Difficult conversations: Three steps to communicate through conflict

In a world of imperfect people, conflict is bound to emerge from time-to-time. Whether it be the team member who took credit for your work, the boyfriend you no longer want to see or the family member who doesn’t approve of your decisions, we all face those fight-or-flight moments in life.

While some may be quick to put up fists, others may simply shut down and let it fester. Perhaps worst of all—if not most common—are those among us who will say nothing to the offending party but everything about it to others.

The thing is, through communication, we often come to see there never was a conflict, except for the one we built up in our heads. More times than not, conflict only exists when both parties are so rigid in their stance, they can’t possibly take in the whole of a situation.

With that in mind, consider what might happen in a conflict if you first, listen to understand; second, manage your emotions; and finally, seek a resolution.

How to approach a difficult conversation

Step 1: Listen to understand.

Too often conflicts arise from assumptions, so it’s important to initiate the conversation with an open mind. Begin with a question that seeks to understand. Start with phrases like “Can you help me understand….”

When the other party responds, focus on their words and acknowledge their feelings. Paraphrase what you hear to ensure you accurately comprehend their point of view. Then imagine yourself in their shoes, trying to understand the other person’s viewpoint, motivation, reaction and intent.

While listening, don’t interrupt. When the other person finishes a thought, ask questions to learn more about why they feel or act the way they do. That will help you clearly define the problem or issue. Once you do, accept appropriate personal responsibility for any role you may have played in creating or perpetuating the conflict. It’s critical to remain authentic throughout.

Step 2: Manage emotions.

It’s easy to get defensive, but doing so will likely escalate and prolong the conflict. Remember, this is about understanding, not assigning blame. Separating the person from the problem will help.

If you feel personally attacked or your emotions bubble up, pause, take a deep breath, and remember your objective: peaceful, if not productive and enjoyable, coexistence.

Likewise, if the other party is angry, help them slowly release the frustrations that have been building. Active listening, where you acknowledge their concerns and show empathy, will likely help them vent their anger so you can move forward together.

Don’t hesitate to pause the conversation if needed and pick it up after emotions have calmed.

Step 3: Resolve the conflict.

The real goal of courageous conversations is to find a resolution, and two heads are usually better than one. Discuss options with the other party to engage them in thinking about possibilities for a solution.

During this time, view yourself as a mediator and problem-solver—the mechanism whereby the problem may be corrected, keeping in mind that coming to a solution doesn’t necessarily mean getting your way.

Conflicts are not resolved until both parties say they are, so once you’ve reached a resolution, paraphrase the solution you’ve identified together to be sure you both understand and agree to it.

Even after a conflict is resolved, it’s important to follow up with the other person to gauge how well the solution is working. Could you improve things even further? Do you need to tweak something? Either way, maintaining the conciliatory connection will help you avoid further conflicts in the future.

You can only control you.

You may find times when the other person isn’t as interested as you are in resolving the conflict. In those cases, be patient (we all have baggage) and keep the door open to continued communication. As in all situations where someone doesn’t behave the way you wish, don’t take it personally. Remember: others’ actions say more about them than it does about you.

Character Lives