in front of my girlfriend. Painful feelings–fear and disgust.

But here’s the thing. I couldn’t just “rip the Band-Aid off.” When I have to tell my landlord I accidentally put a hole in the drywall–that’s a Band-Aid I can rip off. 75 pounds, on the other hand, is not a Band-Aid you can rip off. That’s a giant mountain you have to move.

 

So I’m 75 pounds heavier than I was just a couple short years before. Feeling ashamed and insecure. I want to be fit, I could be fit, but I’m just not. And I have two choices. I can start my long, hard journey back to a healthier me–or I can avoid dealing with this problem. Tell myself not to worry about it–it’s okay.

Avoiding it means I also get to avoid dealing head on with how I really feel about myself. Avoidance means a lot more time on the couch for me, a lot less time sweating and feeling insecure at the gym in front of a bunch of people who the world tells me are a hell of a lot “sexier” than me. Avoidance tastes more like pizza and less like broccoli. Avoidance is way easier.

But the stressful issue of my weight remains. It’s not going away. And the longer I avoid it, the worse it’s getting.

Dealing head on with the thing I dread is my other option. I can start the journey I know deep down inside I really want to start. I can start making healthier choices in what I eat, how much I exercise, and when I get to sleep.

So I choose to make the change. I tape up a piece of notebook paper in my closet. Every day I weigh myself and mark my new weight on the paper. Then I pull the hanging clothes back in front of my paper because I feel embarrassed and I don’t want my girlfriend to see my struggle.

I lose 5 pounds and I feel excited. Inspired. Then after the weekend I step on the scale and I’ve gained it back plus a little to spare. I feel my heart in my throat. This happens a few times and I give up.

Avoidance is easier.

After a few sad years of feeling ashamed, powerless, and out of control, my girlfriend helped me make a change–just a couple months before we got engaged. We committed with each other to be in this for the long haul. We completely restructured our day to day lives. The dreaded problem become one of our top priorities. We fought it every day. Not sadly or without a little fun and relaxation here or there. We fought it in a positive light, with excitement and ambition. We fought with consistency and dedication. With focus. It became a major priority.

It no longer was a dark cloud always in the back of my mind. It was my challenge. I felt good about how I was dealing with it. Yes, it was still hard and stressful. But I was dealing with it.

 

Work is really the same way.

Why do heart attacks occur most often on Monday mornings? (It’s true, Google it.) Because we dread going to work. Because there are big, scary, stressful, depressing issues at work. There are the things that cropped up yesterday and there are the things that have been simmering for a long, long time.

Usually when it’s a situation that came out of the blue, you can rip it off like a Band-Aid.

But then there are the underlying realities at work that make our jobs stress us to death. Unrealistic sales goals. An unfair boss. Self-centered co-workers. Irresponsible employees. Our own bad habits. There’s always a mix of these, but usually there’s the big one: When you leave work thinking “If only…”–what’s that “if only?”

Let’s say for example that this is why you dread work these days: “If only my boss would actually listen to me.”

How did we get here? The first time your boss cut you off, you didn’t immediately lose all motivation. So how did it become the big thing you dread about work? I’d argue it’s a mix of two things:

1. It’s happened a lot.

2. It’s become your “mental model.” The way your mind knows and explains how your boss functions at his core.

Sure, it’s your boss’s fault that he keeps talking over you and won’t give you the time of day.

But maybe it’s your “fault” that you’ve let it happen to the point that you think it’s just the way things are, your boss is a jerk, and it’s not going to change.

Notice that this is not a Band-Aid you can rip off. You have so much pent up frustration, and your boss is so entrenched in his habit, that it’s going to be a long, slow, painful, stressful journey to a healthier relationship. You have to retrain the mental model you’ve created for how and why your boss is who you think he is. You have to keep addressing the offense, patiently and positively.

If you start working on it today, and I mean really working on it–making it one of your very top priorities at work–it will slowly get better. More importantly, you’ll feel better–sometimes immediately.

Or you can avoid it. Avoidance is easier.

But it will get worse, and worse, and worse. And one day you’ll suddenly realize, “I hate my job! This is killing me!” And you’ll find yourself completely incapable of dealing with it anymore. And you’ll give up and walk away, battered and bruised.

And then the process will start over with the next “big thing” that goes wrong at your replacement job.

Avoidance or chasing the solution without delay. . . .

 

What if every morning you felt yourself stressing about work, you asked yourself: “What do I dread about going to work?” And then made that your #1 priority for the day?

We can make a practice–a habit–of immediately dealing head on with the things we dread, or we can let Avoidance rob us of time and happiness and continue in a cycle of failure and broken relationships.

What big thing do you dread? What can you do about it today?

 

Picture two different worlds a year from today: A world in which you started dealing head on with your big “what if” today, and a world in which you put it off a little longer.

before & after