By Barbara du Preez-Ulmi. Conflicts are great. Without conflict, there is no growth. Every conflict is an opportunity to get to know ourselves better. Are you in a battle with someone at work right now? Or have you just recovered from a fight with someone close to you?
Peace is not about preventing conflict. It is about how we manage conflict. It’s about knowing what battle is worth fighting, and why, and which one isn’t.
Below are 9 ways to cope with conflict. Of course there is not “one strategy for all fights”. But these 9 fundamental tips will help you with your next conflict situation. Which one do you battle with the most?
1 – Choose your battle (or learn how to choose it)
Not every battle has to be fought. Assess when it is worth fighting a battle, and when it just isn’t. Some conflicts blow over if you give it some time. Sometimes, it’s better to move on. For instance: If you parked your car in “disabled parking lot”, but you don’t have a disability, and a passers-by challenges you on it, then just apologise, and park your car elsewhere. Don’t start arguing and self-justifying.
Of course, it becomes a challenge in itself if the other party to the conflict is not ready for the battle, but you very much want to work your way through the conflict – right there and then, whether it’s on your home turf or not.
Maybe they need some time to think and to get their emotions in check, or the field in which the conflict will be played out is not ideal (example: You are at home and your children are nearby). Ask the other party to agree on a time and place to discuss the matter – and swallow your need to fight right then and there. Who knows, it may stand you in good stead to also get some time to reflect first. Knee-jerk, emotion-laden conflicts have the potential to grow into something much more protracted than necessary.
Take the time to reflect on your predominant conflict style, and what other styles you have applied in your life, and when they were beneficial, but when not so.
If you don’t know how to choose your battles, perhaps a reality check will help when you find yourself at the onset of a conflict. Ask yourself, What do I gain from going through and resolving this conflict? Does it help create something better not just for myself, but also for the other party? If I start fighting with this person, how will it affect my future relationship with her or him? Am I dependent on this person in any way, and do I just need to take a step back and get a breath of fresh air, rather than jeopardising my own options?
If someone starts “ bickering”, is it perhaps not more wisely to ask how you could help or make things better, than going on the defense?
Sometimes, we are so badly triggered emotionally, we just can’t help but to start fighting or retaliating. Try create a small window between the trigger and your reaction – a fraction of a second – and visualise what it feels like when you’re at peace with the person you are about to fight, how good that feels, and how much nicer it is keep a good accord. This is a huge task – but perhaps you will succeed. Just let the bad vibes go. And let kindness in.
2 – Choose your battle-field
Most conflicts are battled out verbally, be it over the phone or in person. Then again, with What’s App, SMS, Facebook and so many other instant messaging tools easily available, you might have found yourself in a text-war more often than not. It stands to question if we fight much more fiercely in a virtual world (hiding behind a screen) or in reality.
Digital messages leave a trail (and so do verbal ones – but often without the proof unless the argument is recorded or there are reliable witnesses.) At work, it is best practice to refrain from using Skype messaging & Co. in order to vent your anger in a conflict; and to much rather follow the conflict resolution process in place.
This would usually entail an arranged place and time to resolve the issue(s) and is facilitated by a neutral chairperson or mediator.
The general rule is: Don’t send that message. Speak to the other party.
If there is no such process in place, or if you are facing a conflict in a personal or public setup, perhaps there is a way to negotiate the format in which the parties approach each other – especially so, if one party does not do well with direct confrontation, or is perceived of someone with lesser power or authority.
Negotiate conflict facilitation through the writing of an email or letter, or negotiate for both parties to record their story and grievance and send it electronically for consideration.
However, it remains best practice to follow up on the initial version-telling phase by meeting each other in person, or at least through digital video conversation, should physical distance be the issue. Why? Because without being able to see the other party or person, all non-verbal communication goes out the window, and you make ample room for misinterpretation and a culture of accusation and blame.
3 – Understand and respect personal space
I will keep this one short. When you find yourself in a situation where your opponent marches right up to you, and into your own space, ask them to please take a step back. There is nothing worse than having somebody stick their finger into your face, head-butt you or shout into your ears. Or step on your toes.
