Confessions of a conflict avoider: four tips for resolving conflict

Ever noticed how the so-called ‘festive season’ can play out more like an exercise in conflict management?

It’s supposed to be the season to be jolly but often ends up stressful as interpersonal conflict gets driven to the surface by unrealistic expectations and misaligned assumptions. At a time when many people are wishing for ‘peace on Earth’, many of us experience quite the opposite.

This got me thinking about a song we used to sing in primary school: “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.” It struck me that peace among our family and friends, let alone on a global scale, depends on our ability to cultivate peace within our own hearts.

As a ‘conflict avoider’ by nature, my own approach to creating peace has traditionally been to avoid conflict altogether. But what I’ve learned through my work in the conflict-ridden legal profession, and now at CMA, is that effective conflict management depends on the ability to deal with conflict constructively.

Here are four key tips that have helped me to overcome my ‘conflict avoider’ tendencies and cultivate a measure of peace in my own life.

#1: Don’t listen to The Beatles

I’m not saying don’t listen to them at all. Just be careful when implementing their relationship advice, like in We Can Work It Out:

Try to see it my way
Do I have to keep on talking till I can’t go on?
While you see it your way
Run the risk of knowing that our love may soon be gone
We can work it out
We can work it out

Really? I can’t think of a more questionable strategy.

Many of us are familiar with the saying, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” You might even recognise it as the 5th Habit of Highly Effective People popularised by the late Stephen Covey.

Yet we often default to ‘The Beatles approach’ when attempting to deal with conflict. Instead of trying to understand where the other person is coming from, we simply repeat ourselves, thinking (at least on some level): “If they could only understand me, they would agree with me.”

This approach inevitably invokes Newton’s Third Law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In other words, stalemate.

So what can we do instead?

#2: Use conversational jujitsu Karate

Rather than trying to deal with conflict through direct opposition, consider using a more subtle, flexible approach. In conversation, it’s activated through listening.

Genuine listening – where we try to hear not just the words being spoken, but their underlying meaning – involves temporarily putting aside our own thoughts (our internal voice) in order to be fully present to the words, tone and body language of the other person. It helps to develop a sense of curiosity or childlike wonder when enquiring about views that are different to our own.

Like physical jujitsu, conversational jujitsu – listening – can be effective for transforming a verbal attack into a more collaborative conversation.

According to poet and philosopher Mark Nepo, there are Seven Thousand Ways to Listen (!), and we’ll be covering some of those in a later post.

For now, let’s look at what gets in the way of genuine listening – ourselves.

#3: “Check yourself before you wreck yourself” 

Rapper Ice Cube said it best. When faced with conflict, ‘checking yourself’ – that is, your own assumptions about the situation and how you might be contributing to it – can often help to avoid ‘wrecking yourself’ – and avoiding hurt feelings or even long-term damage to significant relationships.

It takes a high degree of self-awareness to notice when you are getting angry or upset before those emotions take control of your behaviour. By practising mindfulness – which is really just paying attention to your thoughts, emotions and physical sensations – you will more readily notice the symptoms of conflict (increased pulse rate, shallow breathing, etc) as they arise.

When you notice those symptoms, you will realise that you are in a state of ‘amygdala hijack’ – a term coined by Daniel Goleman in his acclaimed book Emotional Intelligence to describe the sensations that occur when your limbic system (emotional brain) effectively shuts down your prefrontal cortex (rational brain), making it nigh on impossible for you to respond in a balanced and thoughtful manner. Although this reaction occurs in milliseconds, it can last for up to three to four hours.

So before your biochemistry takes control of your behaviour, give yourself some time and space to allow your body’s natural stress response to dissipate.

And finally…

#4: Don’t expect it to end with ‘Kumbayah’

I’m a realist. Whenever I run our conflict resolution workshop – ‘Getting Past Conflict’ – I begin with a disclosure that there is no magic wand that will make conflict go away. And even when your conflict management strategy is effective, it doesn’t necessarily mean that people will end up holding hands around a campfire singing ‘Kumbayah’.

Too often, we confuse feelings of warmth and closeness with a constructive outcome to the conflict. As Harvard’s Roger Fisher and Scott Brown put it in Getting Together: “We confuse good relations with approval.”

While warm feelings may be a reasonable litmus test for the health of close personal relationships, we might choose a different goal for our professional relationships. The goal suggested in Getting to Yes is to build relationships that ‘deal well with difference’.

In my ‘conflict avoider’ days, I preferred to avoid dealing with difference for fear of damaging the relationship. And yet healthy professional relationships depend on the parties being frank and forthright with each other. When differences are shared clearly, constructively, and with empathy, we can create mutual trust and respect. In my experience, these sorts of relationships are far more productive and enjoyable than relationships built solely on forced friendliness.

Resolving conflict can be challenging – and it is worth the effort.

Are you a conflict avoider by nature? What are your tips for dealing constructively with conflict?


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