Conflict Resolution Skills

Written By: Multiple Internet Resources

Building the Skills That Can Turn Conflicts into Opportunities

Conflict is a normal part of any healthy relationship. After all, two people can’t be expected to agree on everything, all the time. Learning how to deal with conflict – rather than avoiding it – is crucial. When conflict is mismanaged, it can cause great harm to a relationship, but when handled in a respectful, positive way, conflict provides an opportunity to strengthen the bond between two people. By learning these skills for conflict resolution, you can keep your personal and professional relationships strong and growing.

Understanding conflict in relationships

Conflict arises from differences, both large and small. It occurs whenever people disagree over their values, motivations, perceptions, ideas, or desires. Sometimes these differences appear trivial, but when a conflict triggers strong feelings, a deep personal need is often at the core of the problem. These needs can be a need to feel safe and secure, a need to feel respected and valued, or a need for greater closeness and intimacy.

Conflicts arise from differing needs

Everyone needs to feel understood, nurtured, and supported, but the ways in which these needs are met vary widely. Differing needs for feeling comfortable and safe create some of the most severe challenges in our personal and professional relationships.

Think about the conflicting need for safety and continuity versus the need to explore and take risks. You frequently see this conflict between toddlers and their parents. The child’s need is to explore, so the street or the cliff meets a need. But the parents’ need is to protect the child’s safety, so limiting exploration becomes a bone of contention between them.

The needs of both parties play important roles in the long-term success of most relationships, and each deserves respect and consideration. In personal relationships, a lack of understanding about differing needs can result in distance, arguments, and break-ups. In workplace conflicts, differing needs are often at the heart of bitter disputes, sometimes resulting in broken deals, fewer profits and lost jobs. When you can recognize the legitimacy of conflicting needs and become willing to examine them in an environment of compassionate understanding, it opens pathways to creative problem solving, team building, and improved relationships.

Conflict 101

  • A conflict is      more than just a disagreement.      It is a situation in which one or both parties perceive a threat (whether      or not the threat is real).
  • Conflicts      continue to fester when ignored. Because      conflicts involve perceived threats to our well-being and survival, they      stay with us until we face and resolve them.
  • We respond to      conflicts based on our perceptions      of the situation, not necessarily to an objective review of the facts. Our      perceptions are influenced by our life experiences, culture, values, and      beliefs.
  • Conflicts      trigger strong emotions. If      you aren’t comfortable with your emotions or able to manage them in times      of stress, you won’t be able to resolve conflict successfully.
  • Conflicts are an      opportunity for growth.      When you’re able to resolve conflict in a relationship, it builds trust.      You can feel secure knowing your relationship can survive challenges and      disagreements.

Conflict may feel more threatening to you than it really is

Do you fear conflict or avoid it at all costs? If your perception of conflict comes from frightening or painful memories from previous unhealthy relationships or early childhood, you may expect all present-day disagreements to end badly. You may view conflict in relationships as demoralizing, humiliating, dangerous, and something to fear. If your early life experiences also left you feeling out of control and powerless, conflict may even be traumatizing for you.

If you view conflict as dangerous, it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you go into a conflict situation already feeling extremely threatened, it’s tough to deal with the problem at hand in a healthy way. Instead, you are more likely to shut down or blow up in anger.

Healthy and unhealthy ways of    managing and resolving conflict
Unhealthy responses to conflict: Healthy responses to conflict
An   inability to recognize and respond to the things that matter to the other   person The capacity   to recognize and respond to the things that matter to the other person
Explosive,   angry, hurtful, and resentful reactions Calm,   non-defensive, and respectful reactions
The   withdrawal of love, resulting in rejection, isolation, shaming, and fear of   abandonment A   readiness to forgive and forget, and to move past the conflict without   holding resentments or anger
An   inability to compromise or see the other person’s side The   ability to seek compromise and avoid punishing
The   fear and avoidance of conflict; the expectation of bad outcomes A   belief that facing conflict head on is the best thing for both sides

Successful conflict resolution depends on your ability to regulate stress and your emotions

Conflict triggers strong emotions and can lead to hurt feelings, disappointment, and discomfort. When handled in an unhealthy manner, it can cause irreparable rifts, resentments, and break-ups. But when conflict is resolved in a healthy way, it increases our understanding of one another, builds trust, and strengthens our relationship bonds.

If you are out of touch with your feelings or so stressed that you can only pay attention to a limited number of emotions, you won’t be able to understand your own needs. And, if you don’t understand your own needs, you will have a hard time communicating with others and staying in touch with what’s really troubling you. For example, couples often argue about petty differences—the way she hangs the towels, the way he slurps his soup—rather than what is really bothering them.

The ability to successfully resolve conflict depends on your ability to:

  • Manage stress      quickly while remaining alert and calm. By staying calm, you can accurately read and interpret      verbal and nonverbal communication.
  • Control your      emotions and behavior. When you’re in      control of your emotions, you can communicate your needs without      threatening, frightening, or punishing others.
  • Pay attention to      the feelings being expressed      as well as the spoken words of others.
  • Be aware of and      respectful of differences.      By avoiding disrespectful words and actions, you can almost always resolve      a problem faster.

To successfully resolve a conflict, you will need to learn and practice two core skills: the ability to quickly reduce stress in the moment and the ability to remain comfortable enough with your emotions to react in constructive ways even in the midst of an argument or a perceived attack.

Psychologist Connie Lillas uses a driving analogy to describe the three most common ways people respond when they’re overwhelmed by stress:

  • Foot on the gas. An angry or agitated stress      response. You’re heated, keyed up, overly emotional, and unable to sit      still.
  • Foot on the      brake. A withdrawn or      depressed stress response. You shut down, space out, and show very little      energy or emotion.
  • Foot on both gas      and brake. A tense and      frozen stress response. You “freeze” under pressure and can’t do anything.      You look paralyzed, but under the surface you’re extremely agitated.