If you are not highly self-composed, this may easily lead to further violence. If they don’t listen, ask again. Don’t shout. Ask firmly and clearly: I understand you want to fight this out. But please step back and respect my space. Keep your calm. If that doesn’t work, remove yourself and find a safe place, or ask for outside help.
4 – Know yourself
The journey of really knowing ourselves is a long one. Some manage to do so more easily than others. Some of us know ourselves by the time we are 13, some only at 80, others never really. It is perhaps the biggest piece of work in your life – to work through getting to know yourself. And we cannot do it in isolation. We need introspection as much as observation and life experience in a social setting.
We get to know ourselves hard and fast through conflict – positive and negative ones. In other words:
If you are pushed out of your comfort zone, self-preserving defense mechanisms kick in. What are you preserving?
Is it a facade or your own convictions and your own truths? Is there perhaps an opportunity to open your eyes and watch yourself in the conflict – and see the other party’s viewpoint?
If you know yourself well, you are highly aware of your own emotions, their effect, your environment and others. You take responsibility for your own actions and resulting consequences.
You are aware of non-verbal communication: You know why and when you raise an eyebrow, make a dismissive hand-movement or turn your back on someone. You understand the pain it may inflict on the other party – and what you may provoke. Use your body language wisely and kindly, and learn how to read others and be perceptive of them in a conflict.
Be aware of your voice, and how you use it. Do you stay calm and resolved in most fights – and your voice tells others so? Or do they perceive your calm voice to be dripping with sarcasm and “being on a high horse”? Does your voice tremble – are you scared, do you fear the other person? Do you shout just to get your way across? Do you do so continuously, or do you use it as a tool to break through the conflict?
Often, it is not just what we say, but how we say it. And what others hear. You don’t have much control over what others hear, but you can certainly control your own voice and action and stick to integrity within yourself.
5 – Don’t assume
We assume daily. We simply assume that the way we see things, is reality. Biologically, it has to do with our learning capabilities and our capacity to absorb and categorise visual and other impressions. Psychologically, it helps us survive in a complex world. It helps us define ourselves and find comfort in it. It is unbelievable difficult, if not impossible, to never assume anything. Perhaps the trick lies in how we deal with our assumptions.
Take the time to revisit your assumptions and see if they really serve you a positive purpose.
Give the people around you a chance – a chance to change. And even more so, give it to yourself.
The more ingrained you are in your own little world of assumptions, the more rigid you become. The more negative energy you attract and host.
But how to do this, practically? Apply the benefit of doubt. The next time you get upset about someone else’s behaviour or mutterings: Stop your thoughts. Ask yourself if that person is perhaps behaving in a certain way because they are stressed, sad, tired, or perhaps just fine – and you are the one who is stressed, sad, tired and thus open to assuming the worst.
If a colleague does not get back to your email in time, don’t automatically assume they do it to bully you. Perhaps the email is hanging in your Outbox? Perhaps they were in meetings all day? If you train yourself to think this way, your energy around you will change. So when you approach this person, your message will carry an empathetic and not accusatory tone. And an unnecessary conflict is prevented.
Of course, it gets much more difficult to deal with our own assumptions when they concern someone who we interact with a lot; be it our husbands, wives, bosses or children. We think we know them inside and out, and we know their patterns. How can we, if we hardly know ourselves well enough? Why box others so rigidly? Doing so, you clip their wings of change.
6 – Truly listen
I wouldn’t be surprised if you were about to skip this section.
We have heard it so many times – in schools, at home, at work, in seminars – listening skills are the alpha and omega of good communication. And let’s be honest – most of us think we are great listeners, right?
Well, there is an easy way to check that yourself. The next time you are arguing with someone, let them vent their anger and listen. Once they are done, ask them if you may summarise what upsets them. And if they in turn would please tell you if you were right, or off the mark.
