Conflict Resolution

by Aled Davies

Resolving a conflict when you’re involved

If you’ve ever been a party to a personal conflict, you’ll know how difficult and uncomfortable the process of resolving it can be, even when there are no legal ramifications that need to be handled with an adversarial approach. If you are determined to address it yourself, you’ll need to prepare yourself for having a difficult conversation. Remember – preparation is key.

You’ll need three things; the appropriate set of attitudes, a set of skills and a tried-and-tested process.

Attitude – the three Cs

The key attitudes are

  • Courage
  • Compassion
  • Curiosity.

By approaching the conversation with the three Cs in mind, you’ll give yourself the best possible chance of reaching the outcome you want.

Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.

William James

Skills – the fundamentals

The key skills required to resolve a conflict through a difficult conversation are

  • Rapport
  • Listening
  • Questioning
  • Reframing
  • Empathy
  • Assertiveness
  • Managing your state.

See the page on The key skills and attitudes required.

Process – the roadmap to success

With the right approach, many conflicts can be nipped in the bud, long before they become toxic. Addressing the issues sooner rather than later, even though this may entail having a difficult conversation, can defuse the situation.

Preparation

Preparation is essential to having a successful outcome. Reflect on the following in order to give yourself the best shot at resolving your conflict.

Observations (what happened)

You’ll need to make sure you are crystal clear about what happened from your perspective and describe the behaviours you observed. What specific words did they use and what actions did they take that affected you?

Feelings (how you felt and now feel)

It’s important to be clear on how you feel now and felt then, not only for your own understanding, but so that you can tell the other party in no uncertain terms how you felt when they did what they did. Are you angry, frustrated, scared, upset or experiencing some other negative emotion? Remember, feelings that have been buried alive never die. The strange thing about our feelings is that if we don’t get them out in the open they will fester in the dark and manifest in some other way. So have your feelings before they have you!

Impact (how their behaviour affected you)

What was the impact of their behaviour on you? This gives the other party an opportunity to understand how their behaviour has affected you and your life. So think about your interests. What physical or emotional needs of yours were affected? Was your need to be treated with respect and dignity overlooked?

Outcome (what you want)

You need to be clear on your outcome. What do you need to happen as a result of this conversation? This is where you need to be careful not to take an emotional stand and make demands that the other party may not be willing or able to fulfil. Setting aside your feelings, concentrate on your deeper, underlying interests. For example, if you feel the other person was demeaning, how do you want to communicate with the other party in the future?

Contribution

What part did I play in all this? Most people find this the most difficult aspect to resolving a conflict in which they are directly involved, mainly because they feel they were right and are determined to prove it. It takes a huge amount of courage to reflect on this, but don’t be surprised if you learn something new. Ask yourself, ‘If I contributed somehow to this conflict, what was it I did or said or maybe what was it I didn’t do or say? You might decide to share your thoughts at an opportune moment during your difficult conversation.

Pre-meeting

Before your meeting takes place, it’s important that you let the other party know its purpose. You might like to frame it something like this:

‘Hello Jo, I’d like to set up a meeting between the two of us to talk through an issue that I have. It relates to the way we’ve been interacting recently [implying that it’s a joint problem], and the comments you made about me in front of the rest of the team in the last project meeting. I’d like to meet face to face so that I can share with you the things that I heard, how I felt and how it’s affected me and also I’d like to focus on what we can do to improve the quality of our communication. I’d also like to hear your side of things. When’s a convenient time for you? I imagine we’ll need a couple of hours? What about we go for a coffee down the road, so that we get away from the office and are not disturbed?’

Remember to give the other person enough notice and allow them enough time to do some preparation themselves. The last thing you want to do is hijack them; this won’t do you any favours, but will simply waste all that valuable preparation time. If you want to be treated with respect and dignity, then what better place to start could there be than to model the very way you want to be treated in the future? It’s always a good idea to suggest some neutral ground to do this – somewhere out of the office, where you can’t be disturbed, but also where you both feel comfortable. That’s why most international peace negotiations happen in places like Switzerland!

The meeting

As you will know, if you’ve ever had to give someone a difficult message in the past, it can feel extremely uncomfortable. So you’ll need to prepare yourself.

Check your internal barometer

Managing your emotional state is crucial, both before and during your difficult conversation. Check your internal pressure gauge before you walk into your difficult conversation. How is your breathing – rapid and high in the chest or slow and deep from your belly? The latter is desirable, because if you’re breathing rapidly, this is likely to induce a state of anxiety, even if you’re not already anxious. Get some fresh air; take some slow big deep breaths, and notice how you start to feel more relaxed and less anxious. Remember, the other person is probably feeling equally anxious, so focus on your breathing and your preparation (Observations, Feelings, Impact and Outcome).

