Written by G. Eric Allenbaugh, Ph.D.
Think of a time when you experienced significant conflict with another person – at work or at home. Considering how the situation evolved, to what extent do you and the other party feel satisfied with the result? Following the conflict, did the relationship stay the same, improve, or deteriorate? When you think of that past conflict, do you notice any gain or loss of body energy? What unfinished business, if any, do you have with that person as a result of how that conflict experience was handled?
Conflict comes with the territory of life, and how you handle conflict often determines the quality of your relationships, whether personal or professional. Developing skill in handling difficult or sensitive conflict situations, therefore, is an essential life skill that has far reaching implications.
Virtually every conflict situation has two key elements requiring careful attention: 1) the issue, and 2) the relationship. For example, assume that your next-door-neighbor rescues a dog from the pound. You enjoy a friendly relationship with the neighbor, but are suddenly confronted with their new dog barking all day and night. If you elect
This article explores The 12 Win-Win Conflict Management Strategies that will assist in working through interpersonal conflict issues while preserving or perhaps even enhancing the relation- ship. Applying these pragmatic tools at work and at home will likely make a positive and significant difference in how you travel through life.
Seek first to understand, then to be understand
Eight centuries ago, St. Francis of Assisi encouraged people to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This wise counsel is just as relevant today as it was then.
When in a conflict situation, each party typically wants to be understood – first. As a result, neither actively listens to the other and the conflict tends to intensify.“Seeking first to understand,” on the other hand, positions one to listen to both the content and the feelings of the other person. In my consulting practice, I often facilitate conflict between individuals. Before engaging both parties in the content of the disagreement, however, I seek advance agreement from each on the process of how we are going to handle the issues. The 5 Active Listening Steps described below provide an effective process for safe and open communication– at work and at home:
Step 1: Pause. (Not just a time pause, the intent of pausing is to initiate an internal resourcing process of linking both the “head and heart.” By being fully present and open, active listening is facilitated.)
Step 2: Say: “Help me to understand.” (At this point, you are encouraging the other person to voice her interests, positions, and concerns You are not debating or offering another point of view – you are genuinely seeking to understand her perspective.)
Step 3: Listen with every bone in your body. (Rather than listening, we are often waiting to talk or preparing our rebuttal. Neither of these, of course, demonstrates listening. Listening with every bone in your body is one of the highest forms of respecting another human being. When people do not feel heard, however, the conflict tends to intensify.)
Step 4: Seek to understand their facts, feelings, and perceptions. (If others perceive things to be a certain way, to them it is that way. Additionally, their “facts” may differ from yours, and their feelings may trigger a highly significant emotional response. By seeking to understand their facts, feelings, and perceptions, you have a greater chance of “hearing” and understanding what is really important to them. In this step, you are seeking understanding, not necessarily agreement. Once the other person feels understood, they are more likely to now listen to your facts, feelings, and perceptions.)
Step 5: Reward the feedback. (Even if you do not like the feedback, it is important that you genuinely thank others for having the courage to share their feelings, facts, and perceptions directly with you. By acknowledging the feedback, you both make it safe and encourage others to talk directly with you about sensitive situations. If we do not make it safe, then others are more likely to talk about you within their sphere of influence rather than to talk with you. As hard as it may be at times, you want important people within your personal and career circles to be open with you about important and even sensitive issues.
You can “teach” others to talk directly with you by practicing these five steps in your interpersonal relationships. By seeking first to understand, you create a more favorable climate for active listening – both ways. Having actively listened, you are now in a position to say: “May I share another perspective?” Because you have role modeled active listening to their facts, feelings, and perceptions, they are more likely to now reciprocate by actively listening to you.)
Be tough on the issues and tender on the people
Conflict often promotes less than effective behaviors – ranging from passive to aggressive. Those who passively avoid have a propensity to be tender on both the issue and the person. As a result of this “tender & tender” approach, the issue typically continues and may even worsen due to lack of attention.
Aggressive behaviors, on the other hand, often generate relationship tension as a result of being tough on both the issue and the person. I have heard individuals pompously declare: “I just call it the way I see it. If they can’t handle it, that’s their problem.” Interestingly enough, those practicing this “tough & tough” approach assume that they clearly communicated their position to others, but the message typically falls on deaf ears. The recipient, instead of hearing the message, focuses on the messenger’s apparent insensitivity and lack of respect – and misses the intended message.
Assertive behaviors balance being both tough on the issues and tender on the people. This “tough & tender” approach clearly addresses the issue while demonstrating deference for the individual. This does not mean that you necessarily agree with or even like the individual. You can, however, foster a respectful climate and facilitate open communication by being tender on the person and simultaneously tough on the issue.
In applying the “tough & tender” principle, let’s return to the example of the teenage daughter who showed up late from the last three dates.
Using a “tough & tough” approach, you would likely hear: “You are so irresponsible. You haven’t kept your agreements, and you are now grounded.” A “tough & tender” approach, by contrast sounds more like: “I noticed that you have come home late from the last three dates. That is not consistent with our agreement, and we need to talk about that.” The latter approach facilitates focusing on the issue and providing greater clarity of expectations. While you may still ground the daughter, she will more likely focus on her accountability issues without damaging your relationship.
