It started out small.
A simple argument. A little disagreement.
Then it blows up. Hurt relationships. Hurt feelings. All because a simple disagreement turns bad.
Have you ever been there?
Too often relationships are hurt, businesses fail or head down bad directions, and people allow others to run over them just because those involved lack the conflict resolution skills to do it well.
That doesn’t have to be you.
In this article, we will discuss 33 critical conflict resolution skills that will help you resolve conflict right, whether in personal relationships, at work, or just in everyday life.
The most powerful, important, and best way to resolve conflict is to listen well.
Unfortunately, we too often don’t do that.
We get focused on proving our points, proving that we are right, proving the other person wrong, and that we fail to ever listen.
We get defensive and fight back instead of actually listening and hearing what the other person has to say.
We need to stop doing that.
Stop and listen. Hear what the other person is saying. Acknowledge that you hear them and their viewpoint. Remember, acknowledging their viewpoint is not the same as agreeing with it.
Your goal when there is an issue is to understand the other person’s viewpoint.
When you take the time to understand the other person’s viewpoint and make them feel understood, not only will they likely then take the time to listen to yours, but you are well on the way to resolving the issue.
If your goal is to “win” the argument, even if you win, you will lose.
When someone comes to us with an issue, it can be SO easy to get defensive and defend ourselves instead of listening.
The problem with that is (a) it makes the conflict worse and (b) we miss out on possibly learning something and improving ourselves.
Instead of getting defensive, as we said before, listen. Even if you completely disagree and they are wrong, listen and understand their viewpoint.
You don’t have to agree with them. But when you avoid getting defensive and listen, you then can work on resolving the issue or sharing why you disagree.
If you just get defensive, listening is likely to be cut out on both sides and you will get nowhere.
One reason we often get defensive is that we take feedback and criticism personally. We see the feedback as an assault on us, our character, and our identity.
Though that sometimes can be the case, often it is not.
Someone who is telling you that you can improve your communication skills or your work at your job is not attacking you. They are discussing a skill or ability that you can work on or change.
Learn to depersonalize feedback. Don’t take it as an assault on yourself, but see it as a chance to improve and get better.
Viewing feedback and criticism with a growth mindset
One reason we get so defensive and take feedback and criticism personally is that we look at ourselves and feedback from a fixed mindset.
Carol Dweck in your book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success says that we either have a growth or fixed mindset.
A fixed mindset believes that their intelligence, talents, and abilities are set from birth and that they can never get better. They are fixed. They see everything as a test. It’s about how well they stand out, and they do what they can to look the best. If they do badly at something, it shows that they are at a lower level.
A growth mindset is the opposite. It believes that we can always grow our intelligence and abilities. It doesn’t see things as a test but as a chance to grow.
When you see feedback from a fixed mindset, it’s showing you that you don’t live up to expectations and that you are less than what you want to be. And a fixed mindset fights that.
A growth mindset, on the other hand, sees feedback as a chance to grow and improve.
Make sure you aren’t going into these situations with a mindset that’s fixed but with a growth mentality.
Seeing your “going in” story
Howard Guttman in his book When Goliath’s Clash says that every person goes into a situation with a “going in” story.
Each of us has our own viewpoints, knowledge, and life experiences that we frame our viewpoints around. When situations happen, we view that situation from the perspective of our past experiences.
When we can recognize the story that we have, what’s our perception and what is a fact, we are more likely to open up ourselves to other viewpoints and be able to deal with the conflict at hand.
Seeing and recognizing other’s “going in” stories
It’s also important to remember that everyone comes into a situation with their own “going in” story. Each person has their own past experiences that they pull from and each person may see a different part of the issue and see it differently.
Instead of coming into the situation as “this OR that”, realize often it’s an “AND”.
Being able to listen and recognize people’s perspectives and where that perception comes from can help you work together to resolve the issue.
Separating facts from assumptions
When a situation happens or when we get into an argument, it’s easy to make assumptions about the other person and their intentions and think of them as facts.
