Let's face it, relationships can be problematic at least some of the time. Sometimes other people's motivations and intentions are not clear and at other times, our own problems or motivations can cloud our abilities to come to the right conclusions. As I probably say in every other blog, it's useful to remember that it is impossible to expect that relationships be problem-free. In fact, problems and differences are healthy - less healthy is where these are ignored. That's when they grow extra heads, arms and legs! Here are my top 10 tips for reducing conflict, either at home or work.
A common path to conflict looks something like this (from low conflict to high conflict):
Discomfort - Incident - Misunderstandings - Tension - Crisis
Discomfort: This niggles more than shows up overtly. Things just don't feel right; it isn't necessarily that anything has been said, but there is a less safety or security felt on either or both sides. Think of a situation you have been in which escalated into a crisis or fall-out. It's likely that in hindsight you had picked up on this at a much earlier stage. Often people will say things like, "my instincts were telling me that this would happen"; "I've seen this coming for a while"; and so on.
Incident: An unsettling exchange occurs, without much real problem solving. This is sometimes just bickering but at times it suggests that bigger problems are being left unresolved. The incident can often be a sign that there is more to this than just this isolated incident. A throw away remark about one-half not doing the dishes with a return volley that this is just nagging is an example of my own that comes to mind! In the workplace it could be about just about anything, time-keeping, the way in which reports are written, how people interact in meetings, how emails are handled as a form of communication, and so on.
Misunderstandings: Motives and facts become confused or misinterpreted. Intentions are interpreted without checking that this is the case. There is little checking of what was heard versus what was intended. Take the bickering couple for example; rather than asking how the other feels (a stressful day contributing to dishes not being done? tiredness contributing to getting snappy at not having the dishes done?) each heads off to their separate corner to stew with the misinterpretation that clearly he/she doesn't respect me; listen to me; care about me - if they did, they would surely listen!
Tension: The relationship is becoming entangled with negative attitudes and more black:white opinions. Is the relationship becoming a regular source of worry or concern? Is the bickering increasing and even less problem-solving about what could be done about it?
Crisis: The relationship is buckling under the strain of misunderstandings and little to no cooperative problem solving. Are you dealing with a major event like a possible rupture in a relationship; leaving a job; violence or destructive acts?
So here are my top 10 tips for heading off crisis at the pass:
1. Address Conflict Early
The best time to fix problems is at the earliest stage. In times of crisis, positions have likely become very entrenched and people involved less disposed to feeling kindly to the other party. Becoming aware of conflict at the earlier stages of discomfort and minor incidents is a useful skill, and this involves recognising early how you are feeling. Feeling irritated at being told what to do but continuing to allow someone to talk to you in a way you dislike will not alleviate your irritation and likely polarise your positions even more.
2. Question Your Interpretations
If feelings of discomfort, irritation or upset are there, try to focus on them and figure out what intentions you are interpreting with the other person. Are these completely true and fact? Because you feel irritation is it true that this person is trying to annoy you? Would other people interpret them in the same way? What other factors personal to you are contributing to your interpretation? Separating another's behaviour from intention is a very important skill in managing conflict and reducing the likelihood of conflict. We can only read what we see, not necessarily what the other person(s) intend. Having empathy for another can be difficult when in a crisis but it is fundamentally important if the relationship is to be rescued.
3. Focus on Needs
Usually conflict arises where needs are not being met. These might be about money, or territory, or internal drives such as independence, autonomy, status, respect or self-esteem. Think about international conflicts such as Northern Ireland, Palestine or Iraq - they likely cover all of them. Aggression does nothing to address needs and usually just inflames them. Remember that offering solutions is not the same as uncovering needs and needs are usually not immediately apparent, otherwise the conflict or disagreement would not be happening. When asked what they need, some people reply with solutions that they think are needs, such as "I need him to ring me when he's going to be late”. The need is to know he is safe. There can be a variety of ways to meet that need. Phoning in when late is only one.
4. Keep it simple
If the need is quite complex, about "lifestyle" for example, then break it down in to smaller, more specific parts. This can be done by asking the person what this comprises; what are the most important parts that are not being addressed (prioritising); what it would mean to the person if they were met; how these parts can be met - what does that look like to the person?
5. Identify Common Ground
Disagreements and conflict can be overwhelming and suddenly it can appear as though nothing is working! Reminding each other of the things that are working well is crucial. In a crisis situation such as Palestine, some of you might be thinking "how on earth could that be possible?". Well, a creative Mediator would be equipped with some times where both sides have agreed to a cease-fire; where agreements have been made, even if adhered to only for a short-while; and importantly, where needs and concerns are common to both sides. These are the building blocks for conciliation and ultimately peace. If the examples really are too inadequate, then this can be part of the creative process - brainstorming around "what might common issues be?"; "how would you both like situation x to have been handled differently?"; "you both dislike the threat to your national security and trade"; etc. No matter how complex a crisis situation has become, there is always an opportunity for establishing some common ground.
6. Identify Consequences
If either or both parties are unwilling to find solutions once needs are on the table, painting the picture of what the future looks like will help focus each on finding new ways of thinking and behaving. Highlight the costs of not resolving this.
7. Wave a Magic Wand
If needs are still not clear, asking the question "if I could wave a magic wand, what would improve this for you" might do the trick in identifying more internal needs, such as respect or security.
8. New Perspectives, Assumptions and Insights
What hadn't been considered before? What now seems clearer? Rather than labelling the other as a bigheaded, MCP, might it be now something entirely different - a tired, confused and unintentionally annoying partner - a bit like you?! Accepting a broader perspective will diffuse tension and head off a crisis.
9. Dealing with Deeper Needs
Is there reluctance to express exactly what the less apparent needs are? In cases where someone has a hidden agenda, it might not always be possible to find a solution. If one party is not willing to share then a solution will not necessarily be found. Problems cannot always be solved in the first instance. Remember the other person might be getting more out of having the problem than in solving it e.g. having a high investment in being right; having the final say; taking the credit; financial gain in the form of performance bonuses; fearing making a commitment; etc. Consider ''stepping back'' emotionally, or even physically distancing yourself to more clearly see the part of the problem that belongs to the other person.Work towards your own resolution, knowing that you have done all that you can. This often involves some practical steps to be taken so consider what these are and how best you can prioritise them.
10. Respond not React
Remain centered and manage your emotions. Let some accusations, attacks, threats or ultimatums pass. Make it possible for the other party to back down without feeling small by reinforcing changed circumstances, making their change in position possible. This is particularly useful with teenagers where it is less likely that they have yet mastered this skill!
If you find that the crisis has gone too far, independent counselling and mediation provide a valuable, impartial resource. Find someone accredited as a mediator or counsellor and engage the other side in choosing this path. If there are already recurring incidences, do not wait.