Conflict is a natural part of life–you might be upset over something a co-worker said to you, your spouse may have neglected to do something you asked them to do, your neighbor’s dog could be digging up your flower beds, and so on–, and it does not necessarily have to lead to fighting and negative emotions.
There are ways in which to deal with conflict constructively in order to resolve arguments and disputes amicably, instead of allowing the situation to get out of hand.
I worked for several years as a labor attorney at the Panama Canal, and one of my main duties was negotiating with the labor unions on behalf of the administration of the canal. In addition, I have a graduate degree in mediation from the University of Panama. Below you’ll find some of the things I’ve learned about resolving conflict constructively.
Sit Down to Discuss the Issue and Establish Ground Rules
When you sit down with someone in an attempt to resolve a disagreement, you should start out by establishing ground rules to create a space of tolerance and respect in which you can both iron out your differences. In many instances the problem is not so much the nature of the dispute itself; instead, the problem is the way in which those differences are handled.
Ground rules can include things such as the following:
- Each side will take turns speaking, and each one will get an equal amount of time to speak.
- When one person is talking they cannot be interrupted by the other. If the other person hears something that they want to respond to and it’s not their turn to speak, they should write it down and wait until it’s their turn to say it.
- Just try to resolve the issue at hand. If there are other issues that need to be discussed, set a later time to talk about them.
- Refrain from using phrases such as “You always . . .”, or “You never . . .” People rarely “always” do something or “never” do something, and phrases like these just put the other person on the defensive.
- Try not to blame the other person, speak for the other person, or speculate about their motives; accept that you do not know the other person’s intent.
- Refrain from name-calling (this one should be obvious, but unfortunately it’s not).
- Each side should strive to take responsibility for their contribution to the conflict. When you’re arguing with someone it’s tempting to think that the other person is completely at fault. However, it’s important that you examine how your actions have contributed to the problem, and that you ask yourself if there was a way in which you could have better handled the situation.
- Both sides need to understand that resolving conflict is not about figuring out who’s right or assigning blame. Rather, it’s about moving forward and learning a new way to deal with each other in the future.
- Treat each other with respect.
Focus on Interests, Not Positions
During any conversation in which you’re trying to resolve a disagreement, the aim should be to identify each side’s interests. In other words, instead of focusing on positions-where each side takes a firm stance as to exactly what it is that they’ve decided they want–each side should express the needs, concerns, desires, fears, and aspirations that underlie their position.
A simple example that is often used to illustrate the difference between arguing over positions and communicating interests is the following: two brothers are fighting over an orange. Each one argues vehemently as to why he has the right to keep the orange.
The father walks in on the argument, takes the orange, and cuts it in half. He proceeds to give half the orange to each one of his sons. This is what usually happens when people argue over positions: in the end, neither side is really satisfied with what they get.
Instead of arguing back and forth over their positions, each brother could have explained why he needed the orange. That is, each one should have clearly explained his interests to the other.
If they had done this, they would have discovered that one of the brothers had an interest in making orange juice; he just needed the pulp of the orange. The other brother was interested in preparing a recipe which required the skin of the orange. In other words, if they had communicated their interests to each other, they would both have gotten what they wanted and both would have left satisfied.
Develop the Skill of Active Listening
In the words of Stephen Covey: “If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: seek first to understand, then to be understood. This principle is the key to effective interpersonal communication.”
In order to understand what another person is trying to communicate to you, you need to develop the skill of active listening.
Active listening will help you to understand the message the other person is trying to convey. When it’s the other person’s turn to speak make sure that you remain focused on what they’re saying instead of rehearsing in your head what you’re going to say next.
Use paraphrasing to make sure that you understand what the other person is saying. Paraphrasing basically means that when the other person is finished talking you repeat in your own words what you heard them say. You can use a phrase like the following:
“I’m going to repeat in my own words what I just heard you say to make sure that I understand what you’re saying. Please correct me if I misinterpret anything you’ve said.”
Encourage the other person to elaborate on what they’re saying and to get everything they’re feeling off their chest; ask for clarifying information.
“[W]hat may appear as the truth to one person will often appear as untruth to another person. But that need not worry the seeker. Where there is honest effort, it will be realized that what appeared to be different truths are like the countless and apparently different leaves of the same tree.” — Ghandi
Try to see the world from the perspective of the other person; put yourself in their shoes. Be curious about the other person and about the thinking process that they followed to reach their conclusions. We all see the world differently based on our personal filters, our background, our experiences, and our belief system. Seek to understand how the other person sees the world, their motivations, and their aspirations.
Learn to Express Yourself
In resolving any disagreement with another it’s important not only that you listen to the other person and try to understand where they’re coming from, but that you also express how you feel and let the other person know what you really want. Tell them what you’re experiencing, what your desires are, what’s important to you, and how you feel.
Look for a Solution to the Conflict that is Favorable to Both Sides
Once you’ve identified each side’s interests you can come up with creative ways to satisfy them. Stop looking for a single best answer– come up with as many solutions and alternatives as possible–and don’t assume that there’s a fixed pie.
Here’s an example of how to expand the pie: suppose that Anne asks her boss for a $500.00 raise. Her boss answers that he won’t be able to justify such a large raise to the Board of Directors, but that he can offer her a $100.00 raise. Instead of haggling back and forth over the size of the pay raise, Anne’s boss can expand the pie by offering Anne additional perks, such as the following:
- Having the company car pick her up each morning and take her back home each afternoon;
- Giving her free access to the company gym used by the high-level executives;
- Allowing her to work from home one day a week; and so on.
Instead of concentrating on how split up a limited resource, expanding the pie means looking for additional ways to create value.
The goal is for each party to walk away feeling understood and that an effective plan has been agreed upon for resolving the argument or dispute and moving forward. Both of you need to have a clear understanding of exactly what the agreement entails and commit yourselves to upholding each one’s side of the bargain. Also, try to think of ways to make sure that this problem, and others like it, won’t arise again in the future.