Most of us avoid conflict like the plague – we actually think of conflict as a dirty word. When we hear the word conflict, we conjure up images of harsh battles that leave both parties angry, depleted and disconnected. I’d like to suggest a new way to think about conflict – as an opportunity to create deeper connection, whether at home or in the workplace.
The Consequences of Avoiding Conflict
First, we rarely consider the consequences of avoiding conflict. Think about it for a moment. Imagine that your significant other does something (perhaps teases you in front of others) that causes strong emotions for you (i.e. sadness, hurt, or anger). This behavior may be part of a long-standing pattern and you’ve never shared the emotional impact of this behavior with your partner, perhaps because you’re fearful you will appear vulnerable or overly sensitive or are afraid of creating a conflict.
So what happens? You’ve now swept your emotions “under the rug.” They haven’t disappeared but instead the pile under the rug gets bigger and bigger. One day you will trip over it and likely explode at your partner over a small provocation. When that happens, your emotions will be so highly charged that it is unlikely that you will be able to resolve the issue without anger and hurt feelings.
Also, conflict is unavoidable. Each of us has thoughts, emotions and preferences that may not align with another’s. If we view conflict as a simple misalignment rather than a battle, we’ll be less likely to avoid it.
Navigating Conflict for Effective Communication
In addition, most of us have never been taught the skills to successfully navigate conflict or for effective communication. This should a part of every high school curriculum. Instead, we often learn from our parents, who may not have modeled the most effective skills.
Finally, addressing conflict often causes us to experience discomfort and we generally avoid situations that make us uncomfortable. We fear that if we share our feelings that we will be vulnerable. We worry that if we talk about our needs that we will appear selfish.
However, if we acknowledge and accept that discomfort may appear and that it is normal and understandable, we will be able to move ahead despite these feelings. And a little discomfort now is a better choice than pushing down all the other feelings, like frustration and anger, when conflict is avoided.
Using Mindfulness for Dealing with Conflict
Using mindfulness and effective communication skills will help you to deal with conflicts BEFORE they become emotionally charged battles. Resolving conflict effectively provides a real opportunity for you and your partner or work colleague to get to know each other better and to create a deeper connection. The next time a conflict situation arises consider adopting these practices:
- Bring awareness to what you are experiencing – thoughts, emotions and body sensations – and think about which of these might stand in the way of you resolving this conflict successfully. If you are too emotionally charged, consider waiting until your distress level has decreased. This will help you to respond rather than react. Also, if you are already having negative thoughts about your partner’s or colleague’s response, see if you can challenge these thoughts and expectations and instead bring an open mind to the conversation.
- Learn to listen effectively. That means listening without waiting to jump in with a response. You can practice this in non-conflict situations by asking a friend or family member an open-ended question (not one with a yes or no answer) and listen to his or her answer WITHOUT interrupting. You might be surprised at what you learn.
- Avoid generalizations. Keep the discussion limited to a specific incident and avoid comments that include “always” and “never” (i.e. “You never listen to me” or “You always forget our anniversary.”)
Avoid “You” Statements
- Avoid “you” statements and stick with “I” statements. The moment you lead with a “you” statement (“You make me so angry”) the other person’s defense system will activate and they will no longer hear what you have to say. Instead try, “I felt so frustrated yesterday when I had to ask you several times to take out the trash.” You are sharing your feelings and giving the other person an opportunity to understand you better.
- Learn to genuinely apologize. The statement “I’m sorry that you feel that way” is not an apology.
- Also, give your partner or colleague the benefit of the doubt so that you can bring greater openness to the conversation. Assume that his or her intent was not to hurt you. Trying eliminating the concept of “fairness” from your relationship vocabulary as this will likely set up emotional barriers that get in the way of genuine connection. Instead try working toward compromises and solutions that work better for each of you.
- Enter conflict resolution conversations with an intention to connect, not to win. When there is a winner, there must be a loser. But if the intention is connection, both of you will win.