Effective communication does much to reduce conflict; while poor communication increases fault lines that eventually wreak long-term damage between people. What follows are examples of ‘what not to do’ when conflict exists in a relationship. What can you do to prevent these damaging attitudes and behaviors from showing up in your conflict situations?
Whether it’s our attempts at being polite, or just the danger of feeling out of control, we have a tendency not to say anything until push comes to shove and all of a sudden we explode, losing control of our emotions and saying things we later regret. Avoiding, or perhaps better, suppressing our feelings only serves to let a variety of ill-feelings incubate until the point when a much bigger argument finally erupts. Take care of yourself and address conflict in an open, honest, and straightforward way.
Rather than being objective and curious to know how another sees the situation, we often let our egos control the proceedings, becoming defensive of our own behavior. Denying any role in the problem, or believing that all our actions have been benevolent, only ends up distorting reality. The truth is that it’s perfectly okay to be wrong – to share in the blame. This takes far less effort than it takes to put up a front and convince everyone, including ourselves, that we did not contribute to the problem in any way. Denying responsibility may seem to be the quickest way out of conflict, and all it really does is prolong the day of reckoning. So just rip the Band-Aid off, clean out the wound, and let the real healing begin.
There’s a temptation to default to a position of being ‘right’ no matter what the circumstances or the facts may indicate. By swiftly claiming that you are ‘right’ and the other person is clearly ‘wrong’ is really just a thinly disguised way of saying that the resolution can only be one way – your way. If you demand that others see the situation as you see the situation, you will never be able to realize that in most conflict situations, more than one point of view can be legitimate. So stay away from labeling perspectives ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and just be open to the compelling truth that can rest among multiple points of view.
Separate the person from the behavior in question, and remember not to make the other person out to be a villain. Everyone possesses character flaws, yet those flaws do not describe a person entirely. Good traits also exist in every person. Again, temper your negative perceptions and remind yourself that everyone wants to live up to a fine reputation.
When we do not understand something, especially the behaviors of others, we dismiss it. In other words, we are quick to judge the behaviors of others, and that judgment is often quite unfavorable. Give others the benefit of the doubt and forego the inclination to interpret other’s actions. If you do not understand another’s behavior, simply ask about it. You may be surprised at the answer you hear when you remain unattached to what you believe is going on.
Listening is actually far more active than it appears on the surface, which means to pay attention we must manage the thoughts that pop up in our minds. If you are distracted by your own thoughts, or thinking about what you are going to say next, you can not possibly be listening. If you do not make an effort to understand where someone else is coming from, it is likely they will not make the effort to see where you are coming from. Listening and empathizing with others is the sun that warms the icy coldness of most conflict situations.
There’s a cost associated with any conflict, and that cost is measured in either the ‘issue’ or the ‘relationship.’ Which one will you pick? You can not have both; one automatically is given up when the other is chosen. When we are bound and determined to ‘win’ the argument, we pay with the price of the relationship. It’s that simple. So next time you want to win, make sure the issue you are fighting for is worth the price of sacrificing the relationship, for relationships are hard to heal once injured.
With any situation or event that happens, we all have the choice to see it for what it really is or quickly turn it into a sweeping indictment of everything that’s wrong. Sentences that start with, “You always…” and “You never…”, lump everything that’s wrong together and neatly wrap it into one big package with a giant bow for good measure. Resist generalizations that can not possibly be true as emotionally stated. Such statements stand smack in the way of true conflict resolution.
Not wanting to talk about an issue when the other party wants to will not lead to a healthy resolution, instead it leads to hard feelings and bitterness. Sulking in our own emotional wounds, refusing to talk or listen, allows for conflict to fester and grow. If the other person raises a white flag, calls for a truce, or hands you a peace pipe, by all means take advantage of these openings. Accepting an invitation to reach agreement or understanding should not be perceived as a gesture of weakness. Standing firm and preventing progress from happening is hardly a gesture worthy of respect.
In any conflict, always remember that the most important thing is not what you want, or what others want. It’s the health and future direction of the relationship.
Corinne McElroy CPCC, ORSC.
Executive & Leadership Development Coach