Building the Skills That Can Turn Conflicts into Opportunities
Conflict is a normal part of any healthy relationship. After all, two people can’t be expected to agree on everything, all the time. Learning how to deal with conflict—rather than avoiding it—is crucial. When conflict is mismanaged, it can cause significant harm to a relationship, but when handled in a respectful, positive way, conflict provides an opportunity to strengthen the bond between two people. By learning these skills for conflict resolution, you can keep your personal and professional relationships strong.
Understanding conflict in relationships
Conflict arises from differences, both large and small. It occurs whenever people disagree over their values, motivations, perceptions, ideas, or desires. Sometimes these differences appear trivial, but when a conflict triggers strong feelings, a deep personal need is often at the core of the problem. These needs can be a need to feel safe and secure, a need to feel respected and valued, or a need for greater closeness and intimacy.
Conflicts arise from differing needs
Everyone needs to feel understood, nurtured, and supported, but the ways in which these needs are met vary widely. Differing needs for feeling comfortable and safe create some of the most severe challenges in our personal and professional relationships.
Think about the conflicting need for safety and continuity versus the need to explore and take risks. You frequently see this conflict between toddlers and their parents. The child’s need is to explore, so the street or the cliff meets a need. But the parents’ need is to protect the child’s safety, so limiting exploration becomes a bone of contention between them.
The needs of both parties play important roles in the long-term success of most relationships, and each deserves respect and consideration. In personal relationships, a lack of understanding about differing needs can result in distance, arguments, and break-ups. In workplace conflicts, differing needs are often at the heart of bitter disputes, sometimes resulting in broken deals, fewer profits and lost jobs. When you can recognise the legitimacy of conflicting needs and become willing to examine them in an environment of compassionate understanding, it opens pathways to creative problem solving, team building, and improved relationships.
- A conflict is more than just a disagreement. It is a situation in which one or both parties perceive a threat (whether or not the threat is real).
- Conflicts continue to fester when ignored. Because conflicts involve perceived threats to our well-being and survival, they stay with us until we face and resolve them.
- We respond to conflicts based on our perceptions of the situation, not necessarily to an objective review of the facts. Our perceptions are influenced by our life experiences, culture, values, and beliefs.
- Conflicts trigger strong emotions. If you aren’t comfortable with your feelings or able to manage them in times of stress, you won’t be able to resolve conflict successfully.
- Conflicts are an opportunity for growth. When you’re able to resolve conflict in a relationship, it builds trust. You can feel secure knowing your relationship can survive challenges and disagreements.
Conflict resolution, stress, and emotions
Conflict triggers strong emotions and can lead to hurt feelings, disappointment, and discomfort. When handled in an unhealthy manner, it can cause irreparable rifts, resentments, and break-ups. But when conflict is resolved in a healthy way, it increases our understanding of one another, builds trust, and strengthens our relationship bonds.
If you are out of touch with your feelings or so stressed that you can only pay attention to a limited number of emotions, you won’t be able to understand your needs. And, if you don’t understand your needs, you will have a hard time communicating with others and staying in touch with what's troubling you. For example, couples often argue about petty differences—the way she hangs the towels, the way he slurps his soup—rather than what is bothering them.
The ability to successfully resolve conflict depends on your ability to:
- Manage stress quickly while remaining alert and calm. By staying calm, you can accurately read and interpret verbal and nonverbal communication.
- Control your emotions and behaviour. When you’re in control of your emotions, you can communicate your needs without threatening, frightening, or punishing others.
- Pay attention to the feelings being expressed as well as the spoken words of others.
- Be aware of and respectful of differences. By avoiding rude words and actions, you can almost always resolve a problem faster.
To successfully resolve a conflict, you will need to learn and practice two core skills: the ability to quickly reduce stress at the moment and capacity to remain comfortable enough with your emotions to react in constructive ways even in the midst of an argument or a perceived attack.
Quick stress relief: The first core conflict resolution skill
Being able to manage and relieve stress at the moment is the key to staying balanced, focused, and in control, no matter what challenges you face. If you don’t know how to stay centred and in control of yourself, you will become overwhelmed in conflict situations and unable to respond in healthy ways.
Psychologist, Connie Lillas uses a driving analogy to describe the three most common ways people respond when they’re overwhelmed by stress:
- Foot on the gas. An angry or agitated stress response. You’re heated, keyed up, overly emotional, and unable to sit still.
- Foot on the brake. A withdrawn or depressed stress response. You shut down, space out, and show very little energy or emotion.
- Foot on both gas and brake. A tense and frozen stress response. You “freeze” under pressure and can’t do anything. You look paralysed, but under the surface, you’re extremely agitated.
Stress interferes with the ability to resolve conflict by limiting your ability to:
- Accurately read another person's nonverbal communication
- Hear what someone is saying
- Be aware of your feelings
- Be in touch with your deep-rooted needs
- Communicate your needs clearly
Is stress a problem for you?
