Conflict resolution is a process used during times of high tension, disagreements, and complex misunderstandings. The skills involved in conflict resolution – like listening, empathy, and collaboration – apply to any type of conflict whether it’s in the workplace or personal relationships. Some people specialize in conflict resolution and serve as mediators, but everyone should at least understand the basics so they are better prepared for conflict. When you’re prepared, conflict can become a vehicle for better communication, more productivity, and closer bonds. Here are eight do’s and don’ts for conflict resolution:
5 Do’s in Conflict Resolution
Practice active listening
Listening is a skill many people don’t think about. In conversations, especially difficult ones, many people aren’t listening to what others are saying. If they’re not interrupting, they’re simply waiting until it’s their turn to talk. When no one is really listening to each other, conflicts go around and around. The Balance Careers defines active listening as a “soft skill” that redirects a person’s focus from their own thoughts to what others are saying. This allows for true understanding.
How do you practice active listening? It’s a conscious decision that goes beyond just hearing someone’s words. Active listeners pay attention to a person’s tone, body language, and other cues. They give people their full attention, which means not looking at a screen, other parts of the room, or people who aren’t talking. Your body language matters, too. If it’s comfortable for you, make eye contact while they’re speaking. You can also nod and make small verbalizations like “yes” and “I see.”
Do: Ask for clarification
Misunderstandings are common, but if they aren’t resolved, they can drag out a conflict longer than necessary. Make sure everyone’s perspective is clear during a discussion. This means asking both open-ended questions and specific questions. Open-ended questions are most useful at the beginning of a conversation to establish what everyone is thinking and feeling. Specific questions can add more insight and clarity to their answers. Here’s an example:
Open-ended question: How are you feeling about the situation we’re in right now?
Their answer: I’m upset.
Specific question: Is there a particular aspect of this situation that makes you the most upset?
Encouraging a person to not only share their feelings (they’re upset) but also to clarify why they’re upset eliminates opportunities for misunderstanding. Without knowing exactly what’s upsetting to a person, it’s easy to make judgments about the source of their feelings and accidentally create more conflict. The more information you can get about a situation and everyone’s feelings, the better.
Do: Use “I” statements
We’ve all been in disagreements where everyone starts throwing blame and accusations around. To avoid situations like this, pay attention to your phrasing. Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. This keeps the focus on your perspective, feelings, experiences, and reactions. It makes it more difficult to cast judgment on others, make assumptions about them and their behavior, or blame them for what you’re feeling. According to Verywell Mind (which cites Owen Hargie’s Skilled Interpersonal Communication: Research, Theory and Practice), “I feel” statements shift attention from a person’s actions/behaviors to how those actions/behaviors make others feel.
Not every “I feel” statement works to reduce conflict. If you immediately follow “I feel” with “you don’t care about my feelings,” the effectiveness of the “I” statement is significantly weakened. The person you’re talking to will focus on the part of the sentence that accuses them of not caring. They’re likely to react defensively. A better version of that statement could sound like, “I feel like my feelings aren’t being acknowledged or respected.” In this sentence, the focus remains on you.
Do: Take breaks when things get too tense
Many conflicts can get very heated. If there’s an experienced mediator present, they should recognize when progress isn’t possible and call for a break. There are clear signs that people are too emotionally charged to talk productively. They may start raising their voices, becoming visibly agitated, interrupting each other, or making accusations. People may also shut down and refuse to talk. They may cross their arms, turn their bodies away from others, or put on a blank, glazed facial expression. At the point of aggression or shutdown, healthy connection and problem-solving aren’t possible. People need time to cool off and regulate their nervous systems.
What’s going on internally when conflict resolution hits a wall like this? When humans feel threatened – which often happens during conflict – it triggers their fight or flight response. This is a natural response to perceived danger. In times of real crises, fight or flight is necessary and can save a person’s life. However, as Dr. Andrea Brandt writing for Psychology Today points out, it also shuts down the reasoning part of the brain. During a conflict at work or in your personal life, you can’t resolve problems without reasoning. When the flight or response gets triggered, it’s time to take a break and come back later.
