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!

When in conflict: 1 question you HAVE to answer

Fight or flight. Adrenaline’s pumping. You’ve been pushed and you’re ready to push back.

STOP!

Remember to ask yourself one question!

It’s a question we forget about all the time, but it’s what really matters to you in a conflict. We have a tendency to make knee jerk decisions before we stop and think. And even if we do take time to think, we tend to base our decisions on what would feel good. Running away, lashing back out, proving a point, putting someone in their place, taking a stand, not backing down. Sometimes when we make decisions that feel good–that our fight or flight instincts tell us to make–we later regret those decisions. We didn’t stop to really think about the one thing that mattered:

What do you want out of this situation?

It seems so simple. And it is. But we get stubborn. We get scared. We get angry. We get vindictive. We get tired. We get embarrassed.

Especially we get stubborn. A lot of the moves we make in conflict tend to be moves we don’t really want to make, that will get us to a place we don’t really want to be, just because we’ve been pushed and we don’t like it. . . . “Don’t cling to a mistake just because you spent a lot of time making it.” – Aubrey de Grey

So before you burn a bridge, turn tail and run, or stubbornly refuse to compromise–ask yourself: What do you ACTUALLY want out of this situation?

Sometimes the way to get the thing you actually want is through boring, unimpressive, unflashy communication. Sometimes getting what you want will mean not doing conflict the fun way, the feel good way, or the badass way.

So when in conflict, STOP–before you do something you’ll regret–and ask yourself: What outcome do I ACTUALLY hope to arrive at? What do I really want out of this situation?

And then focus on that. Not winning. Not proving a point. Not defending yourself. Just on thatthe outcome you want.

Howard Baker - take emotion out of conflict

Need Someone to Change? 5 Things to Know

Marilyn Ferguson - cannot persuade others to change

When I was younger and knew everything, I was pretty sure I could change everybody’s minds by arguing with them using things like logic.

When I was a little less young and naive, but still knew just about everything, I thought I could still kind of control people’s beliefs and actions by appealing to their feelings and emotions about things.

And now that I’m a little older and hopefully even a little bit less naive than before, I’ve learned that you really can’t make other people agree with you.

You can’t. They might, but you can’t.

You’d be surprised how many times I’ve had to relearn this lesson.

I want to share with you five things I’ve realized as I’ve come to terms with my inability to control what others think, feel, and choose:

1. It’s a good thing I can’t control what others think or do–because I feel like every few days I realize that something I thought I knew was totally wrong.

2. The task of changing and controlling people is exhausting and frustrating anyway. It’s so much nicer to not have to do that.

3. You may as well just accept where people are, understand them, love them, and make the best of it. Loving and getting along is easier after you realize you can’t control others. People are amazing if you love them for who they are.

4. If there is a thing you can’t healthily accept into your life about somebody, that is okay. You cannot change them, and it will only get worse if you try. But you can set boundaries, little or big.

5. If you would still love for someone to make a change, for their sake or yours, be the change you would like to see. Be the proof, the hope they might need, that they’d be okay and safe if they end up changing. And then if they decide they want to make a change, they’ll know they can look to you for help and encouragement.

Hope this helps!

“No one can persuade another to change. Each of us guards a gate of change that can only be opened from the inside. We cannot open the gate of another, either by argument or by emotional appeal.” – Marilyn Ferguson

 

When you’re absolutely sure, remember you’ve been sure before

Marcus Aurelius - I will happily change

I couldn’t stand Professor Bauman. I took a philosophy class from him where he constantly picked holes in his students deepest convictions and forced them to ask really difficult questions. I got his point–he wanted us to think carefully with open minds–but whenever one of us would ask him, “What do YOU believe?” he would refuse to tell. I couldn’t have been more sure that he was a bad person for teaching that way: Nobody should lead people to question themselves and then refuse to help them reaffirm their beliefs in the truth–or at least what I saw as the truth.

Now my mind has changed completely. I think Professor Bauman and another similar professor I also disliked for the same reason were two of the most valuable teachers I ever had. I got out into the real world where I was confronted every day by fiercely differing viewpoints, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. I realized then that the unquestioning certainty and the relative lack of questioning that kids like me grew up with, was the worst possible preparation for dealing with life as an adult. Now I’m embarrassed that I was so vocally opposed to his teaching.

