Do you like conflict? Most people do not like conflict and would do anything to avoid it. Nonetheless conflict is a part of our everyday lives. There is conflict in the news, the movies we watch, in our homes, our relationships, our neighborhoods and even in our workplaces. We also see conflict happening in politics, sports, religion, between nations, the rich and the poor, men and women- conflict is everywhere.
It is important to note that conflict is not inherently negative though many people see it as such. People who view conflict as negative and bad are more likely to engage in conflict avoidance behaviors that ultimately cause more harm than good. But running from conflict will not make it disappear. Conflict can be a healthy and useful part of relationships and decision making. Conflict can signal that people are engaged and provide key insights about people’s wants and needs and flag potential problems or risks. Conflict only becomes dysfunctional when it is not managed and left ignored. Without the intentional efforts (of those in conflict) to resolve it, conflict drags on, creates hostility, stress, and destructive behaviors where people are pitted against in each other in win/ lose situations.
So, one of the most important life skills we all need to learn is how to resolve conflict and how to restore strained or broken relationships. If we do not learn how to deal with conflict, we are fated to spend most of our lives being miserable about unmet needs and being unhappy in our personal and professional relationships. Yet, many of us were never taught how to deal with conflict in a healthy and constructive way. Most of us probably learned how to manage conflict from the unhealthy examples demonstrated by our parents or from what we saw during our childhood. And today, our attitudes and approaches to dealing with conflict is still influenced by those patterns.
Conflict in Everyday Life
It is natural for people to disagree. We all come from different cultural backgrounds with varied life experiences and values that shape the way we see the world and engage with others. So, we are going to have conflict with our friends, families, children, significant other and our coworkers. To minimize dysfunctional conflict, it is important to pay attention to how we communicate, that is what we say, how we say, to whom we say it and when.
At work, conflict between coworkers can result from unclarified roles, disagreements on how to get a particular task done or because of differing opinions on how resources should be allocated. Conflict can result from how we interpret and apply policies and procedures or the facts of a particular situation. Nevertheless, conflict can enhance decision making by revealing blind spots and minimizing group think. But sometimes, people on teams fail to speak up and share opposing views which can improve the decision making and problem solving process because they want to appear as a team players and fear being seen as divisive. This practice of “not rocking the boat” can hurt teams and organizations in the long run as vital information might be missing when important decisions are taken.
On a personal level, conflict can emerge between people because of different personalities, perspectives, and preferences. With couples in relationships, arguments can stem from differences in attitudes towards money. One person might be focused on how to save and build wealth, while the other person is preoccupied with enjoying the finer things in life. Squabbles in families can also arise from unmet expectations and needs which may /may not have been communicated. In friendships, quarrels can result from poor communication or misunderstood remarks and comments taken out of context. And even in parenting, a lack of agreement on crucial issues on how to approach discipline, education and other lifestyle choices can become a huge source of struggle.
Like you, I have experienced the pain of damaged or broken relationships with family, friends, and coworkers due to unresolved conflict. Sometimes, our best efforts to resolve conflict can still lead to severed relationships, separation and other forms of emotional trauma. The key in those instances is to know when to let go and to guard your heart and energy. But regardless of the nature of the the conflict, we cannot afford to leave it unaddressed. Unresolved conflict can damage trust, encourage backstabbing, increase tension, stress and anxiety while creating toxic relationships and work environments.
What’s Your Conflict Style?
Think about a conflict that you are currently dealing with or one that you recently dealt with. How did you approach it? Did you tackle the disagreement head on? Or did you ignore it to keep the peace or hope that it would quietly go away? Your answer to those questions might reveal your conflict style and your level of comfort you might feel in addressing disagreements.
According to research, there are five main conflict styles.
- Competing a.k.a. (The Shark): Sharks approach conflict with a “It’s my way or the highway” attitude and are focused on getting their needs met to the detriment of others. Those using a competitive style fear that the loss of such control will result in solutions that fail to meet their needs. So, sharks force others to accept their way and ignore the needs or feelings of others. They believe conflicts are settled by one person winning and one person losing.
- Accommodating a.k.a. (The Teddy Bear): The teddy bear approach is to smooth things over or sweep issues under the rug. Persons using this style yield their needs to those of others, trying to be diplomatic or “grin and bear it”. They tend to set aside their needs for the other person and will give in to the other person’s point of view as their focus is on keeping the peace and preserving the relationship.
- Avoiding a.k.a. (The Turtle): This approach is a common response of persons with a negative perception of conflict. Turtles tend to take on the view that “Perhaps if we don’t bring it up, it will blow over.” What happens instead is that feelings get pent up, views go unexpressed, and the conflict festers until it becomes too big to ignore. Like a cancer that may well have been cured if treated early, the conflict grows and spreads until it kills the relationship. Because needs and concerns go unexpressed, people are often confused, wondering what went wrong in a relationship.
- Compromising a.k.a (The Fox): Foxes compromise. In this approach to conflict people gain and give in a series of tradeoffs as the fox will give up some goals if you give up some of yours. While satisfactory, compromise is generally not satisfying. We each remain shaped by our individual perceptions of our needs and do not necessarily understand the other side very well.
- Collaborating a.ka. (The Owl): Owls confront conflict openly and fairly. Owls are committed to their personal goals and to other goals. Owls begin discussions with a win/ win approach by identifying openly the wishes of both and are never satisfied until a solution is found that satisfies both. Two heads are better than one.”
Understanding your conflict style will help you to assess how you deal with conflict and how you might want to adjust. But here are some key tips to help you engage in conflict constructively and improve your conflict management skills.
5 Tips to Improve Your Conflict Management Skills
- Prioritize relationships: In dealing with a disagreement, it is easy to be self-centered when our ego and pride are involved. When our feelings get hurt our inclination is to distance ourselves, get defensive and demand what we need. But in every conflict, we have a choice to attack or counterattack. Try to think less about you and more about others and forget about winning or being right.
- Take ownership and accountability: Instead of looking for a person to blame, look for the root cause of the problem. Take personal accountability and find an opportunity to admit you were wrong or what you could have done better.
- Acknowledge the emotions: Beneath every conflict is an unmet or unspoken need or want that needs to be addressed. Rather that focusing on the symptom of the problem, ask yourself, what is going on with me or the other person? Try to get to the heart of what you and the other person might be feeling or need. Recognizing your emotions and that of others will help you to listen and understand the person’s perspective and show empathy (see last post).
- Think win /win: When there is a dispute, instead of holding onto feelings of the resentment work together with the person you are in conflict with to come up with a solution that meets both your needs. Try to keep the conversation focused on the goal you want to achieve and do not get stuck dwelling on past behavior or who did or said what.
- Set Boundaries: Minimize emotional outburst and hurtful behaviors when dealing with conflict by setting rules for you and others about what you will not say and do when feeling mad and aggravated. Avoid disrespectful behaviors such as swearing and name calling and other dehumanizing actions. Though conflict can painful, be honest, open, and kind. Damaging words spoken cannot be taken back.
Dealing with conflict requires courage and the best way to do it is to face it. Whether it is personal or professional, unresolved conflict messes with our lives and undermines our emotional well-being and overall happiness. Do not let the fear of being vulnerable prevent you from addressing conflict or having difficult conversations. Rather than seeing conflict as negative and avoiding it, let us commit to engaging in conflict constructively and build better relationships.
Until next time, Remember, It’s a Learning Life!
It’s more rewarding to resolve a conflict than to dissolve a relationship”-Josh McDowell