In an earlier blog post, I wrote about conflict management or transformation strategies from the perspective of a leader, as a third party to a team conflict.
In this follow-up article, I’d like to share some reflections and strategies for dealing with conflict from the viewpoint of someone on the “battlefield”. Before you start digging into this article, I invite you to think of a specific conflict situation you’re struggling with at the moment. It could even be a close relationship conflict, a friend, a family member. As you continue reading, pause and reflect on some of the advice below and see if and how it can help you with this situation. While this article was written with a workplace setting in mind, I believe a lot of the advice here can be useful for other kinds of interpersonal conflict as well.
So let’s go:
We have a conflict. Now what?
It is virtually impossible to find examples of workplaces or teams (or human relationships, for that matter) without conflict. It’s just the way life is – we come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and with as many diverse views, values, needs, and ideals as there are breathing souls on this planet. There are people with whom we click and people with whom we clash. While the reasons we clash with some people are numerous (and well-worth understanding), our mindset and our responses to these clashes largely determine how our relationships evolve.
Strategy #1: Change your mindset
I mentioned above the word “battlefield” – it sounds extreme, but the reality is that this is what conflict feels like at times. We seek allies, we attack, we defend, we retaliate. Been there, done that! When we perceive conflict as something we have to “win” at, all of our actions will stem from this space of competition, of who screams the loudest, ad infinitum. I don’t know about you, but I find this exhausting. Instead, I suggest engaging with conflict from a curiosity and growth mindset. Look at it as an opportunity to learn about yourself, about your possible shortcomings, about how your worldview differs from that of others. So start from here: What can you learn from the conflict you’re facing at the moment?
Strategy #2: Be willing to let it go
Conflict can be addictive. It sounds unlikely, you might say. How can something so painful and stressful be addictive? Well, it’s not like we’re not familiar with other things in life that are harmful but addictive. The reality is that we get a kick out of being in the middle of conflict, we like the drama (preferably on TV, but if it has to be our own, so be it) and often we enjoy the sense of self-importance and of being right (at least in our head). It feels good when we’re the good guy in the story and the other person is the bad guy. It doesn’t matter that in their story we’re the bad guy. And let’s not forget about that dopamine rush we get when we’re angry. That can be addictive too. So the question now is – are you willing to let it go? Are you willing to replace your destructive conflict responses with some that are more constructive and more rewarding in the long run?
Strategy #3: Acknowledge your own contribution
It’s very easy to get stuck in a, “I’m right, they’re wrong” position when we’re in a conflict. The truth, however, is usually somewhere in the middle. With the exception of rare, extreme situations when we’re dealing with a bully, someone who’s mentally unstable, or harassment of any sort (which is an urgent HR issue), all parties involved are contributing to a conflict situation, to a larger or smaller extent. Perhaps we’re not the ones who “started” it, but once we get sucked in, we’re definitely contributing to the way it evolves, escalating or de-escalating it. Try this as a thought experiment: imagine you’re an observer. What would you say about your own behavior, objectively? What about the behavior of the other party? I also find it helpful to reflect on past patterns of behavior: objectively speaking, how do you generally react when someone tells you your work is not up to standards? Have you been told before that you take too long to make a decision? That you’re overbearing? Micromanaging?
Strategy #4: Identify your hot buttons
There are certain behaviors or situations that drive us mad. Probably madder than they should and probably more than they would other people. There are psychological explanations for this and a therapist would have lots to say on the matter. Maybe it’s our inner wounded child, maybe it’s our own insecurities or unmet needs, maybe that’s just ‘how we are’. We feel our blood boiling when someone checks in every other hour on a report due in 2 days. We’re close to losing our temper when a co-worker misses a deadline for the 5th time in a month (I mean, how is that even possible?!). Other people would just scoff at such situations and carry on. That’s because they get angry at people being aloof or unappreciative – that’s their pet peeve. Whatever our hot buttons are, being aware that we have them and understanding that we tend to overreact when they are pushed is a good start in managing our own responses in such situations. Understanding that other people have their own hot buttons is equally helpful, especially if something in our behavior or demeanor triggers them. So think about it: what are your hot buttons? How do you respond when they’re pressed? What can you do to cool them?
Strategy #5: Learn to constructively express how you feel and what you think
When we’re in a conflict situation; hot buttons triggered, emotions running high, flight or fight systems activated – all rational thought goes out the window. In such situations, it’s crucial that we learn, first of all, to identify and name our emotions. As a rule, I have found that we have a very poor emotional vocabulary. Especially in conflict settings, we seem to be stuck with “angry” or “upset” and we blurt this out, without pause, without reflection. If you dig a little deeper, like peeling the layers of an onion, what else could be there? Frustration, feeling unappreciated, disheartened, confused? Check out this feelings inventory created by the Center for Nonviolent Communication, print it out and highlight some feelings that strike you as appropriate for your current situation. Once you’ve identified how you feel, are you able to take it one step further and communicate this constructively, pointing out a particular situation or behavior and the impact it had on you? It’s likely you’ll receive less resistance with this approach than if you charged ahead aggressively.
Strategy #6 – Think about solutions
Ideally, from this space of understanding which behavior had what impact on you, as well as your own contribution to the situation, you would (sooner, rather than later) approach your conflict “partner”. It takes courage, but it’s necessary, if we are to move forward. There are helpful phrases that can make breaking the ice easier. You may try something like: “I would like to ask for a few minutes of your time to discuss something that has been on my mind a lot lately. I think having this conversation would help us work better together. When would be a good time?”. Or whatever feels natural to you, along these lines. Now that you’ve taken this step, think of solutions. Don’t walk into the meeting ready to play the victim role and to accuse. Stick to the facts, listen to and acknowledge the other person’s concerns, take responsibility for your role in the conflict, and propose a way forward.
Strategy #7: Use formal mechanisms
If your friendly and constructive “olive branch” hit a wall (or even worse, it backfired), use whatever mechanisms are available to you in your current workplace to address the situation formally: talk to a supervisor, HR, staff association etc. Be sure you can present objectively verifiable data to support your case. You may even ask for a third party or internal mediation. Different organizations have different mechanisms for dealing with conflict formally. Hopefully.
Strategy #8: Self-care
Sometimes, we might simply choose to do nothing. Taking action may seem risky and we may not feel safe to speak up (especially if we’re in an asymmetric power conflict, with a supervisor). It’s not advisable, but perfectly understandable nonetheless. In such situations, the best thing we can do is to set boundaries. Take back your power and control your emotional responses to the situation. Breathe and let go. Take five minutes in the morning, before you open your laptop, to meditate and set your intentions for the day. You may try affirmations or mantras like, “I will go through the day with mindfulness and awareness. I cannot control the other person’s behavior, but I can control my responses.” It may seem silly, but there’s some solid neuroscience behind the power of affirmations for our psychological wellbeing. It won’t make the conflict go away, but it will diminish the grip it has on you.
So what’s the bottom line?
The reality is that conflict is not easy. But it doesn’t have to be a nightmare. Even with the most difficult of people, we still have the power and responsibility to do what we can to deescalate and to push things in a positive direction. And the more we understand the dynamics of conflicts, how we respond to them, and how to communicate in heated situations, the easier it gets. It just takes a little practice and, sometimes, help from people outside the conflict who can help you take a step back and reframe.