But they aren’t facts. They are assumptions.
Situation: You are driving down the road and someone cuts in front of you and keeps flying down the road.
Fact: someone cut in front of you and sped along.
Assumption: that person is a jerk, doesn’t care about other people, and so on.
Situation: You are at work, and when your boss looks at you, he or she frowns and walks away.
Fact: When your boss looked at you, he or she frowned.
Assumption: Your boss is mad at you.
In life, we tell stories. When something happens, we usually don’t get upset at the event that happened, we get upset at the story we tell (and we usually assume the negative).
Take the two situations above: When the person cut you off driving fast if you knew that person was trying to get to the hospital before their child died, would you have reacted the same way?
Or if you knew your boss just got out of a tough meeting or is having issues at home that he or she is struggling with, would you have reacted the same way?
You see, we often react to the story we tell, not the situation that happens.
That’s one reason we need to separate facts from assumptions.
In arguments, facts are the safest topics to discuss. From the situation above, “You frowned when you looked at me” is a fact. “You are a jerk and always angry at me” is an assumption that will likely cause a negative response.
When you discuss a situation with someone state the facts, then state the assumptions tentatively, as a possibility.
“This morning you frowned at me when you looked at me. Are you upset at me about something?” or “It gave me the impression that you are upset with me” or something along those lines.
Separate facts from assumptions and focus on the facts first. Then you can state the impression you have tentatively.
Separating the feedback from the person
When you are receiving feedback, it can be easy to try to ignore it because of the person who is giving it.
However, those are two separate issues.
Even if you don’t think the person is worthy of giving it, if you listened to it, then you might could learn something and grow.
Then you could deal with the issue that you have with the person or the assumed intentions they have.
At the same time, feedback given to you (or to someone else) doesn’t define you or them. A skill or situation you or they need to handle better doesn’t define you or the other person.
Separate the feedback from the person.
Knowing when to take a pause or take a timeout
When an argument gets heated, it can be easy to say something that we might regret.
Instead, take a time out or pause.
Say something like, “I’m (or we both are) getting angry. Let’s take a break and calm down”.
This will give you a chance to calm down and think about the situation and handle it better.
In the majority of cases, everyone has contributed to the problem somehow. It may be that you just didn’t speak up when you should, but in most cases, you are part of the problem.
Part of the reason many relationships fail and arguments continue is that each person blames the other for the situation they are in. No one takes responsibility for their own contribution to the problem.
Look for your contribution and accept it. Own it. And apologize where necessary.
Preparing yourself and your message
Too often we rush into an argument without making sure our motives are right or preparing what we want to say. Too often, those arguments end in failure.
Instead, take time to get yourself right.
What are your motives? Why do you want to have the conversation?
What are the facts of the situation? What are your assumptions?
What is your contribution to the problem?
Once you know you have the right motives and answered these questions, think about what you want to say and how. It can help to write it out.
Then, set up an appropriate time and place to have the conversation (in private and when they are mentally and emotionally prepared).
Sharing a complaint or criticism without attacking
One of the best ways to share an issue is to use “I message”.
I messages are powerful. Basically, you say:
“When you do X, I feel Y, because of Z. “
“When you don’t help clean up around the house, I feel frustrated because I have to do it all by myself. “
“When you don’t call to let me know you are late, I feel worried because I am afraid something bad may have happened to you. “
Another option is what I call the “core message” (I call it this because if you read many books on conflict, most can be summed up to this):
- You prepare beforehand. You examine yourself, know your motives, and prepare the message you want to give.
- You state the facts (not the assumptions) of what happened
- You state your story (your assumptions) tentatively (not as fact, but as your impression), how you feel, and how it affected you.
- You then ask the other person for their input and listen and try to understand their viewpoint.
- You then work together for a solution.
In neither of these samples do you attack the person? You state a fact of what the person does and how you feel and how it affects you when the person does that.
