How do you deal with conflict?

The ability to tell your facts and feelings without judgment, explain the general outcome you’d like, and ask for the other’s view point of the situation can lead to mutual conflict resolution.

Do you avoid conflict or do you approach it directly - considering that there could be positive results through discussion? If we can identify our own attitudes and responses to conflict, we will begin to understand conflict’s basic dynamics. Can you recognize when to count to 10, take a deep breath and really think about what you are about to say – before you say it?  

The ability to listen and hear what the other person is saying is essential to building relationships and working through conflicts. Sometimes we don’t understand other people because we’re not really listening; our minds are elsewhere.

If we improve our own listening and communication skills, it will help understand the other’s perspectives, emotions, and needs. Everyone needs to feel safe when sharing thoughts, feelings, and interests while struggling to develop creative solutions, and listening well helps establish safety. If discussion stalls, we need to reach out to restart conversation; or agree to continue later. According to C.E. Runde & T.A. Flanagan in “Developing your conflict competence: a hands-on guide for leaders, managers, facilitators, and teams”, essential skills can be learned to help people understand and work through conflict to achieve results that are good for everyone. Many authors of conflict resolution books agree that there are basically three iterative steps in successfully navigating interpersonal conflict:

  1. Respectfully share your concerns
  2. Listen attentively to the other’s perspective
  3. Work to find common ground

First, agree on a time and place to discuss the conflict, sticking to one conflict at a time — to the issue at hand. Tell your side of the facts — respectfully explain your concerns and feelings, but without judgment on the other side, then ask for their view. Explain the general outcome you’d like to see, but not specifically what you want for yourself. Be concise and direct; using ‘I’ statements and not ‘you’ statements is key.

Next, respectfully ask for the other person’s views on the situation. Their perspective is different from yours. How would they describe the issue? What important information do you need to know to understand their view? Use your own words to restate what you think the other person means and wants.

It is critical to pay attention to the other person when they are talking. Focus on the words being said so that you really hear what is being said. This is especially important if you feel a gut reaction to what you are hearing. Pay attention to the points they are making instead of mentally preparing your response. When responding, stop destructive behavior and critical language, the typical responses to conflict. Avoid accusing with “why” questions, e.g., “why are you like that?”

Instead, ask for clarification. Ask fact-based questions (who? what? where? when? how?) to make sure you understand the situation. This gives you a better understanding of “where” the other person is coming from. You may have been responding to the words without having a clear understanding of what was really being said. Remind yourself that everything you are hearing is from a different perspective. Listen objectively and consider the points being made.

Do not forget that “different” simply means “different”. Being “different” does not imply “bad”. It is just different. If you expect everyone to agree with you on everything, you will miss many opportunities that you, alone, could not imagine. Think of different opinions as complementing your own, bringing a richness and depth to possibilities that would not be considered if we were clones (or allYes People”).

Finally, seek common ground. How do you propose to resolve this conflict in a way that works for everyone? What are your shared concerns? What can you agree on? Brainstorm solutions that allow everyone to win. Request behavior changes only. Don’t ask others to change their attitudes, or to “feel” differently about something. Don’t ask them to “be” different. If you want them to “stop doing” something, suggest an alternative action. Discuss the best way to resolve the conflict and to a timetable to work on it. Who will do what by when?

The Michigan State University Extension Leadership and Community Engagement team offers training for improved effectiveness in several areas, including communicating through conflict, volunteer board development, meeting management and facilitation skills development, and organizational strategic visioning and planning. To contact an expert in your area, visit http://expert.msue.msu.edu/ or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464).

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