Over the years I’ve been asked on numerous occasions to do a program on conflict resolution. I refuse. It’s too late, conflict already exists. Instead, I offer a program on conflict prevention. In other words, I prefer getting ahead of the curve. Why wait for a problem to surface to fix it when you can avoid the problem?
Before we embark upon a discussion of how to prevent conflict, let’s be realistic: nothing works 100% of the time. There has to be a party on the other side of the potential conflict who also desires to avoid conflict. If someone is spoiling for a fight, there’s little that can be done to avoid conflict other than walking away.
Now that we’ve dealt with that potentiality, let’s discuss ways to avoid conflict.
The first step is to learn how to disagree with someone without creating resistance that could escalate to conflict. Our natural tendency, when we disagree with someone, is to use facts and logic to show them the error of their thinking. None of us likes admitting we’re wrong because we fear losing the trust and confidence others have in us, so we resist.
The more we resist, the more adamant the other party becomes in proving us wrong…until the whole exchange devolves into conflict.
You can avoid this potential for conflict by asking questions like:
- How does that work when…?
- What would happen if…?
- How would that work in this [situation]?
- Is it true that…?
- Could we…?
By adding these simple phrases to the beginning of whatever you were going to say, you avoid disagreeing with what the person said. Instead, you ask an exploratory question. The result is that the person reexamines their thinking and, if you’re correct in your thinking, reach the same conclusion you have with the added advantage that they validate their new conclusion with their own experiences.
Not only is conflict avoided with this approach, the other person is more likely to embrace your idea and act on it quickly because they’ve validated it with their experiences.
There is one other element that is essential to the success of this approach. You have to be willing to consider that you’re wrong in your assessment of the situation. When the response to your question indicates that you have overlooked a key element to the solution, you have to be willing to acknowledge that and embrace the other person’s position.
Acknowledging your contribution
As you find your interaction with others devolving to conflict, pause. Ask yourself: How have I contributed to this escalation? Then openly admit your contribution to the problem. The vast majority of the time you’ll find that the walls of defense crumble and the other party will say “I could have handled that better myself.”
The result is an avoidance of conflict with the added bonuses of a mutually-agreeable solution and a retained, if not strengthened, relationship with the other party.
Many conflicts arise because we judge what someone has done as either good or bad, right or wrong. We may even have extended that judgment to the person.
These judgements are emotional reactions that cannot be prevented; they occur automatically in response to what we’re experiencing. When you feel yourself judging others or what they’ve done, pause. Allow the emotion to subside. This will enable you to suspend judgment so that you can deal with the person in a manner that is respectful, yet enables you to set boundaries on what behaviors are acceptable and which are not.
As I’ve often said: In every human interaction one person is the trainer and the other is the trainee. Which do you prefer to be? Realize that being the trainer requires you to be candid, respectful, compassionate and willing to acknowledge your contribution to the problem.
Training yourself to suspend judgment not only helps you avoid conflict, it creates an attitude of mutual respect and consideration for all parties involved.
Early in this blog, I mentioned situations in which one party is spoiling for a fight. I suggested that you may have to walk away to avoid conflict.
Before you walkaway, realize that the vast majority of people who are wanting to fight, or inflict emotional pain upon you, are in pain themselves. They are deflecting their own pain in hopes of mitigating it.
If you sense that’s the case say: “It seems like you’re hurting. What can I do to help you?” Often that’s what they really desire, someone who is compassionate and wants to help them through whatever pain they’re experiencing.
You not only avoid the conflict that would have occurred if you’d have retaliated, you very likely will have found a new friend who will always be grateful that you were there for them in their time of need.
When you find that your interaction with others is escalating toward conflict, pause. Ask yourself:
- Am I using facts and logic when I should be asking a question?
- What’s my contribution to this problem?
- Am I operating on judgments I made emotionally? If so, how can I approach this situation in a way that is both compassionate and respectful?
- Is this person in pain? If so, how can I help them relieve their pain?
Your mind is capable of moving through these questions with lightning speed. Once you’ve identified which of these will help you avoid conflict, employ it. You’ll be thrilled with the result.
For our kids
When your kids are moving toward conflict, ask them the questions listed above. As they think through their responses, their emotions wane, they begin to see how they can avoid future conflict using these simple questions. If we want a better life for our kids, teaching them how to avoid conflict will certainly help them do so.
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Dale, Always insightful topics! Based on my experience, there is very little black and white. Mostly gray. Since most of what we think about and discuss with others is a matter of opinion (proving who is right and who is wrong is an exercise in futility). A discussion using the strategy that you describe, will lead to furitful results that everyone can live with.
Bill, interestingly, learning that the world is mostly gray was one of the lessons that it took me a long time to learn. I was definitely a black and white guy for quite some time. The fact that it took me so long to learn the lesson is, in part, why I think what I learned and shared in this blog post has stuck with me so long and so vividly. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us…always appreciated.