Conflicts are part of interpersonal relationships. We are all different, we have different ways of seeing the world and we often also pursue opposing goals, so it is normal that from time to time our ideas and interests collide. As the Chinese writer Lin Yutang said: “Conflicts will always exist, do not try to avoid them but understand them.”
In fact, conflicts in themselves are not negative since they only indicate the presence of differences between the people involved. However, if we ignore them or do not learn to resolve them, they can grow and cause unnecessary stress, alter our mental balance and also affect our relationships. For this reason, it is essential to learn conflict resolution strategies.
The 5 basic principles of conflict resolution
Conflicts are nothing more than antagonistic situations, so to solve them it is necessary to find a middle ground. It will help us to start from a series of basic principles that will prevent these differences from increasing to the point of becoming dysfunctional patterns:
1. Nonviolence. Regardless of the irritation, frustration or anger we may feel when someone annoys us, to resolve differences we must remain calm and not attack the other because that way we will only make them become defensive, which will cut the bridges of dialogue.
2. Respect for others. Sometimes it is difficult to understand positions that are too different from ours. However, conflicts are resolved with respect, which means taking into account their concerns, worries and points of view.
3. Acceptance. To resolve a conflict and leave everyone with a good taste in their mouths, win-win strategies must be applied. And that means each side must give in. Therefore, we must be willing to accept some of the points on which we initially differed.
4. Constructive dialogue. Conflicts cannot be resolved from a distance. It is necessary to establish fluid and two-way communication in which each party can express their positions and feel listened to, valued and respected.
5. Collaboration. To resolve conflicts, it is necessary to abandon the “winning” mentality. When there is a discrepancy, it is not about beating the other, but rather reaching an agreement satisfactory to both. Therefore, you have to talk with collaboration in mind.
Conflict resolution: Effective psychological techniques step by step
When trying to solve a conflict, the attitude with which you assume it is essential since it often determines the results. In the 1970s, psychologists Ken Thomas and Ralph Kilmann identified 5 basic conflict resolution styles, which differ depending on the degree of ego involvement, the importance of the relationship, and the desire to achieve certain outcomes. You can use it to understand what your style is and identify what you should change.
1. Neutral Observation
Sometimes we react with anger because we assume that the other person consciously does things to anger us or contradict us. However it is not always so. In reality, everyone is free to make their own decisions, so sometimes they will coincide with our expectations and other times they will not.
Therefore, try to observe the conflict from a neutral perspective.
To resolve supposed differences, try to take a step back and assume a psychological distance from what is happening. For example, if your partner or a friend has rejected the last invitations you have made to go out, instead of reproaching them for not paying attention to you, you could say: “I have noticed that in the last few days you have denied all my invitations.” At this point, simply wait for their response. Maybe everything is not as you assumed and you were creating a storm in a teacup.
On the other hand, if there really is a discrepancy, the second step is:
2. Address the conflict
Ignoring a problem, whether at work, in a relationship or family environment, may seem like a good idea. This way you avoid arguments. And you may think that if you don’t feed it, sooner or later it will disappear. I have bad news: this is generally not the case. Conflicts do not usually disappear, rather they become uncomfortable elephants in the room.
For that reason, it is usually better to address them.
Prepare beforehand. Think about what bothers you the most and those points where you would be willing to give in. Are your positions really so antagonistic? At what middle point could you find yourself with relative comfort? When you have clear ideas, bring up what is happening, express how it affects you and show your willingness to reach an agreement that is advantageous to both of you.
3. Clarify the cause
On more than one occasion, two people see each other as enemies, when in reality they are on the same side. The misinterpretations, the circumstances or emotions can cloud judgment, causing you to perceive yourself as being on opposing teams when in reality it’s not. On other occasions, the problem is just the expression of a latent, unaddressed conflict.
Therefore, it is essential that you identify the true cause of the discrepancy.
Analyze your points of view and the emotions you experience. Is this difference really so irreconcilable or is it just apparent? Is this conflict hiding a more serious problem at its core? The key is to find what is really distancing you.
4. Recognize that you are part of the problem
Blaming others is easy. Taking responsibility is difficult. We all like to think that it is the fault of others. Thus we can make the mistake of believing that if they were more flexible, tolerant, respectful or open, the conflict would not exist. Maybe. But if you are in a conflictive relationship with someone, it is unlikely that you will be blameless.
Therefore, admit that you are part of the problem.
Don’t try to pass the hot potato to the other person, as if it were all their fault. Start by acknowledging your responsibility. Maybe you have gone too far in your criticism or been too rigid in your ideas… Whatever it is, admit it. This way you can create a climate of trust that will encourage the other to open up and recognize, at the same time, their respective share of responsibility.
