How to Manage Conflicts and Disagreements


What to Do Before the Conflict or Disagreement    to top

Many of us are stunned when conflicts occur. We are surprised to learn that someone like a good friend, a significant other, or a coworker ( with whom we usually have a lot in common with) doesn't actually share the same thoughts, feelings, interests, or values that we do about a topic that is important to us. One of the reasons why we get so upset when this happens is because we didn't expect it to occur in the first place. Most of us usually go through life assuming that those who are similar to us in other ways will just naturally agree with us on everything!

One way to prevent yourself from overreacting to a conflict and instead resolving it quickly, is to expect it to happen before it actually occurs. Keep in mind, that no two people, regardless of how much they have in common, will agree about everything. All of us enter into relationships with our own thoughts, feelings, interests, and values and it is these biases that make each of us unique individuals.

The greatest rule of conflict resolution is to know yourself and get to know yourself. Stop and ask yourself, "What are my pet peeves? What really ticks me off?" Make a list and keep it in a place where conflicts usually occur. If your conflicts usually occur with your spouse, keep your list at home where you'll see it regularly. If they usually occur with a coworker, keep your list in your desk or a locked drawer. Review this list every morning. It will remind you that these are topics of discussion that can easily upset you and you can prepare to deal with them better. Being forewarned is forearmed!

It is always good to know when to walk away from a conflict. Set limits for yourself. Know that any time you feel like you are going to lose control in any way that might be dangerous to you, others, or someone else's property, that you need to walk away and calm down. Also, if you feel like you are going to scream, yell, or verbally attack anyone, you should separate yourself from the conflict and leave immediately.

Have a plan! Decide ahead of time what you can do to cope with the difficult emotions, like stress or anger, that usually come up or linger when conflicts go unresolved. Make a list of all the things that you can do to relax when you get too angry or upset to continue your conversation. You may choose to relax by listening to music, getting a massage, taking a shower or warm bath, going for a walk, cleaning the house, etc. Keep this list in a place where conflicts usually occur so you'll remember what to do or where to go if you end up walking away from a conflict.

    Conflict Counsel
    Do not drive or operate heavy equipment or machinery when you are angry or feeling volatile. It can cause serious injury to you or other people that you care about the most.

Before you open your mouth to disagree, ask yourself the question, "Is this really something worth arguing over?" Sometimes we don't even realize that what we are arguing over really isn't even all that important to us anyway. If expressing your opinion is more important to you than having a pleasant and easy time, then express your view. If having a good time is more important to you than having a debate or creating a possible conflict, you might want to keep your opinions to yourself.

    Conflict Counsel
    We don't always have to say everything that comes into our heads. Some things are better left unsaid!

Let the other person know how you are feeling. If you sense that you are getting frustrated and that a conflict is beginning to arise, say it! Sometimes just acknowledging what's happening by saying, "I'm disappointed, we seem to disagree" or "Well, that's frustrating, I was hoping we would agree on the subject" can keep a cool conversation from turning into a caustic conflict.

Always remember that conflict is simply opportunity in disguise. It is an opportunity for you to refine your communication skills, practice tolerance, and learn from another's point of view. Don't avoid conflict. When you avoid conflict, you miss out on a wonderful opportunity to learn how to become a more tolerant human being and a better communicator.

Have you ever noticed that many couples who seem to argue a lot still manage to stay together? Have you ever wondered why they stay together when they seem to disagree so much? That's because conflict does one of two things. It either brings people closer together or it pulls them further apart. Those who stay together through conflict (instead of distancing themselves from the other person) know that the conflict isn't going to last forever and that by talking the conflict through to a resolution, they will eventually come to understand, appreciate, and accept each other better. Make conflict work for you by becoming determined to let the conflict bring the two of you closer together instead of further apart every time you disagree.