Overcoming nerves

A very powerful strategy for managing any nerves or anxiety in the moments leading up to your conversation and during the first few exchanges is to simply let the other party know how you are feeling. For example:

‘Jo, thank you for taking the time to meet me. I just want to say that I’m feeling a bit nervous and uneasy about having this conversation, but it’s important to me that we resolve any conflicts that might exist between us, so we can move forward on the right foot.’

By sharing this with the other party, you’re modelling transparency and courage and crucially getting your emotions on the table so they can no longer fester in the dark and sabotage your best efforts at resolving your conflict.

Setting the scene

To give yourself the best chance of getting your outcomes met, it’s important to set expectations at the outset. For example:

‘... so what I’d like to do is to tell you how I saw things during that meeting and the impact it had on me. I’d also like to hear your side of things as I can appreciate you might see things differently. What I’d like from this meeting is that we reach an understanding on how we move forward so that I can feel secure knowing that how we interact and communicate in the future will be different. What about you?’

You’ve outlined the stages of the meeting you want to go through and also the outcome that you’re looking for. You’re also asking them what they’d like to get from the meeting, implying that it is a two-way conversation.

Your story

Your opening statement is a narrative of your preparation, so keep it to Observations, Feelings, Impact, and Outcome. Hold back on contribution, for now, until you’ve heard their side of things. So it might sound something like this:

‘I’d like you to cast your mind back to our last project meeting, here’s how I saw things.

You asked the team for ideas on how solve the resourcing problem. As you were writing the ideas up on the board, I suggested an idea on three separate occasions and you didn’t acknowledge me at all. Then when Robyn repeated my idea to check whether you’d heard me or not, you just rolled your eyes and said “yeah I heard, and Sam’s been full of bright ideas all day, if only he’d practise what he preached.” (Observations)

I thought we had a rule in meetings that all ideas and contributions were valued and never dismissed. I felt very uncomfortable, embarrassed and upset by your comment and I didn’t feel valued or respected by you. (Feelings)

I dread coming to team meetings now and don’t have the confidence to speak up in case my ideas are dismissed again. This is stopping me from doing the best job I possibly can because I’m reluctant to take part in meetings and put myself forward for projects led by you. (Impact)

I’d like to understand what you meant by that comment and why you responded the way you did. I’d like to clear the air and make sure this situation doesn’t happen again.’ (Outcome)

Their story

Now it’s a chance to hear from the other party their side of the story. It’s an opportunity to listen to their reasoning and intention and also understand why they behaved the way they did. Remember you might hear things that are difficult to listen to and things you might not necessarily agree with, but the other party will always see things differently to you. Your intention isn’t to blame or judge the other party, but to seek some understanding.

Understand and exchange

This is your chance to respond to their story by

  • Asking further questions to clarify and check your understanding
  • Reflecting back their words and phrases to give them a chance to hear themselves out aloud
  • Reiterating the key points and your desired outcome
  • Sharing any contributions you feel you might have made towards starting or escalating your conflict
  • Moving towards reaching an agreement that’s acceptable to you both.

The agreement

Depending on the nature of your conflict, the agreement is essentially a behavioural contract between both parties, outlining what you both will and will not say or do in future to ensure you both get your needs met. Your agreement should also cover what should happen in the unlikely event that either party feels similarly aggrieved in future. You needn’t feel compelled to reduce your agreement to writing, but it might be useful to write a confidential email outlining your agreement and send it on to the other party soon after.

Difficult people

Sometimes there is such a difference in personal styles that you may consider the other person so difficult that you do not even wish to interact with them. There is still much scope to get the relationship working at some level, and this may require a much better understanding of personal styles. For more on this see the topic on Difficult People.

Agressive behaviour

If the conflict arises during an interaction and leads to aggressive behaviour, how do you handle that? This four-step process (CDAM) is a highly effective way of assertively dealing with aggressive behaviour.

  1. Call the behaviour – ‘when you keep interrupting me and raising your voice’, for example.
  2. Describe the impact on you: ‘I feel frustrated and angry because I want to understand your point of view and also for you to understand mine.’
  3. Acknowledge the positive intention behind their behaviour: ‘I can appreciate you’ve got a lot to say and want to make sure you get it all out on the table.’
  4. Make alternative suggestions: ‘If you could pause for a second or two after I’ve finished my sentence, I could do the same and that way we might be able to understand each other better.’