After writing about ways to avoid conflicts in my last blog (Link), I will explain today how you can resolve a conflict if you become involved in one. The most important points to remember are: (1) The anger of the other party may be related to a lot of things but may have little to do with the subject of your dispute. (2) The saying “If someone verbally throws a shoe at your head, don’t put it on!”
Some people are so calm and collected that nothing can upset them, even if they are confronted with serious issues and aggression. What happens? At some point, the individual who has launched the ‘attack’ stops screaming and is exhausted – and usually gives up in frustration. After all, it always takes two sides to have an argument: “A fight only begins with the second blow!” It is impossible to cause offense to someone if they won’t take it. In a conflict situation, you should think carefully about whether you want to get involved in the dispute: Is there anything to gain from it? And are there any other ways to resolve the matter than a fierce quarrel? Yes, they do exist! So how can I find them when tempers flare?
How to calm yourself and the other party
Anger is a strong emotion and it can cause a lot of harm if we allow it to run free. It is also bad for your health (especially for the heart) – and arguments don’t any get better when they get louder. As I explained in my last blog, conflict management is therefore primarily about emotion management. Here is what you can do to calm yourself and the other party:
- Listen to the other person, remembering the ‘pressure cooker’ principle: Allow the other person to let off steam and you gain time to think.
- Take a few deep breaths before you respond. This will calm your central nervous system.
- Using all your senses, try to imagine a river flowing past the broad and stable pillar of a bridge on the left and right. That is also a calming image.
- Do not adopt a defensive stance or the other party will become even angrier.
- Do not take statements (too) personally. You don’t know the background to the attack – read more about this below. There are also people who are basically frustrated with their lives and direct this frustration at everyone they meet.
- Don’t act like a victim. Instead, take responsibility for yourself. What can you contribute to the solution?
- Always remain respectful – in terms of your language and tone. Otherwise, you may regret it later.
- Ask what exactly the other person meant. When it comes to factual matters, you’ll get an answer. When it comes to purely emotional matters, there will probably be no response.
- Ask for a break to give both parties time to calm down.
See things from a different perspective
In conflict management, it is also very important to try to see the matter from the other person’s perspective. What could be the reason why someone is angry? Usually it has very little to do with the actual subject you are arguing about and is, instead, related to one of the following reasons (non‑ exhaustive list):
- The other person doesn’t have all the facts.
- Communication was or is inadequate (relationship level).
- One of the individuals involved in the conflict is paranoid, sees everything in black or white, or has tunnel vision.
- One of the people is afraid of defeat, loss, humiliation, etc.
- You have different values or ideas.
- The other party has problems in another area of his life.
- There were issues that harmed one or both sides – they may have nothing to do with you or the other party at all and are instead ‘old wounds’.
- Basic needs have not been or are not being respected. These include the need to feel appreciated and to have one’s status recognized, as well as the need for autonomy and to play a role or the desire to belong.
You never see inside someone’s mind but try to look at things from his point of view (listen carefully) and consider what good reasons he might have for making these accusations. This may make the situation look completely different. In coaching sessions, I sometimes ask my clients to swap places with me, i.e. to sit in the other chair and describe the conflict situation we have discussed from the other person’s perspective. This opens some people’s eyes and could be the first step towards conflict resolution.
Ways of resolving conflicts
There are several good ways to find a solution to a conflict:
- Assert yourself by fighting for something, rather than displaying resistance. This increases the likelihood that you will convince the other party that your proposal is correct.
- Adapt. You should choose your battles – e.g. stand your ground if you encounter unfair criticism but don’t engage in a dispute if you may not be able to change anything yourself. We all have only a limited amount of energy so it is important to use it in the right place and for the right purpose.
- Reach a compromise when time is limited by looking for the simplest common factor [as a basis to move forward].
- Seek full cooperation and negotiate until you find a solution that is right for both sides.
Less successful approaches are to delay addressing the conflict, to run away from it, to play down the matter or to pass the issue on to someone else. Your decision about which of the constructive options you take depends on the exact situation and the other party – and your own personal decision. You have more influence over how the conflict develops than you may think.
What’s more: Conflicts don’t have to be an entirely negative experience – they can also have many positive aspects. They are a means of providing clarity (in one direction or the other), of giving us the courage to stand up for ourselves, and of being creative and seeking new solutions – provided we recognize the opportunities they create and use our energy resources effectively. As Prentice Mulford, the 19th century US journalist, gold miner and department store owner, once said: Quarrelling and arguing is like a man who wants to smash his car out of rage because it is stuck in the mud; it would be better for him to use his strength to pull the car free!
© Claudia Kraaz