5. Personal Feeling
This conflict resolution technique is essential, especially when these differences occur within the framework of the closest relationships. It consists of expressing how you feel. In fact, it is particularly important when the conflict is long-standing and has generated an accumulation of negative feelings.
The key is to convey your feelings without reproach.
Don’t assume the role of victim or judge. Don’t complain or blame, simply be an informant. For example, you can tell that person: “The fact that you have not accepted my invitations has hurt me, I have felt… (rejected, sad, alone, you can use the adjective that best suits your case)”.
6. Show empathy
When you approach a conflict, it is natural to want to state your point of view. And you have to do it, obviously! However, that does not mean that you wall yourself off in your position and do not listen to the other party. If everyone entrenches themselves behind their ideas, they will only go around in circles without getting anywhere.
Everything changes when you show empathy.
When you present your arguments, ask the other person what they think and how they think you can resolve the conflict. Listen to them and show empathy. Put yourself in their shoes and show that you understand how they feel. This way you will create an environment of respect and connection that facilitates connection and, ultimately, resolution.
7. Reflective listening
Many people carry the same conflicts for years because they are not able to listen to others. And if no one listens, their needs remain unsatisfied, the conflict increases and dissatisfaction sets in.
Practicing reflective listening changes that scenario.
This conflict resolution strategy has a large emotional component, so you begin by pointing out the emotion you notice in the other person and ask them to express how they feel about those differences. You should listen carefully and paraphrase their main ideas or summarize them more clearly to make sure you understand them. This way you can get to the heart of the matter and move forward with its solution.
8. Determine a common goal
To resolve a conflict, it is necessary that both parties have a common objective. If each one only thinks about “beating” the other or imposing their point of view, they will not be able to get far because the gap between them will increase.
True change occurs when a common goal is set.
And that goal should be to resolve the problem and ensure that it does not arise again. In fact, it must be a “neutral” goal that everyone should agree to. Looking in the same direction will allow you to realize that, deep down, you have something in common, no matter how much your differences separate you. This will lay the foundations for finding a solution that is suitable for both of you.
9. Separate the sacred from the mundane
Resolving a conflict can become a real challenge when fundamental values are involved and we feel that our ego may be hurt. Differences in religious, political or moral matters are often difficult to reconcile because they touch our sense of identity.
If you want to move forward, you will have to separate the sacred from the profane.
We all have some principles that we are not willing to compromise on. And that leads us to believe that these issues cannot be negotiated, so we close ourselves to dialogue. The key to getting out of this situation of stagnation is to find a solution that does not violate those values. For example, if you think that a business idea is not ecological, but your partner insists on carrying it forward, you could propose a way to offset that carbon footprint.
10. Identify points of agreement
It’s hard. When we are immersed in a conflict it seems as if differences grow while similarities fade. In reality, everything depends on our perspective, so if we want to solve the problem, we must make sure to look for what unites us, instead of focusing so much on what separates us.
Therefore, try to look at yourself with different eyes.
If necessary, go back to the origins of the relationship so that you can remember everything that united you. You may have changed over time, but probably not as much as that conflict would lead you to believe. Bringing up the points you have in common will help you create a more solid foundation that will help you resolve your differences with empathy.
11. Find solutions
On many occasions, conflicts become chronic because we talk too much about them, but we do not look for solutions. And while expressing how we feel or addressing differences from different angles is essential, the next step should be to look for alternatives to iron out the rough edges and move forward.
Therefore, propose solutions.
How would you like the conflict to be resolved? What are you willing to give up? To what extent could you change? Is that solution also advantageous for the other party involved? The key is to approach this phase with a creative mindset, staying open to different solutions to finally choose, by mutual agreement, the most convenient one.
12. Commit to change
To eradicate a conflict it is not enough to find a solution. It must be put into practice! If everything remains just words and coherent changes do not occur, it is likely that sooner rather than later the conflict will resurface. And that time it will be worse because disappointment and frustration will add to it.
Therefore, establish an action plan.
You have to look for strategies to make the relationship work in the future with the minimum amount of friction possible. Ask yourself how you will do it. What can you tolerate better? This is the time to address the nuts and bolts, the changes that need to be made, and what everyone will do to make sure those differences don’t become an obstacle again.
Finally, it is worth clarifying that these strategies will serve you the same for resolving family conflicts as they do at work or in any other sphere in which you operate. You will just have to stay calm and make sure to always focus on dialogue and understanding.
Thomas, K. W. & Kilmann, R. H. (1975) The Social Desirability Variable in Organizational Research: An Alternative Explanation for Reported Findings. Academy of Management Journal; 18(4): 471-482.