That’s a contradiction in terms. When I was a boy, my brother and I would get into arguments over some dumb thing or another. Rather than having us talk the issue out, our Dad would make us put on boxing gloves, then take us out in the backyard where we would duke it out. Since I was three years older than my brother, I won every argument.
In retrospect, I see that this was an absurd way to resolve a conflict. All we did was beat each other to a pulp with the last one standing being declared the “winner.” Unfortunately, this is often how conflicts are resolved. The person with the bigger punch wins, or the person who wants to avoid the perception of being on the receiving end of the “bigger punch” gives in or goes along to avoid the consequences. In either case, nothing is really resolved. There is no mutual sharing of ideas, no contribution, collaboration, cooperation, or learning. There is only contention, confrontation, and compulsion. In reality, both parties lose something.
We should realize that conflict is often the byproduct of being uniquely different—and we are all unique. We have different values, different experiences, different perceptions, likes and dislikes, tastes, and biases. In essence, our differences present an opportunity to expand our perspective and our understanding. Unfortunately, we usually have a difficult time considering points of view that are not our own or that are outside the realm of our own experience. That’s when the conflict shows up. The challenge you face when you encounter conflict is to accelerate through it. Only then do you have an opportunity to resolve it.
Pedal to the Metal
A friend who drives Formula One racecars for a hobby once asked, “If you are driving a car at 185 mph and you come into a turn, what should you do?” Being naïve, I told him I would tap on the brakes to take the turn. He told me that if I did that at 185 mph, I would likely flip the car.
He went on to explain, “You want to push the pedal to the floor and accelerate. That pushes the tires and the car into the track as you take the turn.”
The same principle applies to conflict. You want to accelerate into it and through it to understand what is behind it. To avoid conflict is to miss a great opportunity to discover. Here are ten strategies that will help you navigate conflict more successfully.
1. Suspend your thinking. If you find yourself arguing with someone and feeling like they are pushing their own agenda while you are struggling to get them to see things your way, you need to realize that what you are doing is not working. Suspend your own point of view for a time and try to understand the other person’s point.
Try this illustration: place the palm of your hand against someone else’s palm and push—they will instinctively “push back.” Verbally pushing on people creates “push back” or resistance. Ironically, when people don’t get their way, they usually try even harder to convince the opposition that they are right. This creates more fire and smoke, but results in little understanding.
2. Visualize them positively. Find something positive about the other person and hold that thought in your consciousness. Through the power of your imagination, you might even want to picture that person behaving positively. Why? Because people pick up on the energy you project toward them—they literally feel the energy of your thoughts, even though they may not consciously recognize them. If your thoughts are negative, they will feel that and resist you and your ideas before you even open your mouth.
3. Remain calm and at ease. Matching the energy and intensity of a person’s emotion creates more of the same. Escalating the emotional drama of a situation by becoming emotional yourself prevents you from being able to understand the thinking that is being masked by their emotion. When you remain calm, you can listen and think clearly. To keep your own emotions in check, you might try asking yourself a question or two about their point and then listen for them to answer that question. What is important is that you focus on the other person and not on your emotions.
4. Listen past the emotion. “Hot” or negative emotion is indicative of a violated value. When a person feels threatened or embarrassed, they usually respond emotionally. Their emotional response tells you that they are interpreting what you are saying or doing as an attack on something that is important to them. Your challenge is to discover the value that their emotion is hiding from you.
Sometimes what a person wants is to be heard. When you listen to a person, you acknowledge them and affirm that their point of view is valid. When a person feels that they have been heard, they are able to vent or release the emotion that they are holding, which dissipates its intensity. Listening also creates respect and value for the individual. But it takes time to listen, so you must be careful to make the time to be present and hear what is being offered.
5. Ask questions. Asking questions that require a person to think in order to respond will also help dissipate their emotion. When you ask, “What do you want?” or “What is most important and why?” you will gain insight that will help you identify the value that they perceive has been violated. You might also ask questions about the facts or data that has led to their opinion or judgment.
Once you have asked a variety of questions and listened to their responses, summarize or ask clarifying questions that demonstrate your understanding and help them to clarify their own understanding.
6. Ask for permission. After giving an individual your full attention, ask them if you might share your perspective. If you do so respectfully, you will focus their attention on what you are about to say. Asking permission to share your perspective respectfully is essentially asking the other person to momentarily suspend their own thinking. Never “put down” anything they have shared; simply ask them to engage.
7. Invite an objective perspective. Ask them to objectively hear your point of view. Tell them that you will provide data for the opinions and judgments you will express and that you will ask them to comment on your perspective when you are finished sharing. As you can see, this step in the process of resolving conflict requires that you have previously thought through what you will say and that you are prepared to support your position with ample evidence.
8. Be in control. Of course you want to be in control of yourself and your emotions, but you also want to give structure to the conversation. If the other person starts to interrupt or begin to offer rebuttal to your point before you have finished, respectfully tell them that you have not yet finished your point. Then finish your point and ask them to respond. Only move to a different point after you have completely exchanged ideas on that one previous point.
If you do not structure the conversation in this way, you may end up sharing a number of points—they may respond to some but not all of those points and then add new, previously unconsidered points. This haphazard conversation ends up going in a number of different directions, which will muddy your understanding and may lead nowhere.
9. Demonstrate your understanding. After they have shared their view and you have shared yours, clarify both parties’ points of agreement and disagreement. This will allow you to focus on points of disagreement going forward.
Avoid judgments of any kind. Phrases like, “That’s stupid!” or “You don’t know what you are talking about!” create resistance and cause your listener to mentally “unplug” from the conversation and resist everything you have to say.
10. Collaborate to create a solution. Work together to identify how you might create a solution that will address as many values which were identified in the conversation as possible.
If the issue at conflict is one for which you are ultimately responsible and/or accountable, you may need to make a final decision—but be sure to explain your reasoning and rationale for the decision. Underline the fact that you will be responsible for the outcome, and then solicit their support.
Remember, resolving conflict is not about being right and making others wrong. Accelerate through the emotions present in conflict by asking questions to identify values or “wants” that are hidden. Once you have discovered what is important to the individual, systematically share views and then work to identify what can be done to solve your issues.
Resolving conflict should be anything but a “slug fest.” It is a way of exploring differences, learning from each other, and creating solutions that take advantage of our unique differences and perspectives as individuals. Investing the time and energy to resolve conflict will not only build more effective solutions, but will also create respect while strengthening your relationships.