Focusing on one’s purpose
When an argument gets heated, it can sometimes be easy to start focusing on winning instead of resolving.
Instead, try to keep focused on your purpose. Do you want a good relationship with that person? Do you want to resolve and fix the issue at work? What is your purpose for going in?
When we lose focus on that purpose and focus on “winning” the argument, we end up losing instead.
Keeping things in perspective and avoiding exaggeration
It can be easy to lose perspective in the heat of the moment.
When someone gives us feedback, it can be easy to exaggerate it to mean far worse than what it is.
If someone says “I need you to do better on your reports.”, for some, it can be easy to exaggerate it as “the person doesn’t like me”, “the person thinks I’m a failure”, or “I’m never going to succeed in this job.”
When confronting someone, it can be easy to take things out of perspective as well. For example, if your roommate or spouse leaves clothes on the floor, again, it can be easy to say “You ALWAYS leave your clothes on the floor. You NEVER clean up after yourself.”
Keep things in perspective. If you are receiving negative feedback, take deep breaths. Focus on what it really means. If you are confused, ask.
Does needing to work better on reports mean you are a failure or that you will never succeed? Probably not. Was that said? No.
When you are confronting someone, focus on the situation or pattern, don’t exaggerate what the other person does, or you are just asking for an argument.
“Lately I’ve noticed that you’ve been leaving your clothes on the floor in the bathroom at times…”
“Yesterday you left your clothes on the floor and didn’t put them in the basket as agreed….”
Keeping the issue private
Now, this may not seem like much of a “skill”, but people fail to do this so much, it might as well be.
Too often when we have a problem with someone, instead of going to that person, we go to someone else to “talk” (gossip) about it.
We may go around and gossip or complain about the person or even build allies against the other person and what they did or their ideas.
This is ridiculous, just causes extra strife, is unneeded, and is stupid. If you have an issue with someone, go to that person and deal with it.
If you need extra help at work, follow company policies about finding a mediator (or talk to your boss about mediating). If personal, find a counselor, pastor, or a trusted friend that you both choose to help you work through it.
If there are safety issues, get the police (for personal relationships) or get your boss or HR involved.
But don’t get other people involved who have no business knowing about it.
Making others feel safe
Kerry Patterson and Joseph Grenny in their book Crucial Conversations say that if the other person feels safe, you can say anything.
Often people don’t feel safe because they question your motives or think you are attacking them.
Help the other person feel safe. Let them know the reason you are talking to them. If you have contributed to the issue (which you probably have), acknowledge and apologize where necessary.
Let the other person know what you are NOT trying to do or say. You aren’t talking to them because you think they are the problem. You aren’t coming to prove yourself right. And so on.
And lastly, find a mutual purpose.
Finding a mutual purpose
A mutual purpose is a purpose that everyone involved in the conflict is pursuing.
When a “discussion” starts and moves toward an argument, often a mutual purpose is non-existent, at least in their minds. Each person thinks that each person has their own agenda (which we often assume) and pursuing their own goals.
Find a mutual purpose. In your relationship, what is a purpose that you both can pursue? A better, happier relationship? To resolve the issue where everyone is happy with the result?
At work, what is the purpose? To solve the issue at hand?
It can be easy to get off track and focus on the wrong goals. Instead, find a mutual purpose between everyone involved and pursue it.
See yourselves as working as a team to solve the issue, not working against each other.
Being respectful even when upset
When an argument flares up, when people seem to verbally attack us when there is a major disagreement, it can be easy to slip from being respectful to insulting.
Always be respectful. Even when you disagree, even when you don’t like what’s being said, be respectful.
This will help save the argument from going deep into the pits.
Getting to the root of the issue – and finding the message behind the message
Sometimes people are indirect, or they don’t know how to express what they are wanting to say.
Sometimes their complaint isn’t the real issue.
That’s why it’s important to always look for the message behind the message and try to find the root of the issue.
A spouse saying “You work too much” might be saying “I miss spending time with you.”
