This column is the second, in a two-part series, on handling conflict effectively. The first half ran in the Nevada Appeal on March 3, 2015.
My daughter has been playing soccer for about four years, she is a pretty good player, and, she gets better all the time. This is mostly because she listens to her coaches about what she needs to improve, and, she spends endless hours practicing. We all learn new skills and hobbies throughout our lives, slowly getting better with time and repetition.
We don’t expect ourselves to instinctively know how to play soccer, knit, or use a new computer program at work. So, why is it that we often navigate our way through the most important aspects of our lives: relationships, with so little study and practice?
Expecting conflict to be part of every relationship in your life: with our romantic partner, friends, colleagues and supervisors, and children. Knowing how to manage conflict in ways that strengthens and builds these relationships, will, like everything else in life, take lots of attention and practice.
Most of us rely on old, learned habits when conflict arises; yet, sometimes how we “usually” handle conflict can actually cause destruction to our relationships. There are some general skills for handling conflict well.
For starters, no matter how angry you are with someone, keep reminding yourself that resolving the conflict, and maintaining the relationship, is the priority. There is no “winner or loser.”
If you are too angry to talk without yelling, name calling, or irrationality, walk away for a while, take deep breaths, and come back when you feel calmer.
Stay focused on the present issue, don’t bring up past problems. Calmly state how you are feeling, where you are coming from, what you want. “I statements” are the gold-standard, for example, “I didn’t feel important to you when you showed up late to lunch again. I want to feel that I am important to you.” Or, “I don’t like it when you talk in that tone to me when your friends are around. My feelings are hurt because it seems like you don’t respect me.”
Next, listen to what the other person has to say. Don’t interrupt. Don’t assume you are right; instead, listen with an open mind. Keep good eye contact. Really try to understand where they are coming from. Even if the other person doesn’t offer you this same treatment, still try to do this the best you can. You will be setting the stage for how both of you can handle things in the future-when both people use these skills, conflict is handled even more effectively.
One of the hardest thing for people to accept is that they have different needs than others. I go to lunch with a close friend several times a month; it used to drive me crazy that she would be late, sometimes leaving me sitting there for 30 minutes, waiting for her to show up. When I finally talked to her about it I realized that she didn’t consider promptness a priority; she wasn’t meaning to insult me when she showed up late, it’s just “how she rolls.”
Overtime, and with several talks about it, I now tolerate my friend’s tardiness better, and she really tries to get to our lunch dates on time. Looking for solutions to the conflict should be the spotlight. Brainstorm ideas that might help.
When you have come up with a compromise, stick to your part of “the deal.” This sends the message that you are really trying, which will most likely help motivate your friend, partner, etc. to stick to the compromise too.
Last week, my daughter spent five hours practicing and playing soccer. She is a little better than the week before. Learning how to handle conflict in new and more positive ways is going to take lots of time and practice. Your reward will be happier and easier times with your romantic partner, less conflict with peers and colleagues, and a sense that you can say how you feel and what you need in ways that lead to resolution.
Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.