Few people like conflict – but we are, nevertheless, confronted with conflict situations on a regular basis and they tend to consume a lot of energy. It is therefore important that we learn how to avoid or resolve them. Let’s begin with the most important point: Conflict management is ALWAYS about emotion management. So how can I manage my own emotions and those of the other person involved in a conflict?
“Studies have shown that managers spend up to 30% of their time resolving conflicts and that around 15% of a company’s total work involves conflict resolution,” says Ursula Wawrzinek, a German conflict resolution consultant and author of a book on how to deal with stubborn or overly sensitive individuals (“Vom Umgang mit sturen Eseln und beleidigten Leberwürsten“). Based on my own experience of offering conflict coaching, I believe she is right. Even if you are not a manager yourself, you are likely to be confronted with conflict situations time and again. The difficulty this poses is that conflicts tend to consume a lot of energy and to preoccupy us even after the matter has been addressed, meaning that they have a long ‘half-life’ and continue to drain us of energy.
Why do conflicts even occur? Thomas Hobbes, a 17th century English philosopher, cited three main reasons for this: Competition, a lack of self-confidence, and a thirst for recognition. In other words, he believed conflicts were not attributable to purely factual causes. The two parties usually argue about a certain topic but the real reason lies elsewhere. That is a crucial point if you want to resolve conflicts (see my next blog on May 22) or – better still – avoid them.
What can I do to avoid conflicts wherever possible? Here is an example: If you want to discuss a topic with a colleague at work, choose a good time to do so. Your colleague should not be angry, stressed or under time pressure – and neither should you – or it will not take much for the ‘pressure cooker’ to explode. Before you approach the other party, consider what your real motive is and why you want to hold a discussion. Do you just want to get something off your chest? Do you want to clarify something? Or do you want to improve your relationship with the person you are talking to? The latter would of course be the ideal scenario.
What tips should you consider for an effective discussion in order to avoid conflict wherever possible?
- Show your esteem for the other person. Everyone – absolutely everyone – needs to feel appreciated.
- Give feedback instead of criticism – that is a small but important difference in terms of your attitude and how you express your concerns.
- Be open and honest without being rude.
- Stick to the facts.
- Admit your own mistakes and show that you have the capacity for self-reflection.
- Communicate using the first person (“I…”). Don’t assign blame (“You did this…”) but explain to the other person how you perceived something he did or said or the feelings that triggered in you. The other person may not even be aware of it, since when someone says ‘A’, that is not always the message that reaches the other person – he may interpret it as ‘B’ or ‘C’.
- Ask questions instead of making outright statements. In this way, you can show an interest in the other person’s viewpoint, clarify potential misunderstandings and avoid ‘adding fuel to the fire’ if the other party is already irritated.
- Express your concerns in the type of language you would use if saying them to yourself.
- Limit yourself to the one topic that you have earmarked for this discussion and avoid making sweeping accusations (e.g. “You always…”).
- Do not procrastinate when it comes to addressing conflict. If you are unable to reconcile your different viewpoints and do not address the problem immediately, the difference in perception becomes ever greater – and your anger grows.
The way you communicate
It is also advisable to use a range of non-aggressive forms of behavior:
- Selectively agree with the other person: “I agree with you in this area…” That will appease him, making him more willing to find a compromise.
- Don’t specify your own view on something – instead say: “I heard what you said…” or “What else?” That way, the other person feels like their view is being heard without you revealing what you think about the topic.
- Paraphrase: “You said that…” If the other party meant something else, he can contradict this statement, so that there are no misunderstandings.
- Reinterpret what has been said: “I understand your remark in such a way that…” Here too, the person you are talking to can tell you whether you have understood what he or she intended to say.
It is not only what you say that matters in a conflict. Body language also has a big impact on the way a message is received by the other person (you can read more about this in my blog post on the subject of communication). You should therefore pay attention to the following aspects:
- The openness of your posture
- Your facial expressions
- Your gestures
- Your tone
- Consistency: Does your body language match what you are saying?
- How you move around the room: Are you moving away from your counterpart or towards him?
- Do you have eye contact with the other person?
The person you are speaking to notices everything – whether consciously or subconsciously. And his interpretations of what is said and what he has seen have an influence on his emotions and consequently on his reactions. Next time, I will talk more about how you can influence your own emotions and those of the other party if a conflict has already broken out.
© Claudia Kraaz