For most of us, there’s no such thing as a conflict-free day. Even if you’re holed up at home or at your desk with headphones on, there’s likely to be something with which you disagree, from the mundane to the major life decision.
While absolute conflict avoidance isn’t possible, conflict management is. In fact, conflict can be a great jumping-off point for conversation, discussion and growth, say the experts.
Follow this expert advice for wending your way through heated disagreements to cool, calm collaboration.
Listen first. It can be tough to keep your mouth shut when you’re angry or think you are being misunderstood. However, blurting things out, talking while someone else is speaking, yelling or leaving the room are not great strategies for making other people feel important or heard.
Helping your spouse, child or co-worker feel as if you’re listening, even if smoke is coming out of your ears, is an essential first step in conflict resolution. You may notice that you’re having some success when the person across the table starts speaking more slowly. You may also notice that the other person begins to think more analytically and less emotionally.
But it isn’t just the person speaking who will benefit from your (momentary) silent treatment. While you’re listening, you’ll be forced to stay calm and put aside your emotions. By the time the other person is finished talking, you may even have heard something that you hadn’t considered before. If you don’t interrupt, you’re less likely to be interrupted when you’re the one doing the talking.
Ask questions. After your partner has finished speaking, make sure you understand the other side of story, what he or she is saying and why. Don’t assume you know where someone else is coming from. And at this point, don’t jump in with answers or solutions or ideas (that comes later). Just ask questions that will lead to a better understanding of the opposite point of view.
Focus on the present. With adult siblings or a spouse or other folks whom you’ve known for years, it can be hard not to have a previous argument crop up in the middle of the current one. Although it may seem as if certain issues are interconnected and hot-button issues are related, the more you can stay focused on the specific current disagreement, the more hope there is for progress.
Don’t make it personal. When it’s your turn to state your point of view, choose your words carefully. Don’t blame the messenger. Unhappy with a project at work? That’s likely legitimate. But focus on the problem at hand, not the fact that your cubicle-mate chews with his mouth open.
Mind your look. It’s not just what you say (or don’t say) in the heat of an argument that can determine how a conflict is (or is not) resolved. Your non-verbal cues, such as eye contact, facial expressions, posture and arm and hand gestures, have a lot to do with how you and your reactions are perceived. Try to be open and neutral while you’re actively listening. It should go without saying, but no eye-rolling or heavy sighing, please.
Pick your battles. Yes, winning an argument is nice. But winning for the sake of winning takes a long-term toll on your co-workers, friends and family. Think about the issues that are most important to you and choose carefully. On which issues are you willing to compromise? On which issues are you not willing to compromise—and why? Prioritize what’s most important to you and then let the rest go. Not only will you feel better, but others will likely give your arguments more weight because they will be fewer and farther between.
Take a break. If you’re having difficulty seeing eye to eye, it’s OK to cool off and come back. Don’t just storm off, of course. But if you think jogging a lap around the block, petting the dog or shifting your thoughts for a few minutes will help you focus and calm down, suggest a brief timeout before things get too heated.
Look forward. It’s helpful to know what went wrong so you can avoid making the same mistake, but moving forward is the only way to really resolve a conflict. You can—and should—acknowledge what didn’t work for you in the past. But don’t dwell and don’t blame. Instead, start brainstorming about where you can compromise. All the steps you took to get here, such as active listening and articulating your own points, will help you drill down to common ground.