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!

A year later (compassion: we all have some crappy things we need people to understand)

Yesterday I felt really upset and sad that I got a concussion last year. A year–seems like this should be done now, right? When I had my first concussion, everything felt pretty normal again a few months later. This time, it’s been almost a year, and I don’t feel like myself.

I think the last of the physical and mental effects wore off months ago–at least the effects directly from the concussion–but I’m still trying to get past the after-effects of those first effects. Like when you go from running miles and miles every week to suddenly hardly being able to go for walks. Now my head isn’t keeping me from going for runs. Now I just can’t go for runs because I lost so much strength and didn’t realize how slowly I needed to work back into exercise, so I screwed up my back. And I’ve discovered along the way bad habits I’ve always had that have made my back so weak and vulnerable to begin with. Or now my head isn’t making the world seem foggy, confusing, or dangerous. But all the days and weeks and months of extreme anxiety added up and left me feeling scared and on edge and a lot more emotionally vulnerable than I used to feel.

Yesterday all I wanted to do was go to the gym or go out for a run, but I felt self-conscious and weak and frustrated, and running isn’t the healthiest exercise for my back these days. I thought about how fit and active I was a year ago. I had worked hard to be as healthy as I was. It was great. I was always up for anything! It was a part of my identity. Why the hell did that day have to happen? It still sucks.

One silver lining is that all the anxious days made me pay more attention to myself deep down, though that doesn’t always feel like a good change. Another silver lining is that I think I feel more compassion and acceptance than I used to–for myself and for other people. I guess I get that no matter how much you wish you were exactly your dream self, sometimes life has other plans. Or sometimes life just throws a curveball at you, and not everyone is going to find the strength to head in the right direction every day. Some days just giving in to the weakness or the pessimism feels like … well it doesn’t feel good, but it just happens anyway. Like eating your feelings. I think I understand even better now, that people don’t just live screwed up lives because they want to, or because they have bad attitudes. People are fragile. Fragile AF. But we’re also strong, so I decided to go to the gym anyway, and I set a few healthiness goals for August 16–the one year mark since I bonked my head.

Silver lining or no, though–sometimes life has its crappy moments. Crappy days. Crappy happenings, that can leave you feeling weak and frustrated, uninspired, lonely, misunderstood, just … sad.

I think we all need each other to understand each other in times like that.

I spent a lot of yesterday thinking of how much my concussion last year changed my life. I felt embarrassed, because … come on. Right? But I know a concussion can mess with your life pretty long-term. Especially repeat concussions. I think mostly they’re not the end of the world. But I think a lot of people don’t give each other or themselves the benefit of the doubt–space to feel and heal.

And it’s not just concussions–and it’s not just a few of us. PTSD, losing a loved one, sexual abuse, auto-immune diseases, bullying, losing a job, miscarrying your baby, depression, addiction, loneliness, feeling betrayed, verbal and emotional abuse, chronic migraines, cancer…

I think it’s always worth telling each other how these things affect us. Being open and honest about the darkness we sometimes feel. And then, like Lyssi helped me with yesterday, helping each other reflect on the good things we still have, too.

I wanted to re-post something I wrote in January about some of the unexpected effects of dealing with a concussion, along with something Lyssi wrote about it, too.

I also want to encourage everyone I know to learn about all the different hard-things that your people go through. And to share your own. We’re all in this together. Nobody has to be a hero. Mostly we just need some love and understanding. So ask and listen, and speak up, too.

12 Things That Happen When You Get a Concussion

A Glimpse Into My World of Slow Concussion Recovery

What’s your story you want people to understand?

Be epic 2

5 Life Things I’ve Gotten from Running

I’m a runner. Running makes me feel alive. I run often and I run hard and it makes me feel strong and accomplished and really, really, really happy. But I’m not an extremely talented runner.

I used to jog a couple or a few miles at a time. If I could manage to make it to the two-mile marker without stopping, I was pretty happy. I averaged about 10 minutes a mile on what I thought at the time were long runs. On rare occasion I would run-walk an entire 13.1 miles–a half marathon–and it would take me a few hours. A couple years ago I started running harder. After a year of on and off practicing, learning more about running as I worked on it, I did probably my proudest run: About 9 miles at under 8:30 per mile. And I could sprint over a half mile in 3 minutes. And then I fell over one day and got a concussion, and it took months before I could push myself to anywhere close to what I used to do. I’m still not there.

