Communication

How to Handle Conflict in our Everyday Lives

Robert Frost once wrote, “We dance around in a ring and suppose, but the secret sits in the middle and knows.” It’s a phrase that holds true for many- especially in times of conflict when the situation feels hopeless and understanding the other side seems impossible.

Conflict is a natural part of our day and one of the few things that we know will always be there. It takes many forms from personal interactions to family disagreements and disputes with colleagues.  Academics Pruitt & Kim, leaders in the field of conflict resolution, define conflict as a perceived difference of interest, or a belief that the parties’ current goals cannot be achieved simultaneously. We will be exploring some challenges that cause conflict such as interests, values, cultures and offer some tools that can lead to better outcomes for everyone. Conflict doesn’t have to be a dirty word and many times it’s a unique opportunity for growth and understanding.

Challenge #1: It’s a Matter of Viewpoint

If we are looking at the reasons for conflict it would be easy to pretend that it is the other person’s fault- and many times that’s precisely what we think. There’s good science[1] that backs up the phrase “we judge ourselves by our intentions but judge others by their actions.” It’s a matter of perspective. Maybe we don’t understand what they are doing or why they are doing it.

Tool: Speak from Your Own Perspective

We use “you-messages[2]” when trying to express ourselves in conflict. We make judgments and attack the other person which causes them to become defensive, non-responsive or agitated. A good approach to avoid this reaction is to speak from your own perspective. One approach could be, “I feel (feeling) when you (describe the action/behavior) because (say why the action connects to your feeling.) What I need is (state your request).” This technique offers a way for the speaker to express their concern without making accusations and enables a more positive atmosphere. Once the concern is expressed, both parties can look at it as a mutual problem with a common solution to work towards.

Challenge #2: Culture Runs Deep

Cultural identities can play a huge role. Cultural identity is like an iceberg[3]– for all of the customs and habits that we see, there are many differences in life experience under the surface which further explains behavior. Our perspective is a filter shaped by all of our experiences. This could include our upbringing, education, traditions, religion to name a few.

Tool: Effective Listening

One of the biggest mistakes we make when in conflict is that we stop listening. All of our feelings towards the situation and the other person come flooding back. We are so busy thinking about ways to further our own agenda that we miss what the other person is saying.  Communication is a two-way street- the message goes out and it needs to be received. Listening effectively involves paying attention to the words being used and the body language displayed. Words account for about 7% of how we communicate. The way the message is delivered – tone of voice, body language – accounts for the other 93%[4]. One way to think about displaying effective listening is by using the acronym SOLER[5]:

S (quare)ly face the other person.

O (pen) your posture.

L (ean) in- being aware of culture.

E (ye contact) as appropriate.

R (elax) into a natural position.

Questions are a powerful tool and one that mediators rely on extensively. A good question can open possible solutions, discover new information, or clarify misunderstandings.

Good questions are open-ended and invite the responder to provide a lot of information. Some powerful examples include:

  • It sounds like (summarize what you heard), is this correct?
  • What is it about this issue that is important to you?
  • How can we meet both my need and your need for…?
  • What ideas can we brainstorm- whether or not we commit to them?
  • If this doesn’t work out, what are my/our options?

Reflect on your own interactions – what are behaviors that make you feel heard? Spend some time thinking about ways that show the other person is listening and understanding your views.

Challenge #3: An Opposition of Values

A conflict of values is one of the most difficult to resolve because the answer depends on your deeply held views and beliefs. They are debates we see every day: Republican vs. Democrat, Catholic vs. Protestant, stability vs. spontaneity. Each values system has merits and can cause schisms among the closest of friends. A helpful strategy to overcome these conflicts is to focus on common goals and interests. What is the issue at hand? Are there any areas in which you agree with the other party? Work from there and emphasize effective communication.

Tool: Focus on Interests

When parties come to the bargaining table they start with their demands and what they’re unwilling to concede. In the conflict resolution field this is called a “position.” Their position is their solution to the situation. Negotiating positions is challenging and often causes people to get stuck. Dig deeper by asking “why” to understand the interests that drive the position. Interests are why a certain position or solution is important. This can open different potential solutions.

Challenge #4: A Difference of Interests

Maybe the issue you are facing is a legitimate difference of interests. There are only so many resources: property, clean water, jobs, etc. What can start out as a disagreement can end up in an escalated conflict. A neighbors dispute about property boundaries or a homeowner’s fight with the city about new development. We can find ourselves thinking in win-lose terms, spiraling into a situation escalated by a back and forth of small cuts. First it’s a heated phone call and next thing you know you are in a court trial.

