Ask ten people how they define conflict and most will be likely to view it negatively. Many of us will do anything to avoid it both at work and at home. In fact, conflict is an opportunity for growth if we deal with it correctly. Difficult conversations are a part of life and learning how to handle them will prove a valuable skill.
If you address an issue as soon as it arises it will be more likely to be a self-contained conversation without resentment and assumptions building up.
Using “I messages” can be particularly helpful because our interlocutor is less likely to feel personally attacked. So, if you say “I feel upset when you say you will spend time with me and then you don’t” you are actually expressing your needs and emotions as opposed to blaming the other person.
Stick to the facts and check that you have understood the other person’s message correctly. Conflict can get out of hand when our reactions are based on our assumptions and the meaning we give to facts rather than to the events themselves.
Be specific and avoid words like “always” or “never”. Saying “You never do your share of the cleaning!” can be perceived as an attack and it’s likely that the other person will go in defence mode making it difficult to find a resolution to the argument.
Another way to look at conflict is by using the basic concepts of game theory, the study of how we make decisions in strategic situations. This applies equally to conflict within relationships. Working with fighting couples, I have noticed that when conflict gets out of hand normally people are locked into a “win-lose” situation where there can only be a winner. This scenario only offers a hollow victory as it results in more distance between the couple and the loser will be waiting for their chance to get their own back at the first opportunity.
Healthy conflict resolution involves the switch to a “win-win” scenario where people listen to each other’s needs and work on reaching a compromise where each feels they have achieved a positive resolution. In her book It’s not you, it’s the dishes, journalists Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson suggest that if game theory teaches us anything, it’s that relationships aren’t about having it all, they’re about having all you can under the circumstances.
Helpful strategies derived from game theory:
Think before you speak. How is the other person going to react to what you are going to say?
Learn from the past. What can you change to avoid the same outcome?
Put yourself in their shoes. This means considering what they are likely to do based on your knowledge of that person.