I have actually learned a lot from my (fairly humble) journey as a runner (fairly humble because I’m really not a great runner and may never be–did you know that Olympic marathoners average under 5 minutes a mile for 26 miles straight? I can’t even come close to running just one mile that fast). I’ve noticed that while I’m running regularly, I’m happier and more confident and I feel better about the way I handle myself and direct my life. I think it’s because the more I run, the more I realize . . .

  1. You can be passionate about something without being the best at it. Respect the passion you see in yourself and in others.

It’s a competitive world out there. It’s very hard not to constantly compare yourself to the next person, and the trouble is there will always be someone out there who’s more skilled than you.

Some of my friends think it’s amazing that I’ll go for a ten mile run. But some of my friends go for hundred mile runs. Here’s the thing: If you go for a jog–walk breaks and all–for a half mile, because you want to run, you are a runner.

It’s easy to silence ourselves, or let others silence us, because we’re not the best–or not even very good–at something we love. But if you love it, be proud of that. Respect it. It’s still amazing. Trust me, I know who I am as a runner. I’m solidly mediocre, and incredibly happy to be a runner.

And I never want to put out someone else’s flame by making them feel like it’s not big or bright enough.

  1. You can push yourself harder than you think.

I remember the exact day I went from being a comfortable runner to working for it. It was a 5k around my town–3.1 miles. I was running pretty hard–much harder than usual. I knew I was going to have to slow down–maybe even walk–after the first mile. But then something in me told me to keep going.

I think it’s the first time running has actually felt like really hard work. I had to concentrate on taking deep breaths and just push myself through the pain. Then I had to focus on not letting my legs slow down as they started to fatigue. I had to run through the tummy thrills and nausea, deciding I was going to win the mental battle and keep going.

I ran those three miles way faster than I’d ever done before. I was on top of the world, and it completely changed the way I run.

The more I pushed myself as a runner, the more I noticed myself exercising strength of will day to day in all areas of life: Sometimes you have to have scary conversations that it would be easier not to have. Sometimes you have to say no to the sugary snack calling your name. Sometimes you have to choose between feeling safe and comfortable, and making a big life change you know you really want. There are so many areas of life where if you really do the emotional, mental, physical work–and don’t back down–and keep going–and keep going when it’s starting to really hurt–and just be determined–you’ll do so much more and so much better than you ever thought you could.

  1. Don’t take unhealthy shortcuts. Be patient. You still want to be able to run a year from now.

If you google “Mistakes new runners make,” you’ll find things like this at the top of just about every list: “Doing too much, too soon; Being too ambitious; Too far too soon; Not resting; Ignoring the pain.”

It’s almost comical how many times I’ve hurt myself running and not learned the lesson. There’s a lot that goes into doing something in a healthy, functional way. For running, some of these are: “Warm up and warm down; Don’t stop moving right after running; Don’t stretch when you’re not warmed up; Take plenty of time stretching afterward; Let your body rest and recover; If you haven’t been running 3 miles, don’t jump straight to 6.”

We often get so amped up about the thing we’re working on right now in our life that we forget we have to do it in such a healthy way that we can still be doing it a year from now.

A few other ways you can take unhealthy shortcuts: Working 70 hours a week on salary to try to build a career–and burning out; Trying to make emotional relationship work fit neatly into your schedule–and finding out too late the message that gives; Suddenly committing to never eating anything unhealthy again–until you suddenly go on an eating binge because you just can’t take it.

Most great things in life take patience. A shortcut that gives you a burst of endorphins and confidence today might later leave you even weaker and further from your goals than when you began.

  1. Consistent baby steps add up.

Saving a little bit of money regularly can make you incredibly wealth. Learning a little bit more every day can make you an expert. And running a little further and a little faster every week will add up. I know this from experience.

Very few people suddenly become amazing at their thing. Even people who seem like they have come out of nowhere to suddenly realize incredible success and popularity have probably been stretching themselves further and trying harder day by day for a long, long time.

“Any time you see what looks like a breakthrough, it is always the end result of a long series of little things, done consistently over time.” – Jeff Olson, The Slight Edge

If you want to go a long way, you have to take the first step. And then the second. And then the third. And if you keep taking those little steps, you’ll get there.

  1. There’s a lot of beautiful world out there for you.

Sometimes you just have to open your eyes and look around you. Head outside and see for yourself.

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Thanks for reading!

Whether you’re a runner, a writer, a cook, a teacher, a traveler, or a friend–be proud of who you are, never give up, and may more and more happiness be with you!

Peter running
10 miles, Eden Prairie, MN