Even in the best situations, conflicts in our relationships, family life, or at work are inevitable. Unfortunately, the unskilled and negative ways we typically respond to conflict often cause even more stress, erode our relationships, create resentment within families and lessen our personal or professional effectiveness. However, most conflicts are caused by misunderstandings that result from poor communication skills or develop when different personalities or behaviors collide. By improving your communication and problem solving skills, you can learn how to create effective solutions out of stressful situations.
Improving your communication skills
Effective communication is vital to solving conflicts and begins with genuinely attempting to understand the other person’s point of view or feelings. Sometimes when we’re tired, angry or frustrated, we don’t hear what the other person is trying to tell us. In order to really listen and understand the other person’s feelings and needs, you should:
Listen…don’t talk: Give the other person a chance to get his/her own ideas and opinions across. Listen for understanding, rather than spending the time in preparation for your next remark.
Ask questions: Guard against assuming that you know what the person meant or felt by asking questions to assure your understanding. Ask questions that result in a more informative answer than “yes” or “no.”
Keep an open mind: Don’t just listen for statements that back up your own opinions and support your beliefs. Be willing to listen to someone else’s point of view and ideas.
Don’t jump to conclusions: Don’t assume you have the gist of the conversation or think you already know what the speaker’s going to say next. If you don’t listen, you may miss the real point the speaker is trying to get across.
Listen “between the lines”: Remember, a lot of clues to meaning come from the speaker’s tone of voice, facial expressions and gestures. Body language is usually an accurate indication of the speaker’s attitude or emotional state. Concentrate on what is not being said as well as what is being said.
Provide feedback: Make eye contact with the speaker. Nod your head when you understand a specific point or provide other feedback that shows you are really listening.
Summarize: When the person finishes speaking, repeat what the speaker has said — in your own words — to confirm with the speaker that you understand. Summarize points of agreement or disagreement.
Conflict management styles
Although we all deal with conflict differently, there are five primary ways people respond to conflict:
Avoidance: People who hate confrontations which might result in the other persons anger, sarcasm, rejection, and so on, withdraw from the situation rather than face up to it. They are usually sensitive to their own and others feelings, and don’t want to be hurt themselves or hurt others.
Accommodating: These people suppress their own needs, opinions, and feelings, sacrificing their own interests and needs in order to solve the conflict. Their attitude is “anything for a quiet life” or “peace at any price.”
Win/Lose: At the other end of the spectrum are those who see conflict as a competition in which there has to be a winner and a loser. Their attitude is “win at any cost.” They force their interests and ideas onto the other person, often through violence, bribery or punishment. The outcome is usually a battle in which relationships suffer.
Compromising: Both sides meet “halfway” in order to reach an agreement. In some cases, it is the best solution possible; but with both sides giving up something in order to reach an agreement, often the best solution is not achieved. Oftentimes, both parties feel cheated and dissatisfied with the outcome.
Problem Solving: If it can be achieved, the ideal solution is one where both parties emerge as “winners.” By defining both party’s needs, then trying to equitably meet those needs while supporting and respecting both people’s values, a win/win solution can often be achieved. Relationships are maintained and often enhanced.
The problem solving approach
In most cases, the problem solving approach is the best way to resolve conflicts successfully. Follow these guidelines:
- Acknowledge the problem – Decide to discuss the problem or conflict. Determine your own conflict resolution style. Schedule a meeting.
- Discuss the problem – Decide what questions to ask. Be prepared to listen. Do you know what your point of view is? Do you understand the other person’s point of view?
- Agree on a solution – Come up with as many ideas as possible and discuss each alternative. Review the ideas together with both people’s interests and needs in mind. Decide on a mutually acceptable solution. Decide how to implement the solution.
- Monitor results – Decide how you will verify that the solution is implemented. Ensure the conflict has been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Determine if anything else needs to be done.
By using a problem solving approach to conflicts, you are more likely to find solutions that are agreeable and fair to everyone involved. At the same time, you will be dealing with conflict in a positive and healthy way, encouraging open communication and problem solving and strengthening personal and professional relationships.
Dr. Gnap is a family practice physician and behavioral medicine specialist in suburban Chicago. Dr. Gnap developed the Inner Control™ Program in 1970 and has worked with thousands of people to improve and correct medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems including performance. He started the Inner Control program because so many patients asked, “what more can be done along with traditional treatment methods?”