“Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.”
Conflict is a normal and natural aspect of personal and professional relationships. As human beings, we are primed to respond to stress with a “fight” or “flee” response. Often, neither of these choices is appropriate, and we need to address the conflict in a way that is direct and assertive while also respectful and diplomatic. Easier said than done.
Some people fear that conflict will be destructive, so they go to great lengths to avoid it. Unfortunately, this can backfire and lead to emotional, relationship and physical health problems. However, if handled effectively, conflict can be an opportunity for learning, growth and positive change. In my practice, I advise clients to use the following strategies:
1) Pause and get grounded. If your feathers are ruffled, it’s best to take a moment to regroup before having a knee-jerk reaction you might regret later. Breathe deeply (in through your nose, down to your abdomen and out through your mouth) to calm yourself. Check in with your body to see if there are any physical discomforts exacerbating your emotional agitation (such as hunger or fatigue). If possible and appropriate, address those needs—otherwise, raise a mental red flag so you’re conscious that your emotions may be inflamed by these conditions. Stretching is a good way to quickly release tension and achieve physical comfort and neutral posture.
2) Zoom out to gain perspective. Imagine you are viewing the conflict from a neutral place with greater distance. Imagine emotionally unplugging or detaching from the situation to increase awareness. Are you really upset about the issue at hand or are you displacing your anger? For example, are you flipping off the driver behind you when you’re actually mad at your boss about the meeting you just left? Make sure you address the appropriate person. Identify the real issue, and don’t argue about the minutia if there is a deeper core issue that needs to be addressed. Choose your battles: Let go the little stuff and care about yourself enough to address the important matters.
3) Become mindful of your nonverbal communication. Because much of communication is nonverbal, be aware of your facial expressions, hand gestures and body language to ensure you are sending the message that you want to be received.
4) Avoid behaviors that add fuel to the fire. Physical or verbal abuse is never acceptable. John Gottman, PhD, a leading researcher and expert on relationships, identifies four additional behaviors that should be avoided during conflict. In my practice, I see how destructive these behaviors can be and coach clients to avoid them whenever possible.
• Criticism: attacking the person’s character
• Contempt: insults and nonverbal hostility, like eye rolling
• Stonewalling: shutting down
• Defensiveness: seeing self as victim
5) Reflect empathy. The ability to show you understand how the other person feels is perhaps the single most powerful communication skill. It allows the person to feel heard and diffuses conflict. You do not have to agree with their perspective, but you can show you understand their feelings (e.g., “I can understand that you felt upset by that.”)
6) Take responsibility for yourself. Save everybody time by owning up to your own poor behaviors. This is not a sign of weakness; rather it demonstrates awareness and integrity and will likely expedite successful resolution. Make sincere and timely amends and apologies.
7) Use assertive communication. Avoid being passive (weak in setting boundaries), aggressive (hostile or entitled) or passive-aggressive (acting out through indirect behaviors like slamming a door or not responding to an email). Stay in the present and don’t dredge up old issues from the past. Ask for what you need, say no to what you can’t do, and be open to negotiation and compromise. Articulate a complaint about a specific behavior and express your feelings in a way that is clear, direct and appropriate. Whenever possible, communicate in person or over the phone, rather than through email or text messages, where misunderstandings breed quickly. Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements to reduce defensiveness. For example, “I am upset that I did not get the promotion,” rather than, “You are ruining my career.”
8) Be open and flexible. Listen and really hear the other person. Ask questions to gather clarifying information. Consider other perspectives or solutions. Look for the compromise or “win-win.”
9) Focus on what you can control and let go of the rest. Author Wayne Dyer wisely wrote, “How people treat you is their karma; how you react is yours.“ You can control your own behaviors and responses, but you cannot control others or the outcome. You can advocate for yourself in the context of a relationship. If resolution cannot be achieved, you can empower yourself to change the boundaries of that relationship, or perhaps even end it altogether.
10) Forgive. Nelson Mandela said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Recognize that people come into our lives for a reason, and even negative experiences are opportunities for growth. Be grateful for the learning experience, work toward acceptance, forgive and let go of the past and consciously choose how you want to move forward.