‘Tis the season to be jolly. But for many of us, it’s also a time when we experience conflict during those much-anticipated gatherings with our loved ones. That conflict may be very visible – or it could be bubbling under the surface. It’s still conflict. And it can still feel stressful, uncomfortable and even upsetting.
Here is a collection of my favourite conflict management and resolution tips. Some have been picked up during mediation, others from working in conflict hotpots across the globe and others from simply living and working in situations where conflicts arise.
Take heart – conflict is inevitable.
Conflicts are part of life. In any discussion where you have multiple views, perspectives, ideas expressed, there’s almost certainly going to be a conflict between them. This is a good thing because it makes our conversations richer and more interesting. How dull would it be if there were only one way of looking at an issue? See here for our previous post on why we really need some conflict, handled well.
The challenge is to embrace those differences, and continue the conversation.
Listen. Listen. Listen.
Give those involved a good listening to. Hear them out.
Samaritans use the Listening Wheel as a prompt to utilise all elements of active listening: asking open questions; reflecting; reacting clarifying; summarising; using short words of encouragement. For more on learning to listen like a Samaritan, see this wonderful book.
And ask questions in the spirit of friendly curiosity
Find out why they are saying what they’re saying. What do they need to happen and why is that? What interests or needs do they have?
If you find yourselves on opposite sides of an argument or issue, it’s all the more important to show curiosity. What has led them to reach the conclusions that they have done? A useful 1 minute summary is here.
And encourage those involved to put themselves into the other persons’ shoes. Mediators will sometimes ask parties think through the issues from the perspective of the other party. As Gerry O’Sullivan says, “it’s important to ask the party to think like the other party with that other party’s thoughts, feelings and perspectives, rather than thinking about what they would have done in those circumstances.” It is a very powerful way to ease the antagonism/competition we often find in conflicts.
Try a different perspective.
To help maintain a sense of perspective when emotions start to run high, we can practise ‘distanced self-talk’, following the example of Marcus Aurelius. If that doesn’t work for you, there are other techniques to support us to manage our emotions. It gets harder to do that in a state of stress. But that’s when you really need them. Here’s a bit more on managing emotions.
You may agree to disagree.
You may not reach an agreement or shared perspective on an issue. That’s ok. You can disagree on the substance without breaking the relationship. Here’s how:
- Actively acknowledge the other’s perspective using terms such as ‘I understand that…,’; ‘I see your point’; or ‘What I think you are saying is…’
- Affirm the other person’s views by highlighting areas of agreement, no matter how small or obvious. For example, say ‘I agree that…’ or ‘You’re right about…’
- Hedge your claims: say ‘I think it’s possible’ rather than ‘This will happen because…’ (Note: you can soften your own beliefs, but don’t minimise values! Avoid words such as ‘just’, ‘simply’ or ‘only’.)
- Phrase your arguments in positive rather than negative terms. Say ‘I think it’s helpful to maintain a social distance’ rather than ‘You should not be socialising right now.’
- Share your personal experiences – especially involving vulnerability – and this will encourage mutual respect. In contrast, reciting explanations or facts you’ve learned can sound argumentative and condescending.
Focus on the future
Many conflicts have several different dimensions – there will be the trigger event or comment. But there are often many events, comments and hurts in the past that have contributed to the current situation. Especially in family settings, the slights and hurts can last a generation. Getting stuck in a tit-for-tat exchange of who did what to whom is unlikely to set the scene for a more positive relationship in the future. It may be necessary to share your feelings and understand the impact of past actions. But for the relationship to move on, it’s helpful to refocus on we want from the relationship in the future.