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How can I deal with conflict?

As discussed in Can conflict be a good thing, the best way to deal with conflict is to address it:

  • as soon as you can and before it gets bigger and more difficult to deal with,
  • by taking a shared approach, to work together to solve the problem, and
  • by recognising and listening to the other person's concerns as soon as you see a problem arising, and before it gets out of hand.

These are five skills to help you deal with people and situations that you find difficult:

  • Managing Emotion
    How you feel and how the other person feels plays a big role in determining whether a conversation is "difficult". Be aware of how you manage your emotions and how you deal with the other person's emotions. Read more
  • Listening
    Listening is one of the best ways to understand and deal with conflict. It costs nothing to listen. Hearing is a natural human function. Listening, however, is an active skill that requires effort and practice. The best type of listening is interactive listening.
  • Exploring Solutions Together
    By effectively managing emotions and listening interactively, you are ready to try this with the other person through principled negotiations1.
  • Framing
    Framing is the way in which a problem or issue is presented or described. Framing an issue in a neutral way can help the move towards a calm, positive discussion rather than a heated argument.
  • Confronting
    Sometimes, after trying to resolve a conflict collaboratively without success, it is necessary to confront the other person to let them know that their problematic behaviour is not OK and what will happen if it does not change. Confronting is the last resort.

These helpful skills will help you "lower the temperature" so that you and the other person can talk about what is important, without personal attacks, aggression, withdrawal or getting stuck on "positions".

1Fisher, Roger, William L Ury and Bruce Patton, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without giving in, (Penguin Books, revised edition, 2011)

Managing Emotion

Sometimes we think that we are expressing our emotions clearly by being emotional. Or sometimes we try to suppress or ignore our emotions, or the emotions of the other person, in an attempt to keep the conversation ‘rational' or ‘professional'. The truth is that it is almost impossible to keep an emotional response a secret.

Emotion is a reaction to something that impacts us. It is helpful to notice emotion and try to find out why you are reacting.

How we feel about the issues discussed plays a role in a difficult conversation, and it is useful to acknowledge our own emotions in a conflict as well as the other person's emotions. Some tips on how to express and discuss emotions effectively include:

  1. Being clear about how you are feeling
    • It can be difficult to figure out how you are really feeling. For example, vulnerability may be disguised as anger, because anger is more comfortable.
  2. Being open with how you are feeling, but being careful with how you describe those feelings
    • Holding back your emotions may make the conflict worse later
    • When discussing your emotions, be mindful of the difference between feeling and judgement. For example, "I feel underappreciated" vs "you are selfish".
  3. Being OK with how you are feeling by remembering that good people can experience negative emotions
    • Emotions are part of human nature. It is OK to feel jealousy or anger. Your response to your emotions is what is important. For example, physically or verbally attacking someone out of anger is not OK. Telling someone you are grumpy because of what they have done is OK.
  4. Keeping in mind that your emotions are just as important as the other person's, and vice versa
    • Acknowledge the other person's emotions, even if you may not agree with that person's point of view. See section Listening.
  5. Keeping in mind that it is difficult to listen when you are experiencing strong emotions
  6. Avoid judging, just share
    • Avoid judging the other person's emotions and also avoid judging your own emotions
    • Share your feelings without talking about blame

Listening

Listening is recognising what someone is saying. It is a sign of respect.

When someone feels that they have been listened to it can calm down the conversation. That is why interactive listening is so important when trying to resolve a disagreement or conflict. Interactive listening is hardest to do when it is most important, that is when the other person is upset.

Interactive listening involves:

  1. Focusing on the speaker
    • Try to understand the other person's focus and feelings. Do not judge.
  2. Showing that you are listening through:
    • Body language
      Such as eye contact, nodding, and having an open body posture rather than a defensive crossed-armed posture.
    • Affirmative sounds
      Such as "uh huh", "okay".
    • Clarifying questions that are open-ended and non-judgemental
      For example, "when you said… what did you mean?" will help you make sense of anything that you might not understand from the speaker's story, and it also demonstrates that you are interested in what the speaker has to say.
    • Paraphrasing or summarising what you have heard at the end with a clarifying question
      For example, "how I understand it is that… is that right?" to make sure that you have understood it right.
  3. Acknowledging the speaker's feelings
    • For example, "it sounds like you were very frustrated when you heard that funding was going to be used on hiring a new staff member, rather than building a new disability ramp, is that right?"
    Tip: Identify the reason why someone was made to feel a certain way. For example, don't simply talk about frustration without identifying why it was frustrating. This helps the acknowledgement be heard without being patronising.
  4. Identifying the speaker's values
    • After showing that you acknowledge the speaker's feelings try and identify the value that they are trying to express. In this example, you might say, "creating a workplace where everyone can be heard and included equally is important to you, isn't it?"

    Tip: check with a clarifying question to make sure you have it right, to avoid sounding patronising.

    These 4 steps will allow the speaker to feel heard and also allow you to better understand them. You don't need to agree or even think that they are right, but it is an approach to ‘lower the temperature' of the conversation and move towards working together on a shared problem.

Exploring solutions together

Principled negotiation is a useful approach to deal with conflicts that focuses on why a person wants a particular outcome.

