When it comes to figuring out how best to deal with conflict, a good place to start is understanding the underlying issues and events that drive it. In fact, doing so may help us prevent problem situations from arising in the first place, rendering contentious conversations unnecessary.
This book would not be necessary if people regularly addressed emotionally charged conversations in a straightforward manner. So why are most of us so resistant to doing so?
I Think I’ll Pass
When it comes to dealing with conflict, most of us would rather take a pass. We choose to avoid conflict whenever possible because it introduces risk and potential vulnerability. When it comes to our fight-or-flight instinct, flight often seems like the better choice—especially when “losing” is the likely outcome and has severe consequences, ergo getting fired. Thus, we often choose to keep our thoughts and concerns to ourselves—and we all probably remember times when we wish we had!
Take note of your go-to excuses and consider the impact of not having such conversations.
- Having the Conversation Won’t Make a Difference
- Having the Conversation Might Make Things Worse
- Having the Conversation Might Put Me in Jeopardy
- Time Will Make Things Better
- Now Is Not a Good Time
- The Situation Isn’t at a Point Where It Really Needs to Be Addressed
- This Discussion Will Bring Up Other Issues That I Really Don’t Want to Address
- I Might End Up Looking Like the Bad Guy
- I Don’t Want to Get My Friend in Trouble
- We Have a Good Working Relationship, and I Don’t Want to Risk Messing It Up
- I Don’t Want to Hurt the Other Person’s Feelings
- I’m Waiting for the Other Person to Bring It Up
- I Don’t Know What to Say or How to Say It
We allow ourselves to entertain so many reasons to avoid addressing conflict, some of which can be quite legitimate. However, regardless of how justified our reasoning, the result is the same: we choose not to address the problem and become resentful as a result, which leads to a further deterioration in the relationship.
You can use your body language to facilitate healthy conversations. Here are some tips for creating a sense of safety and openness.
- Keep your hands to yourself; do not touch the other person.
- Keep your hands by your side.
- Keep your arms and legs uncrossed.
- Avoid pointing your finger.
- Keep your palms open rather than fisted.
- Relax your shoulders.
- Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and pointed directly in front of you rather than spread wide and outward.
- Avoid quick, sudden movements.
- Avoid fidgeting and other expressions of energy, such as bouncing your knee or tapping your finger.
- Avoid leaning overly forward and crowding the other person’s physical space.
Another type of body language is mirroring, which refers to imitating the nonverbal behavior of others; it is parroting without words. Most of the time this is done unconsciously. However, it is an excellent technique to make people feel comfortable with you and leads to a feeling of connectedness. It creates a sense of familiarity and can help defuse a particularly difficult conversation.
So, if you are having a conversation with someone who crosses her arms or legs, you may want to do so as well. When talking with someone who speaks quickly, you may want to increase your cadence. You may also mirror a person’s words, which is one reason that paraphrasing is so important in making people feel understood.
Obviously, there are also expressions that help to de-escalate situations, restore civil dialogue, and increase collaboration. In general, any phrase that communicates empathy, a genuine and sincere apology, or a sense of ownership for causing or contributing to the conflict helps calm emotional waters. Useful phrases include:
- I am sorry for having jumped to conclusions before hearing your side of the story and getting all the facts.
- I am sorry that I let my emotions get the best of me.
- I apologize.
- I can see that I had a clear role to play in all this.
- I never thought about it from your perspective.
- I promise to be more thoughtful in the future.
- I should have given you the benefit of the doubt.
- I should have taken more time to ask you questions instead of making assumptions.
- I was mistaken.
- In retrospect, it was wrong of me to blame you. I should have taken more responsibility for what happened.
- What I said (or did) was inconsiderate, and I apologize.
- What I said was inappropriate.
- You’re right.
When you consider both verbal and nonverbal communication combined, it gives you an appreciation for how complex our interactions are with others—and how much can go wrong! Effective communicators are very intentional in what they say and how they say it, particularly when it comes to difficult conversations. Always do your best to keep your composure, regardless of what another person says to you.
When someone pushes your buttons, how do you usually react? Do you tend to get defensive, passive-aggressive, or even aggressive? Do you raise your voice, embarrass the person on an email chain, “forget” to include her on a meeting invite, gossip, withhold information, or, worse, provide misleading information? Do you take the time to fully consider the impact of your reactions, including how others might view you in light of them? Your automatic response can reflect poorly on you, especially when your reaction is overt and public, such as speaking negatively about the person with colleagues.
Words only hurt if you let them. As the famous saying goes, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Whether you experience another’s words or actions as hurtful is entirely up to you. This is extremely important to understand and fully accept. No one can make you feel any way.
This means that when someone says, “Do you even know what you’re talking about?” or denigrates you behind your back, or constantly cuts you off in meetings, or any number of other comments or actions that normally have you seeing red, that you breathe deeply and respond professionally. It does not mean that you allow others to continue their bad behavior without addressing it. It means that you will handle the situation in a manner that honors your commitment and promotes a healthy relationship, not continued conflict.
Take a moment and think about some of the things people say or do that cause you to see red. Write down examples of your own push buttons and the feelings associated with them.
Communication Skills and Strategies
- Stick with the Facts
- Stay Present and Take Note of the Impact on Others
- Be Willing to Compromise
- Stay on Point
- Be Concise
- Be Fiercely Clear
- Focus on Areas of Agreement
- Consistently Self-Monitor
- Say What You Have to Say, and Do Not Say What You Do Not Need to Say
- Be Candid
- Float Your Ideas. You might say, for example, “I’d like to run something by you,” or “I’ve been thinking about something and would really like to get your input.” Such statements invite conversation and decrease the likelihood of a defensive or contentious response.
- Ask Questions
- Paraphrase, Paraphrase, Paraphrase. It shows respect and increases the likelihood that the other will actively listen to you.
- Let Yourself Be Vulnerable
- Do Not Be Afraid to Say, “I Don’t Know”
- Let Them Vent
- Validate Feelings
“I Am Confused and Concerned”
Assuming that you want to be a supportive manager and help your people succeed, use the framework of “I am confused and concerned.” For example, “I am confused because I thought I was clear when I asked you to get the presentation done by today, and I am concerned because that doesn’t seem to be what happened. Am I missing something? Can you help me understand where you are with this?” If it turns out that the employee was not clear regarding the task, did not have the resources or information available to complete it, or was confronted with an emergency, then you should take these facts into consideration and reset expectations. Obviously, the employee should have kept you informed of such issues and her inability to meet the deadline. As discussed, make sure the employee knows the reason behind the request and, if applicable, why you are asking it to be completed in a particular manner. If her performance does not improve after the “confused and concerned” conversation, then another one laying out the appropriate consequences should follow.
Put your learnings into action, and make a difference for yourself and those around you. Lean into the skills and strategies in these pages, and shed any lingering apprehension. Choose to deal directly and confidently with conflict rather than avoid it.
And, the next time you find yourself in a situation that needs to be addressed, simply say, “Let’s talk about it.”