What to Do During the Conflict or Disagreement    to top

Stay calm, don't panic! During conflict, our natural response is to begin inhaling and exhaling in short and shallow breaths that can decrease our oxygen level and increase our heart rate and blood pressure. This causes most of us to feel even more upset, stressed, or angry, which clouds our judgment during a conflict. An easy way to prevent this from happening is to begin gently breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth at a very slow pace. You'll find it much easier to stay calm by breathing this way. If you part your lips just a little bit, you can exhale through your mouth and no one will even be able to tell that you are practicing this gentle breathing exercise.

A very easy part of managing a conflict is to stay quiet and just listen. All you have to do is practice the "shut up and listen" technique. As you practice the previously mentioned gentle breathing exercise, be quiet. Focus on your breathing and listen to what the other person has to say. Let the other person carry the conversation. You don't have to do all the work. Just breathe and listen.

After the other person has said what it is they need to say, think about something they said that you agree with. It can be anything, but just say you agree—and be emphatic about it! This usually disarms the person you are having a disagreement with and makes them more willing to listen to what it is that you have to say.

When you respond to the person you are arguing with by agreeing to something they have said (even if they didn't say it exactly the way you heard it) it usually causes the other person to feel like you are trying to understand their point of view. When people feel understood, they are more willing to compromise or even become willing to do things in a completely different way.

You don't have to take the conflict personally! Objectify the conflict instead of personalizing it. In other words, don't make the conflict about you or the other person, make it about the issue at hand. If your conflict is over which way to drive to work, and you each think that your way is better, don't take the conflict personally by assuming that the other person thinks you're stupid just because he disagrees with your point of view. Likewise, don't assume that he's stupid, just because he doesn't share your opinion. Keep your discussion limited to which route to take to work.

Use an "I statement" to tell the other person what you believe the issue is that you're disagreeing over. You can do this by saying something like, "I think we have different ideas about which would be a better way to get to work this morning. I hear that you really want to take the other way to work." This tells the other person that you are listening to him. It also tells him that you are objectifying the conflict and that you are clear about what the conflict is about.

    Conflict Counsel
    An I statement is a statement that begins with the word "I" and expresses your thoughts or feelings about a subject.

After you have made your "I statement," ask for feedback. You can do this by saying something like "Am I hearing you correctly?" or "Is that the way you see things, too?" This helps both of you to objectify the conflict and make sure that you're both in agreement about what the conflict is about. It also gives the other person the opportunity to clarify his response in case he miscommunicated with you.

Stay focused on one issue at a time. If the other person responds with "Yes, that's what I mean. We have different ideas about which way is faster to work. If you weren't so late all the time, we wouldn't have this problem!" You can respond with "Let's talk about which way to go to work right now, and we can discuss my being late after work today." This tells the other person that you are open and willing to discuss the other issue but that you do not want to change the subject right now.

Avoid making any judgmental statements like "I am right" or "You are wrong." These are words that will usually cause the other person to tune you out or get even more upset. Instead, use words like "better," "best," "effective," or "more effective." For example, saying, "I think it would be better if we took the other way to work" instead of saying "Your way is the wrong way to go" would be a more effective way of expressing your opinion.

Antagonizing the person you are disagreeing with will not help to resolve your conflict. It will only make things worse instead of better. So, be sure not to antagonize the other person in any way by making fun of him, mocking him, or calling him names.

Let others have their own opinions, beliefs, feelings, interests, needs, etc. And don't try to change any of these things about them. You can not change another person or make him behave any differently. You can only change yourself and how you respond to him. There's an old Southern saying: "Don't try to teach a pig to sing, you'll just end up tired and you'll only frustrate the pig." The same is true with people!

You can't change the past. What's done is done. So, don't dwell on what's already happened. Instead, stay present and focus on what the two of you can do now to resolve the current conflict and how to prevent it from recurring in the future.

Suggest that the two of you brainstorm for possible solutions to resolve your conflict. There may be solutions that neither of you has thought about yet! If you can't come up with any other alternatives, suggest that you resolve your conflict by taking turns. For instance, you might say, "Today we'll take the route you want to take to work, and the next time we'll take the route I want to take." This is usually an agreeable resolution and the other person will appreciate you choosing to try his solution first.

