Through a clerical error, two Little League teams were scheduled to practice on the same ball field at the same time. As the coaches of the Bears and the Eagles shouted and threatened each other, the team members became increasingly embarrassed for them. Some of the kids drifted off. Others ran home. By the time the leadership had hashed things out, there weren’t enough players left for a decent practice session for either team.
We shout at each other, take unrelenting “positions,” make dogmatic assertions, create facts, and in general, try to “win” our arguments whenever we feel victimized by a process we are unable to control.
James Madison, renowned statesman and former president once wrote, “The most common and durable source of faction has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Central to our everyday squabbles is the fact that we are human…not gods. No one can rise completely above the selfishness and misrepresentations that strain and even break relationships.”
Whether you are a head of state or a Little League coach, conflict is an unavoidable fact of life. At its worst, conflict is destructive. Yet, conflict can offer some important benefits. It can encourage personal and intellectual growth. It can spur technological development and help create and review our social, religious, political and business organizations. Conflict can be healthy to the development of an institution. It even can be healthy to the development of an individual. Harvard researcher Erik Erikson says the failure to achieve intimacy is the result of an inability to engage in controversy and useful combat. Research also shows that families who openly express dissension and disagreement tended to raise children who have that priceless quality—high self-esteem. But the benefits of conflict only come with being able to handle it well.
The skilled communicator knows how to deal with conflict. Her goal is not to do away with conflict; her goal is to handle it in such a way that it brings about growth and constructive solutions. She knows that different opinions, opposing values, and conflict of desires are the stuff of day living.
Conflict resolution styles
We all have our own ways of dealing with conflict, our own styles of handling difficult situations. How do you manage conflict to minimize risks and maximize benefits? How can you handle conflict in a way that increases your growth potential? The following lists ways we deal with conflict in a small group. Which one of these most closely resembles the way you handle the conflict in your life? •The Avoider. Some people strive for neutrality because they are uncomfortable with anger in any form. Sometimes their avoidance creates conflict or makes a heated situation worse. •The Accommodator. The Accommodator tries to make everyone happy. This person’s objective is superficial harmony, not necessarily an equitable resolution of the conflict. •The Compromiser. The Compromiser offers a solution, which, at first glance, appears to resolve conflict. However, both sides are left unsatisfied because both give up something they wanted. •The Competitor. For the Competitor, conflict is a sport. There will be a winner and a loser. What gets this person’s attention? Power. •The Negotiator. This person seeks consensus and works tirelessly to get it.
Avoidance can be of benefit to you if you are not part of the problem or part of the solution. It is not always your responsibility to “fix” every conflict that arises in your home or workplace.
Accommodation is preferred when the issues are minor or when the relationship would be irreparably damaged because tempers are too hot. Here the solution is only temporary.
Compromise works best when time is short and both parties benefit. But it’s a less-than-perfect situation because everyone loses something.
The competitive approach is best when all parties recognize the power relationship between themselves and know that action is imperative. Like the others, this is merely a temporary answer. This conflict returns, perhaps in a more powerful form.
Negotiation works best when all parties have problem-solving skills. Negotiators work to find methods satisfactory to both parties while keeping goals and values intact. This is the best remedy for communication breakdown.
The first goal in resolving conflict is to deal constructively with the emotions involved. Remember to: 1. Treat the other person with respect. 2. Listen until you “experience the other side.” 3. State your views, needs and feelings.
Ironically, while talking may trigger conflict, it is also the only means of resolving conflict. Talking must focus on four simple steps. 1. Define the problem by saying, “I hear…” 2. Look for agreement by saying, “I agree…” 3. Understand feelings. “I understand…” 4. State views calmly. “I think…”
Some people plunge head-first into conflict without knowing if their timing is right to resolve the situation. Some forget to set the terms for the confrontations. Others jump into a conflict without knowing if the other person consents to the terms. Check it out. Does each party have sufficient emotional energy to discuss the conflict? Who should be there? When is the best time? Where is the best place?
Conflict resolution directly affects the emotionality of an interaction. Using the four simple steps encourages the genuine and direct expression of feelings by one person at a time. When feelings are expressed, heard and acknowledged, they are transient. When they are not expressed, heard or acknowledged, they fester. This approach can rapidly defuse emotions so differences can be discussed more productively.
While all of these issues are significant, the most important part of preparation is to refrain from making a surprise attack. The conflict that begins with mutual consent and agreed-upon conditions (including the use of the conflict resolution method) is off to an effective outcome.
Evaluating the conflict
Just as important as choosing your approach to conflict resolution is learning valuable lessons from the conflict. Here are questions to help you learn from your conflicts. 1. What have I learned from this experience? 2. How well did I use the conflict resolution process—respect, listening, stating my view? 3. How badly was I hurt? 4. How badly was my opponent hurt? 5. How valuable was this conflict for letting off steam? 6. How useful was it in revealing new information about myself, my opponent and the issue in contention? 7. Did either of us change our opinions? 8. What did I learn about my own and my opponent’s conflict style, strategy and weapons? 9. What do I want to do differently next time? 10. What do I wish my opponent would do differently next time?
This method promotes understanding and change. No one has the whole truth. I may adopt new ideas and methods or incorporate part of my opponent’s approach. Conversely, my opponent may adopt mine. This method improves communication in stressful times. A third alternative also exists. Two parties may jointly develop a creative solution to the substantive issues of the conflict.
The greatest value of this system is that effective handling of conflict deepens and enriches relationships. Relationships falter because individuals don’t know how to handle differences. To ignore the differences and use inadequate methods to deal with conflict means you resign yourself to superficial relationships. To fight over differences using inadequate methods causes heartache and blows conflicts out of proportion.
Use this method alone or in agreement with the other person. Or, have it facilitated by a neutral third party. Remember, the best human relationships exist on the other side of the conflict. To get over the emotional hurdle of conflict and resolve substantive issues that triggered the disagreement, work with the conflict resolution to defuse emotions. Once this is accomplished, you are ready to solve the problems that ignited the original conflict.