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!

Sadness Doesn’t Always Need a Solution

I crossed paths with a coyote a couple nights back. It was awesome! Bear with me while I take you through a weird train of thought I had. It trotted across a dark road and down the hill into a neighborhood. As I kept walking, I heard nearby dogs start barking loudly. I could see one of the dogs chained in its yard in the glow of a porch light. How sad would it be if the coyote attacked one of the barking dogs! It’s not unheard of in our area. What if I had a puppy that were killed by a coyote? What would I do about it? I’m sure I’d be sad and angry. I’d blame myself for leaving my dog unattended. I’d blame the city for not fixing its coyote problem. We live right next to a couple big nature and wildlife preserves and there are no fences keeping the coyotes in the preserve. Maybe I’d start a petition to put up some kind of protective fence along the preserve’s border. But–and here’s where it gets tricky–I probably have a neighbor who loves living here because of the closeness to nature and loves to see deer scamper through their yard. Lots of people would hate to have the preserve fenced off. And lots of people would not like the idea of forcing the wildlife to stay inside the preserve, thinking that’s cruel, unnecessary, unfair…

That was all hypothetical (though if someone were taking a vote I’d say no fence). What’s not hypothetical is that we tend to react to tragedies and sad events by looking for someone or something to blame and by trying to change something so that the event couldn’t happen again.

And what I wondered the other night is: Why do we do that?

And does it even help?

Is every sad thing a bad thing that should not have happened and that we should retaliate against and prevent ever happening again at all costs?

If someone you love falls from a cliff, should you stop hiking up beautiful mountains?

 

I think some of the things we do to try to stop any sad things from happening have their own sad effects in ways we don’t realize. Life isn’t all meant to be totally safe and free of bumps and bruises. Fearfully cowering in our homes means we miss out on a lot of happiness. Trying to get everyone to join us isn’t fair. Trying to organize the planet into safe boxes isn’t happy or beautiful. We can’t make life “perfect” and I think our striving to do so robs us of peace and love.

So when something very sad happens, before you “do something about it,” stop and think: Would it actually help? Or am I just making life more complicated and the world more bland for others? Think of all the frustrating and paralyzing rules and regulations that get made because one time something sad happened to someone.

 

And I think when we have to find someone to blame sad things on, we end up lonely and scared of the very people that could be there to hold our hands through our sadness. Sometimes a tragedy turns us angry and bitter against people who are close to us, or people that we wish could have somehow stopped the tragedy happening. So we call people evil and ugly and we become lonely and scared–and so we spread our loneliness and fear.

 

Sometimes we tell ourselves stories to lay blame elsewhere so that we can feel like the sad things happening is wrong, like it’s not a fair part of life, so it’s right for us to be angry: Like that all sad things are punishment for the world’s “sinfulness” and if only all those people weren’t the way they were… or that there’s an evil force who’s specifically targeting us for being so good–trying to trip us up. That can give us a boost of self-righteousness and courage to “overcome.” But it can also turn us against the rest of the world and it can catch us in a vicious cycle of obsessing over whether we’re good enough–when what we really needed was just a good cry.

 

And maybe when someone tells us they’re sad, they don’t need us to fix it.

 

Maybe sometimes we just need to feel the sad without having to blame anyone or do anything about it. The more time we spend in the initial stages of grief, lashing out in anger, trying to explain it away, insisting it shouldn’t and couldn’t have happened–the more we are hurt and broken and the more we hurt and break the world around us.

Maybe the fact that you’re sad doesn’t mean someone’s wronged you, or you’re living the wrong life, or you have the wrong people by your side, or the world is out to get you.

Maybe sad is a part of life we shouldn’t fight against.

“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.” – Carl Jung

Don’t bring about more sadness by your reaction to your own sadness. Just shed some tears and let life be beautiful.

 

sadness - carl jung