Someone who says “You really like loud music, don’t you” might be saying, “Would you turn it down, please.”
Clothes being left on the floor may not be the main issue. The main issue may be that they feel the other person doesn’t care about them enough to help take care of the house, or they were always reprimanded as a child for leaving things laying around that they are anxious when that happens.
Look for the message behind the message of what people say, and try to dig and find the root issue. Look for the “why” behind the issue.
Being direct and straight to the point
When you are indirect to someone, you are being unfair. When you hint at something and expect someone to get it or get angry when they don’t, you are in the wrong.
You can use tact, but be direct. Say what the issue is.
Also, get straight to the point. Don’t beat around the bush. More than likely, you like it when people are direct with you. Give others the same courtesy.
When you beat around the bush to get to it, it also makes your issue seem less important.
Viewing the issue from a system and third-party view
Often there is a lot more going into the situation than we see.
Try to get a system-wide view. What else is contributing to the problem? What other factors are there than you see directly?
Also, try to view the situation from a third party. How would a mediator see the viewpoints? Often, it’s not this or that, it’s this view AND that view together.
Put the two viewpoints together, see how they fit, and see what’s different.
Recognizing confirmation bias
It can be easy for us as humans to seek out information that confirms our beliefs and biases and to filter out those that disagree with it.
But that’s dangerous.
As you get into arguments and conflict with other people, watch out for confirmation bias. If you really believe someone is a jerk, you will look at all the information that proves it and often ignore the rest.
Assume the best in people and watch out for confirmation bias.
Speaking up timely, even when it’s hard
It can be harder than others sometimes to speak up. We are afraid of rejection, of losing our job, of the other person’s response, and so on.
When we wait, however, the problem often gets worse. It becomes harder to speak up.
A plan may have been made that should have never been established.
The person continues the negative behavior (or it grows worse) because we gave implicit approval to their behavior toward us.
Speak up, even when it’s hard.
Don’t let others run over you. Speak up.
Don’t let a bad decision be made in a meeting without you giving an alternate viewpoint. Speak up.
Don’t let the anger and frustration build and act negatively toward someone when they don’t even know what the issue is. Speak up.
Often, it’s actually selfish to not speak up.
If someone has a behavior that is causing them harm in their relationships or at work, isn’t it love to go and tell the person so that they have the opportunity to change?
It’s actually unloving and uncaring not to speak up (in most situations).
If you were doing something that is causing you harm, wouldn’t you want someone to love you enough to risk you getting mad to let you know?
Do the same for others. Yes, use tact, kindness, and humility (and the other skills listed here), but speak up.
In the same sense, if you care about your company, shouldn’t you speak up and share your concerns to give another perspective before a decision is made?
Speaking with confidence, humility, and tact
When we talk about issues, we should speak with confidence, not weakness. Confidence doesn’t mean arrogance.
When you speak your feelings, how you felt, the facts, speak it with confidence (the story, the assumptions, you can speak tentatively, as a possibility of it being wrong – but you still don’t speak weakly).
Don’t say weak statements like “I know this may be silly…” or “This is probably dumb but…” or other statements that weaken what you speak.
At the same time, speak with humility. You aren’t trying to be arrogant or prove the person wrong or show you are right, you are trying to solve the issue and better the relationship or solve an issue.
And truth is, while you saw what you saw and felt what you felt, you may not know all the facts. There are often other sides to the story. Be humble and be willing to listen and expand your view.
And of course, use tact. Don’t be a jerk. There’s a difference between
“Have you considered this before…”
“you are an uncaring jerk who doesn’t consider other people’s opinions”
“When you don’t ask me for my opinion, It makes me feel unappreciated because it gives me the impression you don’t care about my viewpoint.”
Being self-aware and watching for blind spots
We all have blind spots.
We don’t see our body language or hear the tone of voice like others do.
We sometimes may not even know how upset we are.
