(this column originally appeared on LifeHack.org)
By Jennifer Farmer
Intellectually, many of us know that conflict is a part of life. We may know that conflict can spur deeper understanding and stronger relationships. Yet, when conflict arises, it puts some of us on our heels. When disagreements emerge, we are left wondering how to address them while keeping the relationship intact.
If you are leading a team or working closely with others, here are 10 strategies to resolve conflicts.
Communicate early and often. To reduce misunderstandings and ambiguity, communicate your intentions and desires. Ask what your colleagues need to work their best, and do your part to meet their needs or – at a minimum – avoid doing that which you know will cause harm. If you suspect conflict in the relationship, address it swiftly. Problems do not go away on their own. Failing to act when you see a potential problem can create problems down the line.
Listen actively. Everyone wants to be heard. Everyone wants to know that when they speak, when they take the time to share what is on their mind, the person with whom they are communicating, listens. Active listening is a required step for conflict resolution. Active listening is listening to what is verbally and nonverbally communicated. Is it listening for intent and for understanding. Often, conflicts arise because two parties misunderstand or mishear what the other person is saying. Active listening helps ensure that the sender and receiver understand one another. This is half the battle when it comes to resolving conflicts. Given the prevalence of email and remote working, especially considering the COVID-19 health crisis, active listening is critical. Email and text communications are tricky, because intent and tone are difficult to gauge in them. Team members will have to work extra hard to ensure that they hear what their colleagues are communicating, thereby reducing the chance for conflict.
Use “I” statements. To reduce conflict, focus on how you feel. Focus on how an action has impacted you. Speak from your experience, and understand that your experience is not a universal truth. Just because you feel a certain way does not mean your colleagues do. Further, when you use “I” statements, you reduce the chance of overgeneralizing, which can add gasoline to the fire. If you are in a disagreement and you tell the person who has caused harm that they impacted everyone – versus telling them that they impacted you – you may illicit a defensive reaction from the individual. Instead focus on you and what you feel and need. This will reduce conflict by keeping tempers calm.
Understand what is yours. Have you ever gotten into an argument and the source of your upset was something you have long struggled with? Perhaps you have struggled with being heard. You have felt as if others do not hear you when you communicate. Regardless of where you go, you carry this sensitivity with you. And guess what? It does not take much for others to rouse your anger if you even suspect that they are not hearing you. When this happens and you find yourself angry over your feelings about not being heard, step back and ask yourself whether that really is the case or whether your history is influencing your reaction in this moment. Ask yourself if the person with whom you have conflict is yourself and your history or the apparent offending party. Sometimes we get upset with people over things that really do not concern them. Get to the root of what is bothering you or the other person. Sometimes conflict has nothing to do with the current issue – it stems from something that happened at home, bad news or an unrelated interpersonal upset.
Do not take anything personally. When Don Miguel Ruiz wrote “The Four Agreements,” he cautioned readers against taking things personally. As much as I admire his work, I must admit that this piece of advice is difficult to follow. Yet, it is imperative that we learn not to take things personally. In the same ways that our lives are all-consuming to us, other people have enough in their lives to keep them occupied. When people behave poorly, it may hurt and disappoint us, but their behavior reflects where they are. It truly has nothing to do with us. A friend of mine is going through a rough patch. She feels isolated and overwhelmed as a single mother. I invited her to a party and was initially perturbed when she did not respond. I thought to myself, “That isn’t like her.” I thought about it for a few days before I decided to reach out and check on her. When she responded, she shared being in the fog of depression and struggling to complete even the most basic daily tasks. Guess what? She was barely doing life, let alone thinking about the invitation that she may or may not have seen. Her reaction had nothing to do with me. It was rooted in her own struggles at the time.
Give up the need to be right. I am not sure why, but the ego has an insatiable appetite. It wants to be right 100% of the time. When conflicts arise, give up on the need to be right. Be willing to be wrong. If you fight to be right, you may have incentive to keep the conflict going. Further, if you need to be right, your objective becomes defending your position versus getting to the root of the conflict. If you want to reduce or resolve conflict, do not be vested in being right.
Speak with people who have the capacity to make a change. I get that venting feels good. I understand that everyone wants to be affirmed. But when conflicts arise, it is best to communicate solely with people who have the power to influence change. This will ensure that there is meaningful action toward resolution, and it will prevent gossip from flourishing. Further, when you share information with people who have no capacity to help, you could do reputational harm to the person with whom you are experiencing conflict. And while you and this person may eventually resolve your challenge, the seeds of discord that you have sown will trail the person indefinitely.
Identify the root of the conflict. For persons who have repeated conflict, there is likely an unresolved or unidentified root issue. In this instance, conflict resolution can only happen once both parties get to the root of their challenges. The root could stem from something that happened years or decades earlier. It could stem from something completely unbeknownst to one party. But it is essential to identify the thing from which future problems have arisen.
Seek appropriate intervention. Sometimes conflict is so deep rooted that third-party intervention is needed. The intervention could come in the form of a therapist, counselor or trusted adviser. If you have tried unsuccessfully to resolve conflict, seek intervention from a qualified and objective third party.
Lead with how you feel. For some us, being vulnerable is second nature. For others, showcasing vulnerability is a sign of weakness. For people in the latter camp, it is better to express anger than to say, “Hey, I felt hurt when this happened, and I am wondering if you could help me with it …” When something upsets you, ask why. Then lead with how you feel. This will enable the person with whom you are upset to better understand how you feel and what you need.
If you follow these 10 steps and find that conflict is still present, think about whether it is time to exit the relationship. If you cannot exit the relationship, think about how you can restructure the engagement so that you spend as little time as possible with the offending party.
It is true that conflict is a part of life. Conflict shows up in our families, in our personal relationships as well as in our professional relationships. And guess what? Working remotely will not eliminate conflict. It is as guaranteed as the taxes you are required to pay. But with these 10 steps, conflict does not have to be the end of the relationship but rather the door to improve it.
Jennifer R. Farmer is a writer, trainer, and activist communicator. She is the author of the forthcoming book, “First and Only: How Black Women Thrive at Work and Life.” and host of the “First and Only” podcast on Spreaker. Follow her on IG/Twitter using @pr_whisperer.