Tool: Find a Common Ground

The first step in seeking to peacefully resolve a conflict can be the most challenging part. Extending an invitation for conversation is an opportunity to set the stage for collaboration rather than competition. Find a way to establish rapport with the other person. Use something you have in common- your relationship, or why it would benefit both of you to try to resolve the conflict. Find something that shows your willingness to explore the issue and find a way forward that works for everyone involved. For example, “This situation has been frustrating for both of us. I really think that if we put our heads together we can find a way to move forward that works for both of us. Can we get together to talk on X date, at X time and place?” When you meet, thank them for taking the time and being open to talking. Look for opportunities in the situation that could benefit each of you in different ways.

Challenge #5: Impasse; Emotions Getting Heated

There’s instinctive biology associated with our emotions during conflict. The more rational part of our brain is feuding with our fight-or-flight response[6]. In an argument we get stressed and our body can’t tell the difference between a heated discussion and a potential threat of harm. That can be exacerbated when a discussion doesn’t seem to go anywhere. A person begins to feel frustrated, tired and resentful. Their ability to think about the other person’s perspective diminishes.

Tool: Take a Break and Regroup

If you find yourself angry and having difficulty thinking rationally take a break for ten to twenty minutes. Studies show that it takes about that amount of time for your body to flush out this chemical response.[7] So, take a break. Think about the situation from the other person’s perspective, talk to an expert on the situation, ask yourself what you are willing to do to work with the other party and realistically what would happen if you can’t resolve it.

Conflict is manageable and can be an opportunity to strengthen relationships and innovate. With the right tools and approach, some of which we have shared here, you can resolve most conflicts on your own.

Here are some additional resources to consider:

Mediation

Mediation is a process where someone external to the dispute, the mediator, assists the parties to communicate and explore possible ways to resolve the dispute. Mediation is voluntary in that parties cannot be forced to participate. It is also confidential in that what is said in mediation will not be revealed by the mediator outside of the session. Parties maintain full control of decision-making.

Resources in Virginia

  • NVMS (www.nvms.us; 703.865.7261; info@nvms.us)
  • Resolution Virginia (www.vaccr.org/2018/04/resolution-virginia; 1-888-VAPEACE; info@vaccr.org)
  • The Supreme Court of Virginia provides mediation services to disputants with cases concerning civil matters (Small Claims, General District Court) as well as divorce and separation (Juvenile and Domestic Relation, Circuit Court Family). If you find yourself in court, you can request mediation services free of charge.

Resources in Maryland

  • MACRO is the Maryland Judiciary’s Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office. Our mission is to promote the availability, use, and quality of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) throughout Maryland. (www.courts.state.md.us/macro, 410.260.3540, macro@mdcourts.gov.)

Resources in Washington, D.C.

  • Multi Door Dispute Resolution Division – The Multi-Door Dispute Resolution Division (Multi-Door) helps parties resolve disputes through mediation and other types of appropriate dispute resolution (ADR) including arbitration, case evaluation and conciliation. You may contact them at 202.879.1549.
  • Center for Dispute Settlement (www.cdsusa.org/)

Additional Resources

  • com (www.mediate.com) is a website that lists mediators by region and provides many articles on mediation and conflict resolution.
  • Search for Common Ground (sfcg.org/)

[1] Jones, E. E.; Harris, V. A. (1967). “The attribution of attitudes”. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

[2] Gordon, Thomas. Origins of the Gordon Model. Gordon Training International. Retrieved on: 2012-01-17.

[3] Edward T. Hall. 1976. Cultural Iceberg Model

[4] Mehrabian, Albert (1971). Silent Messages (1st ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

[5] Egan, Gerard. 1994. The skilled helper: a problem-management approach to helping.

[6] Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 11, Issue 1, 1 January 2016, Pages 150–158

[7] Cistler, Josh; Bunmi O. Olatunji; Matthew T. Feldner; John P. Forsyth (2010). “Emotion Regulation and the Anxiety Disorders: An Integrative Review”. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment.


By Dylan Bates and Izabela Solosi

Dylan M. Bates manages the civil mediation and mentorship, community dispute resolution and restorative justice programs at NVMS. In addition to his VA Supreme court mediator certification for civil cases, he has dispute resolution experience in co­­­mmunity, criminal, family and civil conflicts. He has facilitated dialogues around issues of organizational culture, identity, and group trauma. Dylan holds a BA in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University with a concentration in International Affairs and Latin American Studies.

Izabela Solosi is a trainer and certified mediator. She is a recurring speaker at conferences on conflict resolution topics. As the Training Program Manager at Northern Virginia Mediation Service (NVMS), she oversees the training of new mediators and conflict resolution practitioners. She also works with a roster of over 30 experienced practitioners to provide clients with training on mediation, communication skills, negotiation, and conflict resolution.

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