We can easily come across in a way that we don’t intend to. That’s why it’s important to be self-aware and watch for our blind spots.
How are you coming across to others? How are they reacting? How are you feeling? Are you upset? Are you speaking in anger? What body language are you using?
Sometimes it can even be helpful to ask others how you come across so that you can be aware of what others see. Then you can work on speaking and acting differently.
Knowing when and where to have the conversation
There is a time to have the conversation and a time not to have the conversation.
With your spouse or significant other, right when they get home from work or right before bed is usually not good time to have a talk about an issue.
During a date or other fun time or support time is also a bad time to talk about issues.
In general, it’s good to have a time set where issues can be talked about or to ask the person “Is this a good time?”.
When people are upset or irate about something (whether in a relationship or at work), it is usually not a good time. Wait till people are calm.
Also, do the conversation in private. It doesn’t need to be in front of everyone. People that aren’t involved don’t need to be there.
Recognizing switch-track conversations
Switch-track conversations are when you are talking to someone about an issue, and they bring up another issue related. Both of you are arguing about your points, but you are arguing about different issues.
Joan says to her husband, “I wish you would help clean up more often.” Jack says, “You never appreciate what I do when I clean.” And then the argument keeps going.
Are they arguing about the same topic, chores? No. It’s two different issues.
Joan’s issue is that she wants Jack to help more with the chores.
Jack’s issue is that Joan doesn’t show appreciation for what he does.
Two different issues. That means two different conversations.
You can say something like “I see there are two different issues here. Let’s talk about you not feeling appreciated first, then let’s talk about the chores”.
Knowing when and how to let go
There are times when people are not willing to listen or change. Or maybe the superiors at work don’t agree with your advice.
You have to learn when to let go.
In some cases, it may mean just learning to deal with the issue. You may have to learn to live with the other person being a little more sloppy than you.
Or you may have to deal with the rule changes at work that you don’t like.
Other times, you may have to let go. If it’s something at work that you find morally or ethically wrong, you may have to quit.
If someone is violating your rights or is toxic, you may have to let go of that relationship if they are unwilling to change.
Knowing when and how to problem solve
Sometimes there doesn’t even need to be problem-solving.
When we seek to understand each other’s viewpoints, in some situations, getting an understanding of the other person will be enough.
(And sometimes, as a side, when people are talking about something to us, they want us to listen, not problem solve or give advice. If someone is coming to you for support to listen, make sure they actually want you to problem solve or give advice before you do.)
Other times, you will need to work together to solve the problem, whether in a work situation or a relationship.
The first step is to make sure everyone has spoken up and everyone is understood.
Then brainstorm ideas.
Then take from the ideas and come up with a solution.
The situation will help determine how the decision is made, whether by consensus (such as in a relationship), or possibly other methods (such as in a meeting).
Lastly, make sure there is follow-up and accountability. Make sure it’s working and everyone is doing their part. Otherwise, there is a possibility you are wasting your time.
Focusing only on what you can control
You can’t control other people’s actions or choices. You can’t control the economy, the weather, and governmental decisions.
What you can control, however, is yourself.
Don’t waste energy and time focusing on things you can’t control.
When you are in a situation where you are presenting an issue, you can’t control how the other person will respond. If they are presenting to you, you can’t control how they will present it (though you can choose not to listen or leave if they come at you with anger or are verbally abusive).
You do, however, have control of you. You can control yourself. You can control how you respond. You can control what you allow and don’t allow people to say and do to you. You can control what you will do if they listen or don’t listen.
Don’t focus and worry about what you can’t control. Save your energy and focus on what you can: you.
I hope that some of these critical conflict resolution skills will help you resolve the conflict in your life better and easier, whether it’s in a relationship, at work, or just in everyday life.
If you don’t remember anything else or put anything else into practice, remember that the most important skill is to listen and seek to understand.
If we would take the time to listen and truly understand the other person and their viewpoint, we would resolve many disagreements before they even start.
What skill are you going to start implementing today?