Resolve Conflict Through Collaboration

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

Many of our clients request help with conflicts at work, with their spouses, children, neighbors, friends and family members. Conflict seems as inevitable as death and taxes. Yet very few people ever get training in conflict management. Most managers spend a third of their time managing conflicts. Then they go home and have to manage conflicts with spouses and children and others. It can feel exhausting. It helps to have some tools to pull out and use when life feels like a battlefield.

Couples Conflicts

You will get better results if you can limit your conflict to a specific issue, rather than making big general statements. “I feel like you don’t love me,” can seem huge and hard to understand. Specific statements allow for clearer understanding. For example, “lately you haven’t been affectionate with me. That makes me feel unloved. I would love it if we could be more affectionate with each other like we used to.”

The magic formula of, “I feel (emotion word), when you (specific behavior), and I would like, (specific behavior),” helps to contain arguments to something manageable. It can feel uncomfortable to talk about vulnerable feelings. If you push through the discomfort to share those feelings directly with your spouse, it provides an opportunity to feel closer. When you ask for what you specifically want in a relationship it tells your partner how to please you.

Conflict at Work

At work talking about feelings can cause problems. Letting co-workers know about your emotional vulnerabilities might not create the best impression for promotions. Yet interpersonal conflicts get very heated at work and can affect the functioning of teams, and your ability to concentrate or even get what you need to do your job.

It helps to try to see the problem as separate from the individual. Sometimes we can stay stuck in conflicts when we define the person in a negative way. “She’s a micro-manager, he’s lazy.” Instead it helps to think about what specifically bothers you about the micromanagement. Then ask for a specific adjustment to that behavior. For example: “When you routinely ask to see my work before I have had a chance to review it, I feel it gives you a false impression of my skills. Would you let me review it first and then show it to you so that I can provide you a more polished product?” If you talk about the behavior and not the person, you’re less likely to see defensive responses that lead to conflict escalation.

Collaborative Language

Conflicts with others, whether at work or home, tend to resolve better when we use collaborative language. If you think about the conflict as an opportunity for both parties to grow, then you can use collaborative language more readily. What is collaborative language? Simply prefacing your communication with the word “we” can strengthen rapport and advance the resolution of conflict. Using words like “us” and “we” communicate a social connection that reduces risk. Here are some collaborative phrases that you can take into any conflict:

  • We can take some time and come to a solution.
  • We both have an interest in understanding each other better.
  • We can calm down and work this out together.
  • We have a problem that would serve us both to resolve.
  • We can address this issue so that we both win.

While collaborative approaches work, they take a bit more time, so it helps to cultivate an attitude of patience. One conversation may not fix the problem. It may take several conversations over a long period before each party feels satisfied. But when you take time to work on problems you may notice a reduction in stress and anxiety, even if the issue remains unresolved.

Ready Yourself

            Make sure that you take a moment to breathe, calm down, and pay attention to your needs before you try to resolve a conflict. Simple things like your physical comfort, hunger, thirst, temperature, bystanders, can all play a role in how the conversation goes. So bring water, plan the meeting after you’ve eaten so you’re not hungry. Strive to make yourself and your conflict partner as comfortable as possible. In addition consider the following:

  • Show appreciation for their willingness to meet with you.
  • Use respectful language.
  • Acknowledge their talents and skills.
  • Listen to their concerns.
  • Avoid sarcasm or negative comments.

When you make an effort to calmly address conflicts that can reduce your own anxiety and make things calmer at work.

Putting It All Together

Conflicts at work and at home are inevitable. No matter how friendly, competent, loving, relaxed or hardworking you are, someone will have a problem with you. If you see conflicts as opportunities to grow, learn, and move closer to others, it can take a bit of the sting out of it. Use the magic formula, and collaborative phrases in your difficult conversations. You may find those simple tools can take you very far.

Photos courtesy of Urs Steiner and Jordi Graells.