You may even do that in a positive or neutral moment. Ask a friend or colleague to read out an opinion piece, perhaps even a witness report to a crime – anything that is packed with facts and emotions. Then see how much you remember – and also observe yourself as in what you remember the best, and what the least. This will again teach you something about yourself and what you put emphasis on when listening to others.
The added benefit? You create mutual understanding and a platform to truly negotiate your conflict from – without misunderstandings and presumptions, clouded in emotions, right from the get go.
Often, we think we are listening – but we aren’t. While listening, we filter out what is beneficial to us, or what gives us ammunition for our counter-argument. To truly be able to listen takes a lot of experience and it requires the ability to step outside of ourselves, even if just for a brief moment.
If you find yourself in a situation where in spite of your best intentions, you just cannot resolve the conflict (in a situation where the art of listening on both sides is kicked in its sides) ask a mediator for help. A mediator is able to listen to both parties. He or she may do so in a joint session, and/or in a side-caucus (meaning, speaking to the parties individually and without the other listening in). A side-caucus helps find common grounds between the parties. And more so, it helps with finding the real issues that underlie a conflict.
7 – Forgive yourself and others
A lot has been said, and is being sad about the power of forgiveness. It is sometimes just as difficult to ask for forgiveness, as it is to truly give your forgiveness to someone. And at times, we forgive too easily. Or we ask for it too easily – by simply saying “sorry”, things may only be resolved temporarily.
Forgiving each other without being highly aware of the act of forgiveness doesn’t bring closure and peace; it simply puts a temporary halt to a conflict at hand. Low and behold, when you fight with the same person again at a later stage in your life, the exact things and behaviour that you asked for forgiveness for, will be used against you – and you use it against the other person.
To learn how to forgive consciously, a good start is to read up on the Hawaiian art of forgiveness, Ho’oponopono. In a nutshell, the traditional ritual of Ho’oponopono is a process which begins with prayer. A statement of the problem is made, and the transgression discussed. Family members are expected to work problems through and cooperate, not “hold fast to the fault”. One or more periods of silence may be taken for reflection on the entanglement of emotions and injuries. Everyone’s feelings are acknowledged. Then confession, repentance and forgiveness take place. Everyone releases (kala) each other, letting go. They cut off the past (ʻoki), and together they close the event with a ceremonial feast, called pani, which often included eating limu kala or kala seaweed, symbolic of the release of anger. (Source: Wikipedia)
You may also find your own style of meditation and through such, truly understand your shadow sides, your bad decisions you’ve made in life, and forgive yourself.
8 – Use negotiation skills to achieve a win-win outcome
The best conflict is one that leaves both conflicting parties with more insight into their own actions, with a sense of accountability, and a newly found common purpose.
Unfortunately, most conflicts result in one of the parties feeling like they’ve given in or lost out; be it that they just called it a truce because they were tired of fighting; made concessions; or feel truly emotionally dissected and worthless.
To take a page out of Roger Fisher and William Ury’s highly acclaimed book Getting to Yes, specific negotiation tactics help facilitate a conflict with the goal to achieve a buy-in or win-win situation for both parties. In their book, they show us how to negotiate an agreement without giving in; and how to negotiate personal and professional disputes without getting angry. The trick of principled negotiation is to separate the people from the problem – and not to focus on positional bargaining.
9 – Analyse your conflict together
If you reach a point where your conflict with someone else has been resolved, and you have perhaps truly forgiven each other, take the opportunity to conduct a de-brief on your conflict. Now that you are both removed from your negative emotions and have a clearer viewpoint, you are able to discuss your conflict from a healthy and logical distance.
Analysing a conflict together does wonders. If done right, it helps you push through your own inherited and acquired negative patterns. It helps you understand and manage each other’s triggers in the future.
It helps you manage conflict better in your life.
Ask a Mediator
If you are stuck in a conflict at work, and just don’t see an end to it, I can help you mediate it. A neutral person to a protracted conflict helps diffuse the situation and assists you and the other party in finding an agreeable outcome. Contact me.
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