Conflict is a part of nature – birds, monkeys even insects fight with each other to get the desired partner, access food, or establish control over a territory. Humans are not different from the rest of the animal world. Our list of reasons for conflict is much longer and includes items such as friends not liking your post on social media and partners forgetting each other birthdays.
We fight at work with our colleagues us a team or superhero style I vs world, we fight with our families at Christmas dinner, with a girlfriend in bed and random commuters on a train. Thankfully the majority of these conflicts aren’t fistfights. Nevertheless, the experience of conflict no matter how small or big is never pleasant.
It stirs up uncomfortable emotions leaving a long-lasting aftertaste with flashbacks that stay for days, weeks, and in some cases years to follow. I still remember a conflict with my primary school literature teacher caused by a disagreement with my writing style when I was 14! It didn’t help that my submitted assignment was rather short – one page instead of requested 20.
The other side of the conflict that is often forgotten is that it is an opportunity to learn about yourself and another person. This is where sincerity comes into play and we get to decide whether we want to continue with this relationship or stay in the environment. In that truthful nakedness there is no BS, no treading carefully it is raw and real.
Conflicts allow us to grow not only as individuals but as partners or a group. In my experience, if a relationship survives a conflict it elevates to another exponentially higher level. With a learned understanding, we can work together as a ship crew in a more united way but only if we approach conflict with the right mindset rather than avoiding it at all costs.
How to manage a conflict like a pro
1 Understand and respect another person’s boundaries
Remember the dance in the “How to train your dragon” animation movie at the beginning? That scene represents the boy and his dragon friend establishing ground rules of their relationship. This is a time to pay attention because people are giving you a manual on how they want to work together. You can’t build an Ikea cabinet without reading the instructions and relationships are no different. An added bonus of active listening is the other person sees that you care. In the words of Steven Covey “Look to understand first than to be understood.”
2 Argue but be civil
There is no need for harsh words and expressive hand gestures. Stay objective and avoid criticizing the person by focusing on the behavior. Overreacted and said a few things that shouldn’t have left your mouth? Be a bigger person and apologize. Remember it is a partnership and your aim is a win-win outcome.
3 Take a time out.
When emotions are running high your vision may be clouded. Take three deep breathes. Step away from the conversation or unfinished email to return to your emotional baseline. Then respond from a grounded position. In some cases, especially after a heated discussion, you may need to create space before re-engaging. Allow yourself and the other person time for the dust to settle before having another meeting.
4 Pick up the phone or meet face to face.
Keyboard warriors are a real phenomenon. I worked with a guy who used capital letters and red fonts in his emails on a regular basis. Just seeing that would make someone’s blood pressure to rise. But in person, he was the nicest guy. It is easier to be self-centered when hiding behind a computer screen. Our emphatic abilities switch on in personal contact – use it to your advantage.
5 Focus on the behavior, not the person
Avoid phrases “you said”, “you did”, “you suggested” and speak how you felt about particular behavior instead. Pointing fingers puts another person in a defensive position. It is much harder coming to an agreement when we feel cornered. Learn to be comfortable with showing vulnerability as it shows strength and character.
6 Step into their shoes
There is an exercise called perceptual positioning used in coaching for seeing another perspective. The exercise places a person in the role of an independent observer and participants of the conflict specific to the interaction. While not always leading to a resolution the exercise provides a valuable insight into another person’s view.
7 Reap what you sow
Have you heard of an expression “Never let a good crisis go to waste?” Whether you resolve the conflict or decide to dissolve a partnership there is always a valuable lesson. Those lessons tend to repeat themselves if they have been learned. Collect the knowledge and apply it in future interactions. Improve your communication style and increase emotional intelligence using lessons learned.
The shared painful experience of a conflict, if resolved successfully creates a bond, an invisible pact between its participants. With that bond, they can work together as a team to overcome challenges and move toward a common goal. Because of that, we should not fear the conflict. We should welcome it as a healthy and natural part of a growing relationship.