Most of us think that there has to be a winner and a loser in order for a conflict to be resolved. This type of thinking causes most of us to resist even listening to any possible solution that the other person may have to offer. We are afraid that if we accept any of our opponent's resolutions to the conflict then we will become the loser. This does not have to be the case. Instead of believing that a winner and a loser must emerge from a conflict resolution, choose to believe that you each can successfully negotiate a conflict resolution in which both of you can walk away as winners. You'll find that you'll be more willing to listen and accept good sound advice, even if it wasn't your own, and your conflicts will get resolved much quicker.

Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. If the person you are having a conflict with offers a solution that you doubt he will be likely to carry out, give him the benefit of the doubt. It's insulting to most people when they offer an alternative resolution and they are met with disbelief. If you do have your doubts, ask the person to explain to you how he intends to fulfill his part of the conflict resolution. If his explanation sounds realistic, give him the benefit of the doubt and accept his proposal. If you can't give him the benefit of the doubt, ask him to work with you to come up with some other alternatives.

Hopefully, you know the person you are having a disagreement with well enough to know his values, desires, and motives. If you don't know, then ask him, "Why do you want to do it that way?" Once you know why he wants what he wants, it will be easier for you to come up with a resolution that will be acceptable to both of you. Always find out and appeal to the other person's motives.

Be open to learning a different way or more effective way of doing things. Let the other person know that you believe his way of doing things may be better than your way of doing things. Be willing to do some research or try things differently than the way you normally do. The other person will be more likely to listen to what it is you have to say, and you might just learn something you didn't know!

If after you have done your research, you discover that you were incorrect in any way, admit it. Let the other person know that you are honest enough to acknowledge your own mistakes. It will make him feel more comfortable to admit his mistakes to you and he'll probably end up respecting you more.

If you have offended the other person in any way, be sure to apologize. A simple, "I'm sorry for doubting you," will suffice. By treating him this way, you are also showing him how you would like to be treated.

If you have tried everything you can to resolve the conflict and there is absolutely nothing else left to do, then agree to disagree and walk away. This technique in and of itself is an excellent solution and can be very effective in resolving conflict. Try it!

After you walk away, pull out your list of things to do to manage the stress and anger that are lingering from your unresolved conflict, and do them! Choose your favorite activity first. If you're still upset after you have finished that activity, go on to the next one. Continue to do additional activities on your list until you feel calm and relaxed.

It is important that you have someone you can talk to about the unresolved conflict for emotional support. The person that you choose to talk with should be someone you trust to keep your conversation confidential (like a therapist or a good friend) and that person should be completely uninvolved in the conflict, so that their feedback and support is as unbiased as possible.

    Conflict Counsel
    Emotional support is being supportive of what another person is feeling. For example, if someone is sad, let them know it is okay to feel sad or even cry.


What to Do After the Conflict or Disagreement    to top

Positively reinforce the other person's willingness to resolve your conflict. You can do this by saying something like "I really appreciate you taking the time to reach a compromise with me" or " Thanks for being willing to resolve our conflict earlier. You're really a good communicator!" You could even present the person with a small gift as a token of your appreciation. By showing appreciation and respect for the other person, he will be more likely to listen to you and resolve conflicts again with you in the future.

    Conflict Counsel
    Positive reinforcement is a reward (usually an expression or a gesture) that encourages someone to repeat the desirable behavior.

After your conflict has been resolved, be sure to spend quality time together away from where you had your disagreement. For instance, if the person you had a conflict with is a coworker and you disagreed over a work-related issue, it would be a good idea to spend some quality time together outside of the office (either lunch or coffee). During your time together, ask him what he likes to do for fun or what his family is like. Do not discuss anything work-related and avoid any conversations about your previous conflict. You're there to make peace and have fun. So, keep the conversation light and easy!


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