Be Clear and Specific
Have you ever had the experience of giving what you thought was crystal clear feedback to someone only to later discover they didn’t have a clue what you meant? Perhaps you have had this happen both at work and at home. I certainly have. Most conflicts result from unfilled expectations, and those generally result from lack of clear communication. For example, a man and his fiancé discussed what values they wanted to bring into their marriage. Both agreed that “mutual respect” was one of the more important values for sustaining a positive and fulfilling relationship. With that agreement, they tied the knot and started their journey together.
Five years later, they found themselves on the brink of divorce. Why? Neither one of them felt respected by the other. How could that be? Prior to their wedding, they carefully explored what values would sustain their relationship and jointly agreed that respect was fundamental to a long term marriage. So what went wrong?
While they agreed in principle to “respect,” they did not discuss how to behaviorally implement
the concept of respect. In his family, the way you demonstrated respect was to “shovel while the piles are small,” to be passionate when communicating in by raising your voice and waving your arms, and to never leave the room until resolving the issue. Her family also deeply believed in the principle and practice of respect, yet did it differently. She was taught that the best way to demonstrate respect was to let a lot of little things go (don’t sweat the small stuff), to never raise your voice, and if someone raised their voice with you, out of self respect – to leave the room. Get the scenario? On the first week of marriage, she did something that bothered him a bit. Consistent with his commitment to do respect, he called it to her attention, raised his voice a bit, and waived his arms. What did she do? She, of course, left the room – feeling disrespected. As his new bride walked out of the room, how did he feel? Disrespected.
“There are two causes for all misunderstandings:
- not saying what you mean, and
- not doing what you say.”
Fortunately, they paused rather than proceeding with the divorce and applied many of the 12 Win- Win Conflict Management Strategies discussed in this article. Through that process, they invented their own behavioral expectations of how to do respect – and managed to save their marriage. It is not enough to speak in generalities about your expectations of others. For you to express to another that you want to be treated more respectfully, or for them to have a better attitude, or to be more of a team player, or support you more, or (fill in the blank), is not sufficient.
These general concepts are subject to wide interpretations based on differing life experiences. Instead, it is helpful to convert these intangible concepts into behaviorally specific language that emphasize three tangible elements:
- Visual: What does it look like?
- Auditory: What does it sound like?
- Kinesthetic: What does it feel like?
For example, let’s go back to the concept of respect and apply the Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic (V-A-K) descriptors. How do I know that I am respected? I see (Visual) people coming to me for counsel. I hear (Auditory) them asking for my advice and opinions. I feel (Kinesthetic) safe and honored. On the other hand, when in a conflict situation I know that I am respected when I see (Visual) the involved person coming tome rather than talking about me in the parking lot, I hear (Auditory) them being tough on the issue, and I feel (Kinesthetic) them being tender with me as a person.
I have found that direct V-A-K feedback, 1) given in the spirit of being in service and 2) being authentic, facilitates a meaningful dialogue in even the most sensitive of situations. Under these circumstances, people tend to stay with you, understand the message, and are more likely to join you in co-creating a behavioral action plan for improving the situation. Clarifying behavioral expectations in terms of what you would like to see, hear, and feel facilitates understanding and positions you and the other person to act with greater certainty. Through awareness, more effective choices can be made to enhance results.
Feedback is subject to a wide range of interpretations. You have the responsibility to both understand and be understood. This can partly be achieved by being clear about the significance of an issue. A simple tool to facilitate this process is to use the “Scale of Zero to Ten” technique. “On a scale of 0 to 10, the significance of this issue is a .” (Fill in the blank with the appropriate number.) By identifying the significance of the issue with a number, the relative importance is more likely to be understood by the receiver.
For example, rather than “beating up” the person to make your point, you can say: “On a scale of 0 to 10, this issue is a 9 in terms of importance to me.” The receiver now has a clear understanding of the significance and importance that you are assigning to the issue. Clarifying the relative importance with a number enables you to be tough on the issue while tender on the person. The receiver is now more likely to hear the message and focus on the issue rather than shoot the messenger.
Look for the 3 Truths
In difficult or sensitive interpersonal situations, I typically find that three truths emerge: 1)my truth 2) their truth, and 3) The Truth. The problem is that I frequently think that “my truth” is “The Truth.” The other person, coincidently, also feels that “their truth” is “The Truth.” Consequently, the battle lines are drawn as each argues for their respective “truth.”
By seeking first to understand the other person, as described in Strategy 5 above, we are more likely to jointly discover “The Truth.” Amazing things happen when people are on “listening terms” with one another – and when they actively seek to understand one another.
Several years later, President Reagan took the bold action of flying to Moscow to personally meet with the then Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbechev. During those meetings, Reagan and Gorbechev became friends – good friends. That action warmed relations and improved trust levels between the two Super Powers.
In 1990, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to participate in the Goodwill Games in Seattle, Washington. Athletes from the Soviet Union boarded planes to fly to the United States for this world class sporting event. Due to a communication glitch, the Soviet planes crossed the International Date Line precisely twenty- four hours early and entered US airspace. US Air Force fighter jets scrambled to intercept the oncoming planes. Because of elevated trust levels with the Soviet Union, our Air Force assumed a positive intent and did not blast them out of the sky. Instead, the armada of Soviet and US planes landed at an Air Force base in Alaska where the Americans and Soviets partied while waiting for official clearance for the Russian planes to continue their journey to Seattle.
Assuming and acting on a positive intent provides opportunities for conflicting parties to achieve results otherwise unattainable. When in a conflict situation, pause to consider that the other party may well have a positive intent – and be prepared to act on that.
To be continued….