"Whenever you're in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude." -- William James
Conflict is a normal and natural aspect of relationships. As human beings, we are primed to respond to stress with a "fight" or "flee" response. Often, neither of these choices is appropriate. Therefore, we need to find a way to address conflict that is direct and assertive, while also respectful and diplomatic. Some people fear conflict and go to great lengths to avoid it, which can backfire and lead to emotional, relational and medical problems. If handled effectively, conflict can be an opportunity for learning, growth and positive change.
In my practice, I advise clients to use the following strategies:
1. Pause and get grounded.
If your feathers are ruffled, it's best to take a moment to regroup before having a knee-jerk reaction you might regret later. Breathe deeply (in through your nose, down to your stomach and out through your mouth) to calm yourself. Check in with your body and recognize if there are any physical discomforts that are exacerbating your emotional agitation (i.e., hunger, fatigue, etc.).
If possible and appropriate, address those needs -- otherwise, raise a mental red flag so you are conscious that your emotions may be inflamed by these conditions. Stretching is a good way to quickly release tension and achieve physical comfort and neutral posture.
2. Zoom out to gain perspective. Imagine you are viewing the conflict from a neutral place at a greater distance. Imagine emotionally unplugging or detaching from the situation to increase awareness. Are you really upset about the issue at hand or are you displacing your anger? For example, are you flipping off the driver behind you when you are actually mad at your boss about the meeting you just left?
Make sure you address the appropriate person. Identify the real issue and don't argue about the minutia if there is a deeper core issue that needs to be addressed. For example, don't argue about the toilet seat being left up if you are actually mad that you are feeling lonely or unsupported. Choose your battles: let the little stuff go and care about yourself enough to address the important matters.
3. Become mindful of your nonverbal communication.
Because much of communication is nonverbal, be aware of your facial expressions, hand gestures, and body language to ensure you are sending the message that you want to be received.
4. Avoid behaviors that add fuel to the fire.
Physical or verbal abuse is never acceptable. Dr. John Gottman, a leading researcher and expert on relationships, identified four additional behaviors that should be avoided during conflict: criticism (attacking the person's character); contempt (insults and nonverbal hostility, like eye rolling); stonewalling (shutting down); and defensiveness (seeing self as victim.)
5. Reflect empathy.
The ability to show you understand how the other person feels is perhaps the single most powerful communication skill. It allows the person to feel heard and diffuses conflict. You do not have to agree with their perspective, but you can show you understand their feelings (i.e., "I can understand that you felt upset by that.").
6. Take responsibility for yourself.
Save everybody time by owning up to your own poor behaviors. This is not a sign of weakness, rather it demonstrates awareness and integrity and will likely expedite successful resolution. Make sincere and timely amends and apologies.
7. Use assertive communication.
Avoid being passive (weak in setting boundaries); aggressive (hostile or entitled); or passive-aggressive (acting out through indirect behaviors like slamming a door or not responding to an email). Stay in the present and don't dredge up old issues from the past. Ask for what you need, say no to what you can't do, and be open to negotiation and compromise. Articulate a complaint about a specific behavior and express your feelings in a way that is clear, direct and appropriate.
Whenever possible, communicate directly in-person or over the phone versus email or text battles where misunderstandings breed quickly. Use "I" statements rather than "you" statements to reduce defensiveness. For example, "I am upset that I did not get the promotion," rather than "You are a jackass."
8. Be open and flexible.
Listen and really hear the other person. Ask questions to gather information that will be clarifying. Consider other perspectives or solutions. Look for the compromise or "win-win."
9. Focus on what you can control and let go of the rest.
Author Wayne Dyer wisely said, "How people treat you is their karma; how you react is yours." You can control your own behaviors and responses but you cannot control others or the outcome. You can advocate for yourself in the context of a relationship and if resolution cannot be achieved, you can empower yourself to change the boundaries of that relationship or perhaps even end it altogether.
Nelson Mandela said, "Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies." Recognize that people come into our lives for a reason and even negative experiences are opportunities for growth. Be grateful for the learning experience, work towards acceptance, forgive and let go of the past. Consciously choose how you want to move forward.