Resolving Conflict

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No one is conflict free forever. At some point it finds us. Whether that conflict is with a family member, friend, co-worker, or significant other we will all face it at some point.

So an argument has happened and things were said that may have turned into regrets. You believe that you are in the right and the other person is in the wrong, while the other person believes the opposite. Where do you go from here? You want an apology but more importantly you want resolution within the relationship.

I have worked with toddlers, children, youth, and adults and in every age group conflict resolution is a skill that has to be learned. Here are some tips that I have found to be helpful in both my personal and professional life.

1.       Breathe

I don’t know about you but when I am angry or upset I need some time and space away from the person I am upset with. This is because I know that what I have to say is no longer productive and will only cause me to have to apologize later. When we become upset our brains go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. This is a survival instinct and is quite amazing when you think about it. However, the negative side to this instinct is that it can often take away our rationality. This is often why we say or do things we don’t mean in a conflict. So then how do we get our rationality back? One word… breathe! Deep breathing puts the emergency brake on our bodies when it is going into survival mode. It is telling our brains and bodies that we are actually safe (deep breathing can also be helpful for those struggling with anxiety). Once your brain believes you are safe your rationality will come back.

2.       Reflect

Now that you are calm and rational it is time to reflect on the conflict itself. Depending on the issue you may need more time to process and reflect. Personally there have been times that I have taken an hour, a day, or weeks to reflect on an issue. The goal at this point is not to retaliate and tell the person all the things you wish you said during the argument (and trust me I know that the best comebacks are the ones you think of afterwards). The goal is to think of a solution to the conflict and how to bring resolution to the relationship without causing more issues to the conflict.

It is important to be honest with yourself. Who knows you might even learn something about yourself. Helpful questions to ask are:

What is the core issue in this conflict? What specifically made me upset? Why did I get upset? How did this make me feel? What did I do that made the other person upset? How would I feel if I was in their position? What do I think the other person is feeling?

3.       Approach

So now you are calm and you have gained some insight while reflecting. You would now like to talk to the person you have the conflict with. How you approach that person sets the mood for the entire conversation afterwards. If you ambush them, demanding to speak to them then that person is going to be defensive and will not actually hear anything you are saying because they are too busy defending themselves. If you are approaching them in any hostile manner then you are most likely not completely done step one and two.

Inform them that you would like to speak to them and set up a meeting time. Let them know what you would like to discuss in that meeting as well. Nothing is worse than someone coming up to you and saying “we need to talk” but never explaining what it is about.

What if they do not want to talk?? Hopefully the person that you are having this conflict with is someone who is also looking for resolution in the relationship and is willing to have this conversation. However, if it is a co-worker, classmate, or an acquaintance they may not always be as willing, depending on your relationship with them.

4.       Share

Now this is your time, your time to say what you need to say. However, this is not permission for you to attack the person and speak down to them but instead share your feelings. I know it sounds gushy, but like I said above people cannot argue with your feelings. When sharing, keep the focus on you and how you feel and why you feel that way. Use “I feel….because….” statements. These statements allow the person to see your perspective. Other helpful phrases to use are “I don’t think you meant it this way but this is how it made me feel” or “I know we have a different perspective on this but this is how I felt and viewed the situation and why I reacted the way I did”. These phrases acknowledge that the other person may have a different perspective and also does not question their character. At the same time it gives a voice to your own perspective and feelings.

Hurt people, hurt people. Maybe you didn’t misunderstand them but hopefully they can recognize that what they said or did may not have been nice or helpful or at the very least how they said or did what they did was hurtful.

Even if what you are apologizing for is not what they are hurt by it shows them that you have given some thought to your own actions and can take responsibility for them as well. This can then maybe even encourage them take responsibility for their own actions.

5.       Listen

Now comes the hard part…. Listen. You have now said your part and have shared your feelings about the conflict. Now it is the other person’s chance to do the same. It is important to try and understand their point of view and perspective. Do not listen to defend or react, listen to understand. This can be hard but understanding each other’s views and perspectives is the only way to conflict resolution within a relationship.

What if they were not listening when you were sharing your own feelings? This can be difficult because our natural instinct is to treat them the same way that they have treated us. However, this will only cause more resentment within the relationship. Model the respect that they did not give you. Again this may cause them to be more willing to hear your side again later.

 6.       Apologize

I am not going to lie, this is the hardest part. No one likes to admit they were wrong or did something hurtful but it’s the only way to reconcile. This is not apologizing for the same things that you have already apologized for; this is apologizing for anything that they have revealed to you that you have done that was hurtful. This is potentially the stuff that you were unaware that you even did.

You can use phrases such as “I’m sorry for making you feel that way, it was not my intention” or “I am sorry for how I communicated/did that, I could have communicated/done that a better way”. 

7.       Move On

At this point you know if your conversation has gone well or not.  Hopefully it has gone well but it does not always go as planned, even if we practice it. At this point you are left with three different scenarios:

a)      The ideal situation is where you have both made your apologies and feel like you have a better understanding of each other now. Both parties are happy with the conversation and can chalk up the conflict as a misunderstanding.  It is important at this point to let go of the conflict and not hold it against the other person. If you have stated that you are good and have accepted their apology do not bring this conflict back up at another time. It is time to let go of any residual anger, bitterness, resentment, or annoyance with the other person.

b)      The second situation is usually when the conflict is a bit more serious. You both have apologized but the conflict still remains and the only way to conflict resolution is if there is some kind of change. Usually this comes in the form of “I’ll work on… and you work on….” For example “I’ll work on not reacting right away but to listen first and you work on communicating or explaining yourself better”. Sometimes even this is not enough and outside help is needed. Whether that is a counselor or just a neutral third party it is ok to ask for help. The important thing here is that change needs to happen because conflicts will continue to happen unless you take action. However, if the other person is not willing to make a change or get help then you have to decide if it is worth staying in that relationship. Healthy relationships only work when both parties are willing to put work into it.

c)       The last situation is where the conversation did not go well. If the person you have the conflict with is acting very hostile it may be too soon for that person to have this conversation. You may have to be willing to give them more time to process the conversation. Or again it may be beneficial to bring in a trusted neutral third party to facilitate the conversation. However, if the conflict still remains you may have to decide to either let it go for the sake of the relationship or decide if the issue is too big to continue being in that relationship.

It is important to realize that even if the other person does not apologize or can't understand your perspective at least you have communicated your feelings in a mature way. In other words you have done what you can do and cannot be responsible for the other person’s reaction.

Hopefully these steps help you find conflict resolution within your relationships. Any other steps or helpful tips that you have for conflict resolution? Comment below.