Stress interferes with the ability to resolve conflict by limiting your ability to:

  • Accurately read      another person’s nonverbal communication
  • Hear what      someone is really saying
  • Be aware of your      own feelings
  • Be in touch with      your deep-rooted needs
  • Communicate your      needs clearly

Is stress a problem For you?

You may be so used to being stressed that you’re not even aware you are stressed. Stress may be a problem in your life if you identify with the following:

  • You often feel      tense or tight somewhere in your body
  • You’re not aware      of movement in your chest or stomach when you breathe
  • Conflict absorbs      your time and attention

Learn how to beat stress in the moment

The best way to rapidly and reliably relieve stress (if you don’t have someone close at hand to talk to) is through the senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. But each person responds differently to sensory input, so you need to find things that are soothing to you.

Emotional awareness: The second core conflict resolution skill

Emotional awareness is the key to understanding yourself and others. If you don’t know how you feel or why you feel that way, you won’t be able to communicate effectively or resolve disagreements.

Although knowing your own feelings may sound simple, many people ignore or try to sedate strong emotions like anger, sadness, and fear. Your ability to handle conflict, however, depends on being connected to these feelings. If you’re afraid of strong emotions or if you insist on finding solutions that are strictly rational, your ability to face and resolve differences will be impaired.

Why emotional awareness is a key factor in resolving conflict

Emotional awareness—the consciousness of your moment-to-moment emotional experience—and the ability to manage all of your feelings appropriately is the basis of a communication process that can resolve conflict.

Emotional awareness helps you:

  • Understand what      is really troubling other people
  • Understand      yourself, including what is really troubling you
  • Stay motivated      until the conflict is resolved
  • Communicate      clearly and effectively
  • Attract and      influence others

Assessing your ability to recognize and manage emotions

The following quiz helps you assess your level of emotional awareness. Answer the following questions with: almost never, occasionally, often, very frequently, or almost always. There are no right or wrong responses, only the opportunity to become better acquainted with your emotional responses.

What kind of relationship do I have with my emotions?

  • Do you      experience feelings that flow, encountering      one emotion after another as your experiences change from moment to      moment?
  • Are your      emotions accompanied by physical sensations that you experience in places like your stomach or      chest?
  • Do you      experience discrete feelings and emotions, such as anger, sadness, fear,      joy, each of which is evident in subtle facial expressions?
  • Can you      experience intense feelings      that are strong enough to capture both your attention and that of others?
  • Do you pay      attention to your emotions? Do      they factor into your decision–making?

Nonverbal communication plays a big role in conflict resolution

The most important information exchanged during conflicts and arguments is often communicated nonverbally. Nonverbal communication is conveyed by emotionally driven facial expressions, posture, gesture, pace, tone and intensity of voice.

The most important communication is wordless

When people are upset, the words they use rarely convey the issues and needs at the heart of the problem. When we listen for what is felt—as well as what is said—we connect more deeply to our own needs and emotions, and to those of other people. Listening in this way also strengthens us, informs us, and makes it easier for others to hear us.

When you’re in the middle of a conflict, paying close attention to the other person’s nonverbal signals may help you figure out what the other person is really saying, This will allow you to respond in a way that builds trust, and get to the root of the problem. A calm tone of voice, a reassuring touch, or an interested or concerned facial expression can go a long way toward relaxing a tense exchange.

Your ability to accurately read another person depends on your own emotional awareness. The more aware you are of your own emotions, the easier it will be for you to pick up on the wordless clues that reveal what others are feeling.

Humor, judiciously used, can effectively defuse conflict

Once stress and emotion are brought into balance your capacity for joy, pleasure and playfulness is unleashed. Joy is a deceptively powerful resource. Studies show that you can surmount adversity, as long as you continue to have moments of joy. Humor plays a similar role when facing conflict.

You can avoid many confrontations and resolve arguments and disagreements by communicating in a humorous way. Humor can help you say things that might otherwise be difficult to express without offending someone. However, it’s important that you laugh with the other person, not at them. When humor and play are used to reduce tension and anger, reframe problems, and put the situation into perspective, the conflict can actually become an opportunity for greater connection and intimacy.

Tips for managing and resolving conflict

Managing and resolving conflict requires the ability to quickly reduce stress and bring your emotions into balance. You can ensure that the process is as positive as possible by sticking to the following guidelines:

  • Listen for what
    is felt as well as said.
         When we listen we connect more deeply to our own needs and emotions, and      to those of other people. Listening also strengthens us, informs us, and      makes it easier for others to hear us when it’s our turn to speak.
  • Make conflict      resolution the priority rather than winning or “being right.” Maintaining and strengthening the      relationship, rather than “winning” the argument, should always be your      first priority. Be respectful of the other person and his or her      viewpoint.
  • Focus on the      present. If you’re      holding on to grudges based on past resentments, your ability to see the      reality of the current situation will be impaired. Rather than looking to      the past and assigning blame, focus on what you can do in the here-and-now      to solve the problem.
  • Pick your      battles. Conflicts can be      draining, so it’s important to consider whether the issue is really worthy      of your time and energy. Maybe you don’t want to surrender a parking space      if you’ve been circling for 15 minutes, but if there are dozens of empty      spots, arguing over a single space isn’t worth it.
  • Be willing to      forgive. Resolving      conflict is impossible if you’re unwilling or unable to forgive.      Resolution lies in releasing the urge to punish, which can never      compensate for our losses and only adds to our injury by further depleting      and draining our lives.

Know when to let something go. If you can’t come to an agreement, agree to disagree. It takes two people to keep an argument going. If a conflict is going nowhere, you can choose to disengage and move on.