Conflict resolution. Why is it so important? Well, conflict arises in all meaningful relationships. In fact, whether the conflict arises between parent and child, between spouses, or between siblings, conflict is actually a key part of what makes relationships meaningful.
Conflict brings us many positive things that are crucial to growth: a reexamination of our own beliefs, encounters with new perspectives, the chance to learn about yourself and others, and the opportunity to work toward a mutual goal. Friction creates the sparks that give off light. Healthy relationships are not those in which conflict never arises, but those in which conflicts are resolved successfully.
Here’s how to do just that.
Admit the Conflict is Real
I’m sure you can think of a time you’ve gotten mired in a struggle with another person, but neither of you were willing to admit it. That’s normal. Generally, people want to avoid confrontation. The problem is that 99% of the time problems between people don’t go away on their own. Instead, they tend to get bigger and bigger. If you’re experiencing tension with someone, there’s a reason.
Simply being able to articulate the situation is really powerful. Giving the thing that’s bothering you a name or a description is half the battle. It gives you a concrete way to think about what’s bothering you. It puts a frame around the problem and stops it from extending its reach into the rest of your life.
To accomplish this, you may want to do some journaling about what’s bothering you. You may also want to talk to a professional therapist on your own to be able to express the issue.
First, acknowledge the situation to yourself. Then communicate with the person with whom the conflict exists.
Easier said than done, right? All kinds of fears surround this step: fear of sounding mean, fear of exposing yourself to attack, fear of ruining the relationship. But remember, you are already in conflict, or else you wouldn’t be feeling all those negative emotions. If you don’t move to resolve it with communication, it might consume the relationship whole.
There are several ways to do this. Different approaches work in different situations. You want to choose the method that makes both people the least uncomfortable. But keep in mind that, no matter what, conflict resolution usually takes people on a trip outside their comfort zone.
The first method is to open up communication about the issue with a face-to-face conversation. Pick a private location where you won’t be interrupted. If you prefer working out your thoughts beforehand, another good method is to write a thoughtful, carefully worded e-mail. You can also write down what you want to say and make a phone call with paper in hand. Sometimes, opening communication requires the presence of a neutral third party, such as a trusted friend or a professional therapist. Avoid methods like texting where you may not be able to express yourself fully.
Identify Your Needs
Now it’s out in the open. You don’t have to necessarily agree on what exactly the problem is—and you may not. That’s okay. Instead, focus on what each of your needs are. Then be prepared to listen for a long time. Try not to interrupt.
Focusing on needs is the best way to avoid the blame game, or bickering over who’s right and who’s wrong. Articulate as best you can your own feelings. Try to use “I” statements rather than “you” statements here. For example, it’s better to say “I feel like I need my private space,” than to say, “You never respect my private space.” If you both express your needs and acknowledge them, who’s to blame suddenly doesn’t matter very much.
If your partner, child, parent, or sibling suggests that your needs are not realistic, listen to them. There’s a chance they may be right. On the other hand, there’s a chance they lack empathy, are not willing to work for a solution, or are a bully. In that case, resolving the conflict may be impossible. Or you may need to seek professional counseling.
Once you have acknowledged the problem, communicated, and talked about your needs, you are almost home. The last part is usually the easiest: brainstorm solutions. Each person should generate multiple alternatives. Then, see which actions each person is actually willing to do.
Make sure you get a real agreement. Silence, closed body language, and continual complaints may be signs the other person has not totally bought into the actions you’ve agreed on.
Finally, you want to have some sort of follow-up. Agree to talk about it again within a specific and agreed-upon timeframe. Make additional appointments with your therapist if you are seeing one.
Remember, the people we are closest to are not those who we magically agree with every time. They are those with whom we have shared experiences and solved problems. Not only is conflict resolution one of the best opportunities to learn about yourself, it is a building block of all significant relationships!