De-escalating conflict

Part 2 in a series on conflict resolution

I’m trying to demystify a subject that most people avoid talking about. We live with conflict every day but few of us know how to handle it well, and we pay the price with our mental and physical health. On that basis, it’s worth learning how to talk about conflicts without getting embroiled in them.

I’m a certified family mediator and third-party civil mediator. I’m drawing on what I’ve learned over the years.

In Part 1 of the series on conflict, I brought up the link between feelings and needs. Many of us get into patterns of behaviour without realizing why we do what we do. It’s a gut response.

There’s a person at my workplace who rarely cracks a smile. They are terse and bossy with lower-ranking employees and cheerful with those their level or higher. I’ve seen these people in other places, and my sense is that one of their parents was a bully, and because of this I feel a quick rush of empathy. It must be difficult to go through life scowling at those you see as inferiors (mimicking the bullying parent’s behaviour), yet crave love and acceptance from superiors.

Those who feel threatened in life have an underlying need for security. Those who feel they’ve been dismissed have an underlying need for appreciation. Those who feel let down have an underlying need for reliability.

The cycle of conflict makes it difficult to find solutions. We tend to get caught up in repetitive cycles which resolve nothing. One way to address this is to slow things down. Discuss how your conflict has carried on and how difficult it’s been to resolve. Explore if you both actually want to find a way past the impasse.

Hopefully, the answer is yes.

Remember all that talk about feelings and needs? That’s what we’re focused on uncovering. Your goal is a mutual desire to resolve the situation. There! You’ve agreed on something. Don’t discount that achievement.

The road to a resolution is discovering each other’s feelings and needs. They may be mutual, evoking a “Hey, me too!” response from one side or the other. Often both parties agree they’ve been they’ve been treat unfairly. Or there may be a complementary aspect to needs, such a one person feeling lonely and the other feeling ignored. One needs connection while the other seeks to be heard.

Assumptions are the enemy of conflict resolution. You don’t know what the other person thinks or feels until you ask them. Even if you think you know, circumstances may have changed recently. Listen with an openness to changing your mind on what you think you know. Open up your heart.

Open questions are free of assumptions. They go something like this:

“What do you mean when you say I’m not supportive?”

“Tell me more about ….”

“What about that bothers you?”

“What happened to you that made you feel this way?”

Avoid leading questions, which include an implication of what you think is the right answer. If you blurt out a statement and end it with “right?”, that’s an assumption.

Don’t feel a need to fill up a spell of silence. People need space to think and feel before they respond. Just hang in there with the quietness. Stay interested. See what happens next.

If a resolution is still a ways off, commit to return to further discussions. If someone is angry or upset, it’s time to postpone the conversation — without judgment — to another time when emotions calm down. Hopefully both sides are committed to finding a way forward.

I’m trying to share an aspect of conflict resolution that’s pretty cool. I repeat what I said off the top, that it’s entirely possible to talk about conflict without getting sucked into it.

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