When was the last time you had a disagreement, conflict, or all-out fight (I’ll call them conflicts from now on) with someone close to you? If you are a breathing human being, the chances are it occurred in the last day or so. Whether with a spouse, parent, child, sibling, other family member, friend, or co-worker, conflicts are a natural and inevitable part of the human condition. Conflicts can arise over just about anything, from the mundane (e.g., what to have for dinner) to the everyday (e.g., how to spend your time) to the petty (e.g., are the Red Sox or the Yankees better?) to the absurd (e.g., iPhone or Android?) to the monumental (e.g., global security). Conflicts can occur over differences of opinion in goals, needs, politics, religion, power, money — the list goes on.
Of course, the best way to deal with a conflict is to prevent it from occurring. Though certainly a challenge, such conflict preemption can happen if you:
- Keep an open mind
- Listen to what the other person has to say
- Understand their perspective
- Show empathy toward their position
- Objectively consider whether they might be correct or your two viewpoints can co-exist, and, if so
- Either accept that both positions can be right or concede your position and, in doing so, prevent the conflict from taking hold and escalating
Conflicts that arise and aren’t resolved in a healthy manner are so harmful to relationships because they produce a tsunami of intense negative emotions including annoyance, irritation, hurt, sadness, disappointment, frustration, resentment, bitterness, anger, guilt, shame, fear, and misery, just to name a few. What makes this plethora of emotions so damaging is that, with an unresolved conflict, they linger and can metastasize to the point where the relationship is destroyed, leading to estrangement, ostracism, and, in the case of marriage, divorce.
Given the ubiquity of conflicts in our lives, it’s not a matter of whether we have them or not (no matter how hard most of us try, they are going to happen), but rather how we respond to them. Admittedly, there’s not a lot we can do about conflicts that occur at the societal level. But, there is a great deal we can do when we have conflicts with people close to us in our daily lives.
A colleague of mine talks about conflicts as “ruptures” in a relationship and asserts that they can be healthy and actually strengthen relationships, but only if a “repair” occurs. This reparation phase is where my three keys to resolving conflict come into play.
As members of the animal kingdom, no matter how evolved we may be, when involved in a conflict, our survival instinct is triggered and our fight-or-flight reaction occurs. Our instinctive response is to protect ourselves against “death” (our primitive brain can’t distinguish between physical and psychological threats). This reaction can either mean attacking the other person or avoiding the confrontation altogether. Neither case typically produces a repair or a resolution to the conflict.
When faced with the threat associated with a conflict, the first step is to resist eons of evolution and, instead of protecting yourself, show your vulnerability toward the person with whom you are in conflict. When you put up your guard against the other person, they will too, resulting in a standoff. By the same token, if you show your vulnerability, so likely will they. And with this openness, there is a chance to repair the damage that may have been done. Vulnerability can be expressed in several ways including by showing your own feelings of hurt from the conflict, voicing regret, and apologizing. Admittedly, being vulnerable is risky and takes considerable courage because the other person may not be so forgiving and may use your vulnerability to inflict more damage. But, in most cases, especially involving long-standing, caring, and respectful relationships, vulnerability offered is vulnerability reciprocated.
Another almost instinctive reaction in a conflict is to blame the other person — “It’s not my fault!” This reaction is an unconscious means of protecting our self-esteem; you don’t have to feel bad about yourself if you didn’t do anything wrong. However, conflicts rarely arise in a vacuum or unilaterally. Rather, each person likely plays a role in the emergence of the conflict, so the second key is your own accountability for your part in the conflict.
If you’re in protective mode, chances are that you won’t be able to accept some culpability for the conflict. But, if you embraced vulnerability, holding yourself accountable is much easier because the two go hand in hand. Similar to vulnerability, by taking ownership of your part in the conflict, the other person is more likely to do the same. And when you de-escalate the conflict, it makes it much easier for the other person take some responsibility for their part as well.
Vulnerability and accountability are really impactful, especially if they are genuine and heartfelt. At the same time, they are both talk and, as the saying goes, “talk is cheap.” The final key to resolving conflict involves responsivity, meaning you put your actions where your mouth is and you respond in a positive way to the conflict.
The best way to defuse a conflict is to take action signaling that you want to settle the conflict and repair any damage that may have been done. Here are some steps you can take:
- Demonstrate to the other person that you want to resolve the conflict
- Show how much you care about the other person
- Ask questions so you really understand where the other person is coming from
- Do what you need to do to resolve the source of the conflict even if it means “giving in” (for the greater good of the relationship)
- Do something to make amends
- If appropriate, given them a hug and tell them that you love them (or care deeply for them)
When you show vulnerability, accountability, and responsivity in the face of a conflict, you demonstrate a strength, confidence, and unselfishness that will earn you admiration, respect, and appreciation that will pay dividends in future conflicts. Also, both you and the other person will walk away from the conflict feeling “repaired” and good about your relationship. And, like muscles, the more you use them, the stronger they get and the easier it is to use them in the future. These three keys will also just plain make you feel good because you took the high road and did the right thing. And that should give you plenty of “warm fuzzies,” which are far better than the truly unpleasant emotions that you will feel if you leave the conflict ruptured and unrepaired.
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