Conflict is neither good nor bad. How we handle a conflict, however, can determine whether the outcomes of the conflict are either constructive or destructive. A well managed conflict can actually bring people closer together. That said, an ineffectively handled conflict can severely damage relationships, not to mention leave important issues unresolved, which can have significant impacts upon various areas of a person’s life. In fact, the renowned Psychiatrist Alfred Adler taught that difficulty with constructive cooperation with others is the major reason that people fail in the 5 Basic Life Tasks of Work, Love, Friendship, Belonging and Spirituality. Helping people resolve conflicts cooperatively and constructively, therefore, is central to enabling them to become fulfilled and successful. Toward this end, here are some guidelines and skills which can support constructive resolution of conflicts across a variety of situations. I am outlining them as steps but they can be applied more flexibly in natural speech once one understands and internalizes the guiding principles behind the approach. Furthermore, it is quite common for people to benefit from some coaching and facilitation when first replacing well established patterns of reacting to conflicts in destructive or avoidant ways. Individual, family, and/or couples counseling can be used to help people master the art of conflict resolution. The suggested steps are as follows:
1) Strike While The Metal is Cold. We have all heard the phrase “Strike while the metal is hot”, which means don’t wait to act. This may be true for metal work but the opposite is true in handling conflicts constructively. Rather than reacting emotionally, good conflict resolution requires letting one’s primitive emotions, such as anger and fear, to settle so that the capacity for effective strategic choices can guide actions and speech. Therefore it is better to delay responding and take time to calm down. One example might be to ask to sleep on it or even to think about things. Teaching our children to take a time out and go to their rooms when upset is another way this principle is followed. Techniques such as meditation, journaling, calming affirmations, physical exercise, talking to a supportive friend and many others can be used. The guiding principle is to cool down strong emotions.
2) Begin With Communicating Respect and Appreciation. When it is time to talk about the difficulty rather than starting off on a hostile or aggressive note, begin by purposefully letting the other person know what you value about them and your relationship. Then directly explain that this is why you want to work out a solution to whatever the conflict is. This will set the stage for the discussion to proceed constructively rather than destructively. It is important that what one communicates in this step be honest and not simply manipulation. If it isn’t sincere this will likely increase defensiveness.
3) Outline The Facts Without Emotionally Laden Language. After making clear reasons for sincerely wanting to resolve the conflict then clearly states the nature of the conflict without harsh terms, put downs, or blaming language. A good way to begin is “I have noticed that ….” After making clear reasons for sincerely wanting to resolve the conflict then clearly states the nature of the conflict without harsh terms, put downs, or blaming language. A good way to begin is “I have noticed that ….”
4) Clarify Both Sides Through Assertive Statements and Reflective Summary. Having expressed positive motivation, non-emotionally outlined the facts of the conflict, now it is time to clarify the feelings and needs of both parties. This can be done through clarifying feelings and needs in assertive statements. A good assertive statement has three parts. It goes like this: “I feel _____, when you _____. What I need is ______”. After expressing a clear assertive statement ask the other person what their side of is. Once they finish try to say back to them a statement that includes those 3 parts and see if you understand them. If not ask for more details until you can accurately capture their side like this: “Let me see if I have this straight: You feel ____, when I _____. What you need is _____. Is that right?”
5) Make Offers Not Demands. Nobody likes to be told what to do so instead of trying to make the other person do what one wants, a more cooperative approach is to make a series of offers aimed at trying to meet the need clarified in step 4. After each offer ask the other person if there is anything he/she could do to meet the need you expressed. For each thing they offer try to offer another thing until you hopefully reach a good agreement. A good agreement has 3 parts:. It should be fair, realistic, and specific. If the agreement lacks any of these qualities try to revise so it has all 3. Then the last step is…
6) Follow up. A little time later, perhaps a week or so, approach the other person. Begin by telling them you are glad the two of you were able to resolve the conflict. Then tell them how you perceive things are going and ask how they think it is working. If anything is identified as not meeting the needs of either party repeat the steps to come up with a revised and improved agreement.
Hopefully outlining this approach to mastering the art of conflict resolution will help people caught in non constructive patterns of communicating such that they can better find success and fulfillment in important areas of life. If you would like further assistance in learning these skills please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact our office to schedule a consultation.
Dr. David Shapiro
Ph.D. The University of Texas at Austin
M.A. Teachers College – Columbia University
B.A. The University of California at Santa Cruz