Turning conflict into greater unity
When we choose to address tension, we are choosing love
By Jim Funk
A few months ago, I had chest pain for the first time in my life. At first I wanted to pretend it wasn’t there and just wait for it to go away. Then I had a second thought — maybe this is a problem that won’t just go away.
I decided to act on it and go to the Heart Center Emergency Room. It turned out that it wouldn’t have gone away on its own, and despite never having any other indications, they found a major blockage in an artery. According to the cardiologist, I had only a few minutes left to address this when I did.
While most difficulties we encounter with other people aren’t life or death situations, they are opportunities to make a decision that can impact our lives and relationships for the long haul. It raises the question: am I going to walk away from this situation and pretend it will go away on its own? Or will I address it and avoid what otherwise might divide us even more?
Conflicts can arise from simple, everyday things, like sharing household chores, roles and responsibilities, how to spend time, and what we think are priorities. They can also be more serious matters, like spending large amounts of money, problematic behaviors or abuse or other serious accusations.
But either way, they can create everything from a little frustration to outright animosity — and we know what they say about sweeping things under the rug.
Love calls us to address conflicts
Often we find it difficult to address tensions — both small and large ones — because we fear we may damage a relationship, hurt the other person or maybe (being honest here) lose something ourselves. We may feel inadequate to address the conflict. Concerned that it will go badly, we simply ignore it and pretend everything is fine. We grin and bear it.
The truth, however, is that when we choose to lean into the situation, we move toward a greater good, and we take a step toward a higher unity. This not only helps us deal with our frustrations, it also relieves tensions and results in a better understanding of each other. It can keep us from letting animosity and bitterness build up within us over time. In reality, dealing with conflict is love for the other person, and a conflict resolved is a means to grow.
Preparation is the key
This might be obvious, but part of the challenge in addressing a difficulty with another person is that people have feelings. We don’t want to make the other person feel bad, or make them mad, and sometimes we fear we will have trouble controlling our own emotions.
When we get angry or upset, we may be afraid we will say the wrong thing and make things worse. Of course, emotions are a part of being human, so we have no choice but to learn to work with them.
The first key is what I would call “productive preparation.” Rather than just going to someone with a problem and a solution (ours, of course), we need to work on our own mindset first. We should first adopt a certain attitude of humility:
- Become aware of our own weaknesses
- Disentangle the person from the problem
- Make the other person’s problem our own
- Be open minded to what the other person is experiencing
Next, it is important to have a plan and an approach. This may require some thought and practice. Some effective strategies include:
1. Choose the right time and place
Make sure you are both rested, not hungry or upset, or too engaged in something else that could inhibit giving this your full attention.
2. Monitor your emotions
Be aware of how you are feeling about the issue, and how you can manage your emotions during the conversation. If necessary, be prepared to come back later after you have each had time to reflect.
3. Practice your opening phrase
How you open the conversation can get it started on the right foot. Depending on what it’s about, you could say something like, “I’m sensing that we have different points of view about …, and I want to better understand where you’re coming from. When would you have some time to talk?” Or, “I’d like to tell you about something I’ve noticed, but at the same time I don’t want to assume what you’re thinking or intending. Here’s what I’m seeing… What do you think is behind this?”
4. Think about what you are hoping for
Sometimes we go into a conflict to win, but it can happen that in winning we actually lose. Know in advance what you are willing to do to compromise. And think about whether your concern amounts to no more than just a bag of beans — otherwise it may not be worth the time and effort.
5. Consider asking a confidant first
You may wish to consult someone you trust to hear your concern and your approach before you take it to the other person. If you can practice your opening phrase, describe what your part of the problem might be, and what you are hoping for in the end, even hearing yourself say it out loud might change your strategy or approach. It will also give you more confidence.
It all comes down to good dialogue
Rather than thinking of conflict as a fight or an argument, what if we think of it as a dialogue? The meaning and strength of a dialogue is that it is an exchange of ideas and opinions that in the end is about seeking the truth — not about winning an argument. It is even more open-minded than a discussion, since we are using words to understand, not to convince.
How do we engage in a dialogue? First, we try and focus not on “positions” (what we want), but rather on “interests” (what is underneath the disagreement). For example, if two library patrons are arguing whether to have the window open or closed (positions), they can get down to what the real issue is — one person might feel the air is too stuffy, while the other person feels the room is cold. What they each want is to be comfortable (interests), and once they name that, there are a number of possible solutions besides the window.
We would also do well to avoid using words that don’t really solve anything, but just put the other person on the defensive. For example, if we say, “Your behavior is simply unprofessional,” what does that really mean? Or if we say, “You never do the dishes,” the word “never” is usually an error of assumptions, or an exaggeration. It doesn’t generally lead to a solution.
Finally, “I” statements work better than “you” statements. For example, saying, “Why don’t you ever listen,” sounds like an attack, whereas saying, “I feel unheard, can we talk?” instead deals with how you are being affected. Or saying, “Your room is always a mess,” might get a more negative reaction than saying, “I really like your room when it’s clean — it looks so much better!”
Prepare, practice, pray
Dealing with conflict well is something we can all do — but it takes skills that require practice to develop. Being intentional about the approach, practicing with someone you confide in and preparing in advance are all ways we can achieve a better outcome and a more lasting unity.
And as with all things that are difficult, prayer is a good idea. Pray for perspective, that you will prepare well and that the best possible outcome will be achieved.
If both parties are doing these same things, conflict is almost certainly bound to turn out for the best.
Jim Funk is the owner of J L Funk & Associates
and Global Head of Leadership Transformation for Consulus.
For more information on his upcoming course
on global leadership at Sophia University Institute,
Italy from September 23–28, go to consulus.com/gluec.