“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” Winston Churchill
Sometimes We Fight
Typically, we are not very adept at handling conflict, whether in our personal relationships or business related situations. In most cases, we simply have never learned how to be effective and many of our attempts to confront have been negative, if not outright damaging. We go in with what we know, replaying what we have seen our parents do. Sometimes we go into defense– attack mode, pulling out all the weapons: blaming, shaming, accusing, sarcasm, – you name it. We go in fighting, trying to defend our reputation and our dignity.
Sometimes We Shrink Back
Other times we shrink back and go into helpless victim mode where we retreat or fall into a puddle of tears. We then hope that the other person will see how much he or she has hurt us. And we throw missiles such as ” You always…” or “You never…”, hoping they will get the point and see our perspective. Sometimes we go into a passive-aggressive mode, trying to make the other person feel guilty. Maybe then they will see the error of their ways.
Sometimes We Avoid It All together
“Conflict builds character. Crisis defines it.” Steven V Thulon
Our track records of failed attempts at solving issues often result in a lot of hurtful fights, blows to our self-esteem and confidence and damaged relationships. So what are we to do? Conflict keeps showing up. It shows up in our friendships, at work, and in our family. We can never say its all done and recuperate. Conflict seems time-consuming and energy draining, so why get involved at all? Many of us would rather just do our very best to avoid conflict altogether.
No One Wants to Rock the Boat
We avoid bringing up important issues so as not to ‘rock the boat.” “Let’s not step on any toes and let’s just avoid the problems”, we tell ourselves… We use a number of avoidance strategies such as making ourselves very busy or physically avoiding the people we need to talk to. We involve ourselves in outside activities or entertainment, over scheduling if necessary. In the end, we hope that, in time, the problem will just go away.
The Conflict Won’t Magically Disappear
Hoping that conflict will never happen or will simply evaporate, doesn’t make it so. Conflict shows up when we least expect it and often when we are unprepared. Unresolved conflict will continue to reappear because the underlying issue is still there. The emotions, the misunderstandings, the resentment, the needs, and the expectations have not gone away just because we have avoided confronting a person or a situation. Time does not heal unresolved conflict. In fact, with time and added information, perspectives, and opinions, the conflict may become even more complex and delicate.
Why Are We So Afraid of Confrontation?
“Proactive people take initiative and “work on the things they can do something about.” – Steven Covey
Maybe we are afraid that our feelings might be exposed and that our confidence might take a beating. Perhaps what we fear most might actually happen. If we are not careful, the other person will prove, once and for all, that we are wrong and our opinion is not worthy. We might be afraid that, no matter what we say, the other person will not listen to what we have to say and will simply dismiss it. We may be afraid that we will be overpowered by the other person’s words and left feeling miserable because we are unable to get our point across.
At any rate, we may reason, it’s not worth the time and emotional energy to deal with the problem, so we sneak back into our “safety” mode of avoidance. Why should we invest our time and risk our emotions in a conflict which will get us nowhere?
Sometimes we have to take off the gloves. There is no way around it; confrontation is necessary and healthy. The personal and professional costs of not addressing issues and not going into the” ring” are real. Sometimes, it is downright necessary to get into the ring and fight (in a good way!)
Avoiding conflict can take a toll on our physical and mental health. Pent up anger, frustration, and resentment can result in anxiety, stress, depression as well as physical ailments such as heart problems. When we hold back our emotions for long periods of time, one way or another, they will find an exit. Sometimes this may be in the form of an emotional explosion appearing”out of the blue”.
The professional costs are high as well. The unwillingness to confront issues or behaviors creates a roadblock to the flow of good ideas and opportunities for innovation and growth. Crucial information may not get shared and misunderstandings can cause stagnation in the workplace. People are misrepresented and their professional credibility may come into question. And, of course, there are financial losses all around as a result of workplace conflict issues.
Personal Relationship Costs
Conflict avoidance in personal relationships, particularly close ones such as a spouse or parent-child relationships, rob people of opportunities to grow and learn to deal with problems. We can create an atmosphere of fear, lack of trust and emotional distance from those close to us when we choose to gloss over or avoid bringing up important issues to discuss.
What to Do?
In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, Conflict Resolution, author Stephen Covey lists 7 important steps to smooth conflict resolution.
(1) Begin with the End in Mind
Essentially, we need to be clear what we are hoping to gain from the discussion (even the heated discussion). We should not be looking to change the other person’s opinion or viewpoint. Our goal should be clearly fixed on a beneficial outcome (or solution) for both parties. Having a clear understanding of the larger objective (valuing and preserving the relationship) and finding a workable solution will help us steer clear of what is not important.
(2) Put First Things First
We need to focus on what is important and not allow our emotions and side issues to become distractions or weapons. We need to “keep the main thing the main thing.” By sticking with the main issue, we keep the issue or conflict simply and relatively easy to resolve. When we go off on all kinds of tangents, these do nothing to help us figure out our differences.
(3) Think Win-Win
There is no winner without a loser and often times in conflict both parties come out losing something. Winning at any cost really is a losing solution. Effective conflict resolution is really an opportunity to practice our creative communication skills and manage our emotions effectively. It is better to think of the situation as a team project to come up with a creative and workable solution.in which everyone comes out a winner.
(4) Seek First to Understand, Then Be Understood
We should try to understand the whole picture and the point of view of the “opposing” party. Perhaps there is information we do not have. It is better to show interest and curiosity in the other person’s perspective (listen) to learn how they view the situation. When we begin with “seeking to understand”, the chances that the other person will want to listen to our side are greater than if we had just jumped in with our side of the argument.
(5) First Listen
A Cherokee proverb states “Listen to the whispers and you won’t have to hear the screams.”
John Maxwell writes in The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership,
” You cannot connect with someone if you don’t try to listen to and understand them.”
Listening is the crucial component to a meaningful and helpful conversation and the basis of all human connection. People want others to hear what they have to say and be understood. So, if we do nothing else, but get this point right, we’re off to a good start in resolving our differences.
Opposing viewpoints do not actually have to be in opposition. Maybe there is a way to bring them together. It does not have to be a question of one person persuading, cajoling or in some way bringing the other over to his way of thinking. It is more about finding an effective way to work together with different viewpoints towards a common goal and solution. It can be about using the strengths of two personalities to bring about a creative outcome.
(7) Sharpen the Saw
Effective conflict resolution happens long before conflict occurs. By working on ourselves, learning and growing, we can prepare for how to deal with the inevitable personal or professional conflict that arises. We can make it a habit to learn through books, training programs and people who have been “through the fire” to be better equipped to deal with conflict. Iron sharpens Iron, so the proverb goes. We can learn a lot from others and leverage their experience to give us the tools we need.
Human Relationships Are Complex
Human relations are so complex (and we make them complicated). Wouldn’t it be so much easier if we could carry signs around to show people what we are feeling and let them know exactly how they should treat us? Imagine a sign saying “I am a fragile human being so treat me with utmost care. Don’t hurt me and don’t ignore me.” And of course, we would all understand and act accordingly, wouldn’t we? Maybe in a perfect world.
The best we can do is make the best of what we have. These seven steps from Stephen Covey are an excellent start to a new tool in our life toolbox called: Effective Conflict Resolution. Let’s Listen, learn, care and understand. Then we can work together rather than apart, solving problems and creating solutions.
Has this post been helpful to you? Let me know in a comment below. I would love to dialogue with you.