How Do We Resolve Conflict With Others? – Reply To A Reader
Today, I received an email from a reader and freelance journalist in South Africa, asking me to answer a short series of questions on conflict resolution for teenage students.
I love the idea of resolving conflict instead of suffering it and making it worse. And though not every interpersonal problem is solvable, most are and much less is required than the people involved might assume. I frequently do this kind of work with my coaching clients and organizational clients and it’s so satisfying to be a part of transitioning people from wrestling with what they don’t want and what can’t be done to focusing together on what they do want and what can be done to bring it about. Effective communication is the key, and breaking the chains of reaction in yourself and then others is the beginning of it.
I found answering the writer’s questions to be an interesting exercise, and today I’d like to share my response with you.
Q: What practical skills can you suggest to help people communicate effectively?
A: There are three sets of skills worth acquiring: Attitudinal, interpersonal, strategic.
Attitudinal skills allow us to quickly adjust to the communication interaction without taking anything personally or being steered off track by the emotional reactions of others – they allow us to stabilize ourselves in the situation so that we can be responsible and responsive instead of emotional and reactive. Attitudinal skills are necessary to keep us current and up to date with what is happening instead of getting lost in what is not happening.
Interpersonal skills include knowing how to find common ground with someone who, on the face of it, is very different than you. There’s also skill in knowing how to listen as a way of drawing people out or drawing them in.
Strategic skills allow you to change the trajectory of your interactions with others and aim them at something worthwhile. These include specific strategies like speaking so that someone wants to listen, using gentle confrontation and tactful interruptions. Persuasion skills allow you to strategically increase your influence.
Q: What can we do, practically, if we think the other person is not listening to us?
A: The best choice I’ve ever learned to make when I don’t think someone is listening is to stop talking and start listening. Because chances are that if you’re not feeling heard and understood, neither is the other person. People tend not to listen when they have something on their mind, and helping them clear it increases the likelihood that they can then hear you.
Q: What can we do, practically, if the other person starts to get very angry or aggressive?
A: When things threaten to spin out of control, that’s a good time to stabilize yourself (breath into it, get your perspective back), then seek common ground, and find a way to send signals to the person that you’re with them rather than against them.
Q: What can we do if we start getting really angry with the other person?
A: If you start to lose it, do yourself and the other person a favor and excuse yourself, and get away someplace until you calm down. Otherwise, you’ll be sending mixed messages, and the emotional message you send will obstruct any hope the other person will get the message you’d prefer to send.
Q: When we have a problem with someone, or are arguing with them, what responsibilities do we have? Towards the other person and ourselves.
If you have a problem with someone, I think it wise to take ownership for it 100%, identify it as your problem rather than the other person’s problem. Otherwise, you wind up in the untenable position of trying to work it out through someone who may not agree that it’s a problem.
If you’re in an argument backed by emotion, the battle over who is right can be damaging and pointless. If it’s an argument between two reasonable people trying to arrive at a proper conclusion, and it involves the use of critical thinking skills and the asking of questions,and of hearing each other before speaking, then it can have a positive outcome.
I believe it a useful assumption and productive approach that you are 100% responsible for the results (good or bad) that you get with people.
Q: When resolving conflict with another person/people, what rights should we remember that we have, and that they have?
A: An interesting question. Not sure what you mean by ‘rights.’ In a conflict situation, it’s the needing to be right that drives the conflict. So suffice it to say that I think it’s good to want what you want, as long as you temper it by also wanting what you get. YOu can want to be heard. You can want to communicate your ideas clearly and completely. YOu can want to influence someone. At the same time, whatever you want for yourself, you will find value in wanting it for the other person as well, and putting some effort into helping them secure their rights as part of the process of securing yours.
Q: How should these rights and responsibilities influence the way we resolve conflict?
I was sitting in the backseat of a limousine, on my way to a hotel to give a speech, when the driver turned and asked me what I do. I told him I was in town to give a speech. “What about?” he asked, and I told him, “Bringing out the best in people at their worst.” “How do you do that?” he asked me. I told him the following.
If you wish to resolve conflict, seek out common ground before dealing with differences. Two people standing together on common ground can resolve any difference between them. But if you want the conflict to persist, focus on the differences and emphasize them. Then nothing will be resolved.
I’d love to hear your comments on this exercise in Q&A. And if you have questions, let’s hear them! Who knows? Might even become my next blog post!