5 Don’ts in Conflict Resolution
Make blanket statements
Many conflict resolution processes derail because people lose sense of a conflict’s scope. Instead of focusing on the specific issue at hand, it’s tempting to bring up other problems, past conflicts, and lingering frustrations. This often manifests in the form of blanket statements like “You always,” “I never,” “You never,” and so on. The words “always” and “never” rarely help resolve a conflict. Instead, they exacerbate frustrations and defensiveness. Conflicts become much bigger – and therefore more daunting – when blanket statements enter the scene.
How do you avoid blanket statements? It helps to understand where they come from. Blanket statements are not based on fact. When people throw out the words “never” or “always,” they don’t have a detailed list of every interaction they’ve ever had with someone in their heads. That’s impossible. “Always” and “never” are based on feelings. A person feels that something is always or never the case. Once you realize you’re dealing with feelings, you can adjust your language in a way that gets your point across but doesn’t rely on inaccurate blanket statements that trigger a person’s defensiveness.
Make things personal
Conflicts get ugly when things get personal. What do we mean by this? “Getting personal” means targeting peoples’ personality traits or perceived personality traits. Instead of focusing on feelings, behaviors, and how conflict can be resolved peaceably, focusing on personality turns the conflict into an issue of identity. Suddenly, the problem is no longer that John keeps leaving dirty dishes in the sink at work. The problem is that John is a slob. Calling John names and making claims about who he is at his core blows up the conflict into something much bigger and harder to resolve. Even if John stops leaving out his dishes, he remains a slob in the eyes of others.
It’s hard to not draw connections between people’s behavior and who they are. However, in a conflict resolution setting, making judgments about someone’s character is not usually helpful. It stalls progress and weakens any results that come from the process. Remember, the goal isn’t for everyone to like each other. A conflict can be resolved without everyone becoming friends, but if the process includes personality attacks, it’s unlikely the conflict will stay resolved for long.
Avoid communication to avoid conflict
Conflict resolution is very difficult for people who hate or fear conflict. They’d rather avoid a problem than face it. In more cases than not, people with these fears are not good communicators. Even when they begin a conflict resolution process – whatever that may look like – they are likely to stay as quiet and avoidant as possible. To many, this may be preferable to yelling, but avoidance doesn’t produce a better result. People who fear conflict often hide their feelings and don’t seek clarifications for things. They ask as few questions as possible because they’re afraid of triggering more conflict. They often shut down quickly and are unable to articulate why.
Unclear communication is a death sentence for conflict resolution. Right from the beginning, it will be very difficult to paint a clear picture of everyone’s feelings, perspectives, and experiences. Without this foundation of understanding, a conflict is highly unlikely to get resolved. It wouldn’t be fair to say that conflict-avoidant people are always being unreasonable. They may have had interactions with unhealthy communication, which makes their fears about worsening conflicts legitimate. With help, people who fear conflict can learn that good communication is the best way to resolve a problem.
Focus on being “right”
Most people go into conflicts convinced they’re in the right. They approach conversations with a defensive stance and fail to consider other points of view. The argument becomes more about each side proving themselves and less about listening or coming to a resolution. The problem with this framework? Dr. Cami Ryan says a focus on being right and convincing others of that rightness has two outcomes: losing the conversation and losing the relationship. This matters because relationships are arguably the most important part of conflict resolution.
As mentioned before, “relationship” doesn’t need to mean everyone becomes best friends, but it does mean mutual respect and emotional understanding as appropriate within context. The goals of conflict resolution are to increase understanding, improve communication, and collaborate on a solution. “Being right” and collaboration don’t play well in the same space, so people need to let go of their need to be right. Shedding your ego and recognizing that other ideas and beliefs have value is essential to conflict resolution.