You may be so used to being stressed that you're not even aware you are stressed. Stress may be an issue in your life if you identify with the following:
- You often feel tense or tight somewhere in your body
- You're not aware of movement in your chest or stomach when you breathe
- Conflict absorbs your time and attention
Learn how to beat stress at the moment
The best way to rapidly and reliably relieve stress (if you don't have someone close at hand to talk to) is through the senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. But each person responds differently to sensory input, so you need to find things that are soothing to you.
Emotional awareness: The second core conflict resolution skill
Emotional awareness is the key to understanding yourself and others. If you don’t know how you feel or why you feel that way, you won’t be able to communicate effectively or resolve disagreements.
Although knowing your feelings may sound simple, many people ignore or try to sedate strong emotions like anger, sadness, and fear. Your ability to handle conflict, however, depends on being connected to these feelings. If you’re afraid of strong emotions or if you insist on finding solutions that are strictly rational, your ability to face and resolve differences will be impaired.
Why emotional awareness is a key factor in resolving conflict
Emotional awareness—the consciousness of your moment-to-moment emotional experience—and the ability to manage all of your feelings appropriately is the basis of a communication process that can resolve a conflict.
Emotional awareness helps you:
- Understand what are troubling other people
- Understand yourself, including what is troubling you
- Stay motivated until the conflict is resolved
- Communicate clearly and effectively
- Attract and influence others
Assessing your ability to recognise and manage emotions
The following quiz helps you determine your level of emotional awareness. Answer the following questions with almost never, occasionally, often, very frequently, or almost always. There are no right or wrong responses, only the opportunity to become better acquainted with your emotional responses.
What kind of relationship do I have with my emotions?
- Do you experience feelings that flow, encountering one emotion after another as your experiences change from moment to moment?
- Are your feelings accompanied by physical sensations that you experience in places like your stomach or chest?
- Do you experience discrete feelings and emotions, such as anger, sadness, fear, joy, each of which is evident in subtle facial expressions?
- Can you experience intense feelings that are strong enough to capture both your attention and that of others?
- Do you pay attention to your emotions? Do they factor into your decision-making?
If any of these experiences are unfamiliar, your emotions may be turned down or even turned off. In either case, you may need help to develop your emotional awareness.
Nonverbal communication and conflict resolution
The most valuable information exchanged during conflicts and arguments is often communicated nonverbally. Nonverbal communication is conveyed by emotionally driven facial expressions, posture, gesture, pace, tone and intensity of voice.
The most important communication is wordless
When people are upset, the words they use rarely convey the issues and needs at the heart of the problem. When we listen for what is felt—as well as what is said—we connect more deeply to our needs and emotions, and to those of other people. Listening in this way also strengthens us, informs us, and makes it easier for others to hear us.
When you’re in the middle of a conflict, paying close attention to the other person’s nonverbal signals may help you figure out what the other person is saying. This will allow you to respond in a way that builds trust, and gets to the root of the problem. A calm tone of voice, a reassuring touch, or an interested or concerned facial expression can go a long way toward relaxing a tense exchange.
Your ability to accurately read another person depends on your emotional awareness. The more aware you are of your emotions, the easier it will be for you to pick up on the wordless clues that reveal what others are feeling.
Using humour in conflict resolution
Once stress and emotion are brought into balance your capacity for joy, pleasure and playfulness are unleashed. Joy is a deceptively powerful resource. Studies show that you can surmount adversity, as long as you continue to have moments of joy. Humour plays a similar role when facing conflict.
You can avoid many confrontations and resolve arguments and disagreements by communicating in a humorous way. Humour can help you say things that might otherwise be difficult to express without offending someone. However, it’s important that you laugh with the other person, not at them. When humour and play are used to reduce tension and anger, reframe problems, and put the situation into perspective; the conflict can become an opportunity for greater connection and intimacy.
Tips for managing and resolving conflict
Managing and resolving conflict requires the ability to reduce stress quickly and bring your emotions into balance. You can ensure that the process is as positive as possible by sticking to the following guidelines:
- Listen for what is felt as well as said. When we listen, we connect more deeply to our needs and emotions, and to those of other people. Listening also strengthens us, informs us, and makes it easier for others to hear us when it's our turn to speak.
- Make conflict resolution the priority rather than winning or "being right."Maintaining and strengthening the relationship, rather than “winning” the argument, should always be your priority. Be respectful of the other person and his or her viewpoint.
- Focus on the present. If you’re holding on to grudges based on past resentments, your ability to see the reality of the current situation will be impaired. Rather than looking to the past and assigning blame, focus on what you can do in the here-and-now to solve the problem.
- Pick your battles. Conflicts can be draining, so it’s important to consider whether the issue is worthy of your time and energy. Maybe you don't want to surrender a parking space if you’ve been circling for 15 minutes, but if there are dozens of empty spots, arguing over a single area isn’t worth it.
- Be willing to forgive. Resolving conflict is impossible if you’re unwilling or unable to forgive. The resolution lies in releasing the urge to punish, which can never compensate for our losses and only adds to our injury by further depleting and draining our lives.
- Know when to let something go. If you can’t come to an agreement, agree to disagree. It takes two people to keep an argument going. If a conflict is going nowhere, you can choose to disengage and move on.
Authors: Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Melinda Smith, M.A.