There are 7 elements to principled negotiations, and they involve:

  1. Understanding and separating interests and positions
    • Positions are usually what a person expresses to be their objective, and can usually only be met in one way.
    • Interests are the needs and desires that explain why a person wants a particular outcome.
    • For example:
      • John wants the promotion (position) because he needs the extra income (interest).
      • Peter wants the promotion (position) because it involves travel to another state where he can see his children who live there (interest).
      • Both want the promotion, but the interests underlying their positions are different. There may even be multiple interests at play.
      • In this scenario, even though only one person can be promoted, there may be ways in which both John's and Peter's interests can be met such that John can get a pay rise and Peter can see his children.
    • *Ask "why" or "why not" to explore interests.
  2. Using objective standards
    • These are standards that everyone would consider to be fair, and could be tested for fairness and used to persuade the other party. For example:
      • Using independent data collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics to demonstrate the value of volunteering.
      • If you want to convince someone about the value of a car, advertised prices or price guides will help convince the other party.
      • Comparable prices for real estate help you decide how much to pay for a house.
  3. Brainstorming options that focus on gains for all parties involved
    • Brainstorming is about coming up with ideas and solutions. You can be creative; no suggestion is wrong and no commitment to any of them is needed at this stage.
    • Explore options that may meet both parties' interests.
    • In the example above, John and Peter could agree to approach the manager with this possibility or together suggest alternative work/pay/travel to manager (an action they can agree on).
  4. Communicating and discussing together
    • Listen actively and be mindful of how you communicate. For example:
      • by developing guidelines for how the difficult conversation should take place.
      • by agreeing that only one person speaks at a time, and not make personal attacks.
      • by encouraging respect, which builds trust.
      • In the midst of a disagreement, relationships can be built and improved.
  5. Maintaining relationships
    • Use appropriate communication to improve or maintain the relationship.
    • Don't confuse your feelings about the person with the problem you need to solve (separate the people from the problem).
  6. Seeking out your Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA)
    • Identify alternative actions that don't require the agreement of other people.
    • Seek out your best alternative action and compare it to the outcome that is negotiated.
    • In the example above, John could find another job offering higher pay without Peter's agreement; and Peter could relocate to where his children are without John's agreement.
  7. Deciding the level of commitment reached at the end of the negotiation
    • Do not accept a proposal unless it is better than your BATNA.
    • Test the fairness of the proposal against what would be acceptable to others outside the conflict.
    • Point out possible issues that might interfere with the agreement (for example, not being able to guarantee that John can get a pay rise without getting the promotion).
    • Look for solutions on how you might make some rules about sticking to the agreement. For instance, a system of rewards and penalties could apply.

Following the steps above will maximise the chance of finding the best possible solution together, maintain relationships and achieving an outcome suitable to everyone involved.

Framing

A common mistake people make is to open the conversation from their own point of view, which can make it hard for the other person to listen to what they have to say. It is better to try to frame an issue by explaining and describing the context of the problem in a neutral and non-biased manner.

For example, you and a partner disagree about whether to spend the limited funding your organisation has available on hiring a new employee or building a disability ramp. Your partner wants to hire a new employee, but you want to ensure your premises are accessible.

How might you frame the conversation?

  1. Start with a non-biased description of the ‘difference' between the two views;
    "It seems that you and I are having trouble agreeing on how to allocate the limited funding that we have"
  2. Follow with an acknowledgement of the other person's view;
    "It is my understanding that you believe it would be best if we use the funding to hire a new employee."
  3. Then tell them your view; and
    "While I think the money should go towards building a new disability ramp."
  4. Finally, complete the ‘frame' by suggesting that both of you get together to brainstorm solutions to your shared problem after you have both had an opportunity to understand each other's views. Perhaps you can together identify points you can agree on and those you can't, and put them in an agreed order of importance for further discussion.
    "I think it would be helpful if we could talk about how each of us sees the situation and then maybe we can find a way forward..."

    Following these 4 steps will make it easier for both parties to have a constructive and calm discussion about the issues, and generate options to resolve their shared problem together.

    During this conversation, it is important to:

    • Try to listen actively and carefully, and keep calm.
    • Talk and communicate without being sarcastic or interrupting the other person – show that you respect the telling of another view and manage your own reactions.
    • Focus on events and behaviours; focus on the issue, don't attack the person.

Confronting

If you can't resolve a conflict together with the other person, sometimes it is necessary to confront that other person to let them know that you will not tolerate their problematic behaviour anymore.

Scott Susan1 suggests the following script:

  1. Name the issue (I would like to talk to you about...)
    I would like to talk to you about what happened during our meeting last Thursday afternoon.
  2. Give an example of the behaviour or situation you find difficult to tolerate (When you did this...)
    When you slammed the door on your way out before the meeting was over
  3. Describe your emotions about this issue (I feel/felt…)
    I felt very disrespected.
  4. Explain what is at stake if the issue is not resolved (I am concerned that this will...)
    I am concerned that this will put both our professional reputations at stake
  5. Identify how you may have contributed to the problem (I may have...)
    I may have contributed by allowing this kind of behaviour to pass on previous occasions.
  6. Communicate your wish to resolve the issue collaboratively (I would like to resolve this with you.)
    I would like to resolve this with you, so that we can continue to work together and put this behind us.
  7. Invite the other person to respond (I would like to understand what is going on for you from your perspective)
    I would like to understand what is going on for you from your perspective. What do you feel happened last Thursday?This way of dealing with the issue differs from the skills above. Instead of seeking to understand the other person's point of view, it gives you the opportunity to let the other person know how their continued behaviour makes you feel.However, it is important to give other person a chance to respond after you have made this opening statement, while remaining firm that, from your point of view, their behaviour or the situation needs to change.

    1Scott, Susan, Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work & in Life One Conversation at a Time (New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 2002).

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Last updated: 24 Sep 2019