Who knows? Someday I could change my mind about this again.

The other day my brother-in-law sent me something I wrote as an over-confident teenager vehemently arguing for a viewpoint I no longer hold–he texted: “9 years is a long time.” It was equally hilarious and cringeworthy.

 

I’m not the only one who has done a complete 180 on big life things. In fact, a lot of people change their minds again and again and again.

Antony Flew was a champion of atheism who drastically changed his mind at the end of his life and wrote a book arguing for the existence of a god. Dan Barker was a Christian preacher for a long time but is now an atheist activist.

Almost 200 years ago, John Stuart Mill, one of the most influential philosophers and political economist in the 1800s, changed his mind completely about his core economic beliefs. According to his autobiography, his reading of romantic poets caused him to question the commitment to classical economics he had held since childhood, eventually leading him to a much more liberal viewpoint.

 

Here’s the thing. I was ABSOLUTELY SURE. So were Flew and Barker and John Stuart Mill.

What’s something that you used to be absolutely sure of that you no longer believe? I know there’s something.

 

I think it can do wonders for your life and relationships to remind yourself regularly that you used to be absolutely certain of things you no longer believe. That you’ve completely changed your mind about something you never used to question. That you now believe or do something you used to call “crazy” when you saw it in others.

When we forget that we have so drastically changed our minds before, we don’t consider that we might drastically change them again.

And when we are so certain there’s not a chance we’re wrong, we don’t easily learn, we frustrate people we talk to, and we miss out on the wisdom we could find in others whose different experiences have led them to see things we don’t see.

If I always talk to you as if I absolutely know that I am right and you are dead wrong, someday I’m going to have to eat my own words.

The more sure I am that I’m right about something, the more carefully I need to remember that I may someday realize I am wrong.

~

“A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.” – William Shakespeare


P.S. If you’re nerdy like me and like reading, check out this little gem from John Locke, an influential thinker from the 17th century–talking about being respectful in argument, honestly admitting uncertainty and allowing for uncertainty in others:

[After pointing out that we must often act upon probabilities that fall short of certainty, he says that the right use of this consideration] “is mutual charity and forbearance. Since therefore it is unavoidable to the greatest part of men, if not all, to have several opinions without certain and indubitable proofs of their truth, and it carries too great an imputation of ignorance, lightness, or folly, for men to quit and renounce their former tenants presently upon the offer of an argument which they cannot immediately answer and show the insufficiency of. It would, methinks, become all men to maintain peace and the common offices of humanity and friendship in the diversity of opinions, since we cannot reasonably expect that anyone should readily and obsequiously quit their own opinion and embrace ours with a blind resignation to an authority which the understanding of man acknowledges not. For, however it may often mistake, it can own no other guide but reason, nor blindly submit to the will and dictates of another. If he you would bring over to your sentiments be one that examines before he assents, you must give him leave at his leisure to go over the account again and, recalling what is out of his mind, examine the particulars to see on which side the advantage lies. And if he will not think over arguments of weight enough to engage him anew in so much pains, it is but what we do often ourselves in the like case, and we should take it amiss if others should prescribe to us what points we should study. And if he be one who wishes to take his opinions upon trust, how can we imagine that he should renounce those tenants which time and custom have so settled in his mind that he thinks them self-evident and of an unquestionable certainty, or which he takes to be impressions he has received from God himself, or from men sent by him. How can we expect, I say, that opinions thus settled should be given up to the arguments or authority of a stranger or adversary, especially if there be any suspicion of interest or design, as there never fails to be where men find themselves ill-treated? We should do well to commiserate our mutual ignorance and endeavor to remove it in all the gentle and fair ways of information, and not instantly treat others ill as obstinate and perverse, because they will not renounce their own and receive our opinions, or at least those we would force upon them, when it is more than probable that we are no less obstinate in not embracing some of theirs. For where is the man that has incontestable evidence of the truth of all that he holds? Or of the falsehood of all he condemns? Or can say that he has examined to the bottom all his own or other men’s opinions? The necessity of believing without knowledge, nay, often upon very slight grounds in this fleeting stage of action and blindness we are in, should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than to restrain others. There is reason to think that if men were better instructed themselves, they would be less imposing on others.” (Quote taken from Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy)