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Conflict occurs throughout our lives, no matter how hard we try to avoid it. It occurs in our family lives, with our friends, at work and school, while driving, and within ourselves, to name a few. Conflict is not fighting or any kind of violence - this physical reaction is often a symptom of the actual conflict. For example, if you’re at the beach and accidentally step on someone’s towel and they then push you, the conflict isn’t the physical violence; it’s the fact that you accidentally stepped on their towel, and they really didn’t like that. 

Conflict is a natural part of life, and it often arises when our interests clash with those of another person. I’ve put together some tips to help you in handling conflict and hopefully get to a resolution:

Separate the People from the Problem

Remember that people are not abstract objects, and they have feelings just like you! Often we end up treating people the same as we treat the problem. For example, if you’re upset that the dishes haven’t been done and you end up yelling at your roommate/partner/family member, you’ve effectively combined the person and the problem, and this can come off as a personal attack. The problem here isn’t the person: it’s the dishes. Here, it’s important to maintain the relationship (so don’t blame them for the dirty dishes!) and also communicate the actual problem, such as through “I” statements, mentioned below. 

Pay Attention to Emotions

Often we can get caught up in the emotions we experience. It’s important when in a conflict to stop, recognize what emotions you and the other person are feeling, and question what produces these emotions. Most of our emotions are driven by core concerns, such as status, appreciation, role, and autonomy, so write down what concerns drive your emotions in this conflict. Validate your emotions, and make them explicit to the other person. By doing so, working through the conflict becomes more pro-active and less reactive. At the same time, validate the other person’s emotions, too. You’re not the only one in this conflict! Give them space, and listen while they speak without interrupting. Finally, don’t react to their outbursts (this is where the famous “calm down” line can make things worse) and use a symbolic gesture, such as an apology, shaking hands, or a hug, as this can produce a positive emotional impact.

Make Sure You're Active Listening

We don’t often realize it, but there are a lot of distractions that can get in the way of active listening. Some distractions include: hunger, noises, smells, lack of interest in what the speaker has to say, one word that has multiple meanings, different words that have the same meaning, a previous meeting with the speaker, interpretation of non-verbal cues, and how we were welcomed when the conversation began. All of these can distract the listener from properly engaging with the speaker. But there are things we can do, too, to ensure we are being respectful of the speaker: focus on the speaker and not on yourself, have a quiet mind, be silent and don’t think about your own questions that may arise, reflect on the speaker’s feeling and values (don’t contemplation on if the speaker is “right” or “wrong”), and at the end, summarize and paraphrase what you heard back to the speaker to show them that you were actively listening (this means no interrupting or revising/attempting to finish their sentences while they speak). If you missed anything in your summary, the speaker will probably tack it on at the end.

Use "I" Statements

“I” statements focus on rephrasing our language in a positive way. They effectively neutralize the argument, allow you to speak with purpose, and they also require you to be vulnerable -- but have no fear, there is value in being vulnerable. For example, if we return to the example with the dishes, an “I” statement looks like this: “When you don’t do the dishes, I feel frustrated because they pile up and start to smell. What I need is for the dishes to get washed more often.” It’s important to reflect back on yourself as much as possible and limit the use of “you,” as this can be interpreted as blame by the other person, such as if you were to say, “What I need is for you to wash the dishes more often.” “I” statements follow this simple template: “When you...I feel...Because...What I need is…”

Often we avoid conflict because we don’t know how to start a conversation and we’re afraid of harming our relationship with the other person. When beginning a conversation around conflict, it’s important to recognize what your goal is in having the conversation. Be clear, realize that you may be part of the problem, too, and prep beforehand. It’s always better to start the conversation than to never have one, as often unresolved conflicts can fester for years like a sharp thorn in your side.

It’s really easy to lay blame (a defensive wall), say that someone “always” or “never” does something (which is an exaggeration that can be debated), and bring up past conflicts into the current one (an unfair tactic when you should focus on the present, not the past). Part of this begins with a change in our language. For example, instead of saying, “You never clean the dishes” instead say, “It’s really important to me that you do the dishes more often.”

Like all skills, conflict resolution requires patience and practice. It’s okay to not be perfect! The important thing is that you’re trying.

If you’re looking for more resources to improve your conflict resolution skills, check out these two books:

Choices in Approaching Conflict: Principles and Practice of Dispute Resolution by Charles Ewert, Gordon Barnard, Jennifer Laffier, and Michael L. Maynard

Getting Ready to Negotiate: The Getting to Yes Workbook by Roger Fisher and Danny Ertel

Heather M

UWindsor '22

Heather received her BA[H] and MA in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Windsor, and she has a double minor in Psychology and Women's and Gender Studies. She enjoys hiking, writing experimental and disjunctive poetry, and wearing fuzzy socks.
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