3 Tips for Handling Conflict

For most of us conflict is never fun. Our primal instincts warn us of the threat it represents. It conjures up memories of past injuries and lost relationships. It reminds us of stories where people's lives were altered. Yet, we all know that conflict is as natural as humanity itself. Conflict exists where ever differences in people exist. It can be suppressed but never eliminated entirely.

Conflict also presents an opportunity. It is often accompanied by an insight into one's self. If overcome, it forges a new connection between the two former combatants. In the best terms, it can make us seek to understand why the conflict occurred and can lead to understanding the other person in a way we did not before.

But bad conflict is always bad. When it devolves into contempt, gets personal, raises to the point of an actual threat--these things always damage and need to be restrained, avoided, or prosecuted. This last level of conflict cannot, and will not, be improved by the tips below. The tips below are meant for conflict where  the two parties are attempting in "good faith" to communicate and resolve a problem. In these cases, here are some tips that might help.

  1. Calm always wins.  Being able to continue to have a "non-anxious" presence during conflict helps everyone. Many conflicts escalate because one or both parties are emotionally overwhelmed. Fear, alarm, injustice, the feelings the parties begin to have make them react in a primal way--increasing the speed and intensity of the discussion and increasing the likelihood of escalating the argument. Yes, remaining calm can help you to actually prevail in an argument but that's not the point here. In looking for a win-win, remaining calm helps both you and the other person to find solutions that work for both of you.
  2. Look for, and accept, exit ramps. Conflict conversations usually have moments when one or both people offer an exit ramp. Just like the "run away truck" ramps on interstates in mountainous terrain (where there is a steep incline and barrels of water or sand to stop a truck who has lost it's brakes) these are an opportunity to slow or stop a conflict's acceleration and the risk it implies. Research into human conflict however tells us that the exit ramps exist in all conflict conversations! The problem where conflict becomes destructive is that the partners ignore the ramps--they don't take the exits--the "truck" continues to gain speed and destruction follows. When the other person offers an exit, take it. They may say, "I guess we'll have to agree to disagree" or "I guess I misunderstood you," or "Could you say that differently?"  If you accept the offer, acknowledge and respond to it then the conflict is likely to end well.
  3. If you need to walk away, own it, and commit to return. There are times when removing yourself is critical to successful conflict management. This can be because you recognize that you cannot remain calm or accept the exit ramps we discussed above. But it can also be because in your judgment the other person is not calm or allowing the "truck to leave the roadway." If either is the case you may need to leave the area. But this can be seen, sometimes rightly so, as trying to avoid the conflict and will, therefore, only escalate the conflict as the other person seeks to re-engage you. If you need to walk away, tell the other person that you need to leave, set a time to return, and a commitment to continue to address the issue.  "I am getting too upset to hear what you're saying. I"m going to take a walk. Maybe we can talk about it again this afternoon."

There is, of course, more that we could say but for the sake of making it memorable I think keeping these three tips in mind will help you a great deal in most situations.