One of the most useful lessons I teach in my leadership classes is how girls can handle interpersonal conflicts in a manner that is confident and oriented toward seeking solutions. The girls go through a series of exercises that help them to recognize their natural conflict styles and then have opportunities to practice strategies in an environment that is safe and approachable. We can all benefit from reflecting on and building up our conflict resolution skills, so here are several ways to help you gain a more effective method of handling disagreements.
Strengths coach Brent O’Bannon describes the five most common conflict styles using the attributes of animals. Turtles are people whose natural tendency is to avoid conflict at all costs. Teddy Bears will take the blame or accommodate the other person’s wishes in order to maintain their image as a caring, friendly person. Sharks love competition and run towards a conflict in a manner that can be seen as either brave or aggressive. Foxes look for compromises in which everyone wins or loses. Owls want to build relationships and will seek to collaborate with the other person no matter how much time it takes. I encourage you to read the full descriptions of each style on Brent O’Bannon’s blog, as he goes further in depth about the strengths and stretches of each style.
Reflect on Your Style
Take a moment to reflect on which conflict style you identify with most. Think or journal about the following questions to come to a better understanding of your approach to conflict:
1. Which animal do you identify with most? What behaviors have you used when dealing with conflicts that relate to the attributes of this style?
2. What parts of your conflict style have worked for you to reach resolutions in the past?
3. Think about a time when your natural conflict style did not work for you.
Escalation vs. De-escalation
When you find yourself in an active disagreement with another person, your natural conflict style might not always work for you to resolve the problem, especially if you have a style that doesn’t work well with that of the other person or when emotions are high. Sometimes, your emotions and investment in your own point of view prevent you from approaching the conflict with compassion and instead escalate the conflict into a shouting match or lead you to say things you regret. Because of this, it’s useful to have strategies to help you to resolve the conflict in an open manner, with the mindset of growth and curiosity, as opposed to a mindset of control or revenge. Here are seven strategies that can help you to change your mindset to approach the conflict from a perspective geared toward calm and understanding. These strategies will help you de-escalate the conflict so that you can communicate with the other person in a more respectful and compassionate manner.
1. Take a Deep Breath
This is one of the simplest methods that you can use to bring yourself to a calmer state. Breathe in to a count of four, pause, and then breathe out to a count of four. Taking a moment to focus on your breath will help you to mentally remove yourself from the situation so that you can proceed with a more relaxed and open approach.
2. Pause Before You Speak
Before you say your side of the argument, stop for a moment to quickly think over your words. Is what you have to say going to contribute to finding solution or will it escalate the conflict? Do your words come from a place of constructive feedback or from a place of attack? Are your words intended to objectively state a point of view or are they intended to be defensive? Be honest with yourself about the intentions behind your words and adjust your speech as needed.
3. Take a Break
Sometimes the conflict is too heated to deal with effectively in the moment. This is a time when it is a good idea to step away from the situation so that each person can calm herself and get a reflective perspective. One important step to note when taking a break, though, is that you need to set a specific time to return to the conflict to seek resolution. Say to the other person, “I need to step away from this right now, but I’d like to continue this discussion an hour from now.” Give yourself enough time to sort through your thoughts, but don’t use the break as an excuse to avoid solving the problem. Making sure that the other person knows when the conflict will be worked through can help build trust in that you take the problem seriously.
4. Count to 10
When a conflict erupts and your emotions explode, stop before you respond and start to silently count in your head. Begin with the intention of slowly counting to ten, but continue counting upwards until you find some sense of calm. Similar to taking a breath or pausing, counting to ten in your head allows you to mentally distance yourself from the conflict in order to view it from a more objective perspective.
5. Use I Statements
When speaking in an argument, present your point of view exactly how it is: a personal response to an action or situation. Instead of placing blame through your words, use your words to state how you feel. Say things like, “I feel __ when __ happens and I’d like to try __.” State your feelings and offer a possible solution to the problem instead of placing judgments on the other person’s actions or words. You can only understand your own feelings in a situation and you can’t expect to know what another person’s intentions, thoughts or emotions are in the same situation. Placing judgment on your perception of the other person’s actions or words will lead to further defensiveness and escalate the conflict, while stating how the actions make you feel can help to clarify misunderstandings and create open communication.
6. Use Open Body Language
Show that you are willing to seek resolution by using your body to express openness and confidence without aggression. Stand with your arms to your sides in a relaxed pose and look at the other person in the eyes. Try to maintain an open expression on your face to show that you are coming to the conflict with a sense of curiosity and willingness to work together. Avoid rolling your eyes, crossing your arms or facing any direction other than toward the other person. Before entering the conflict, consider “power posing” to help build up your confidence. You can learn more about power poses and body language by watching Amy Cuddy’s excellent TED Talk on the topic.
7. Ask For Help
Don’t be afraid to step away from a conflict to ask for help from someone else. If both you and the other person in the argument are so attached to your individual points of view that you can't hear each other's opinions, having another person to listen and mediate the conflict can bring the process of creating resolution to a more objective mindset. Keep in mind that asking for help does not mean venting or gossiping to another person outside of the conflict, nor does it mean asking someone else to solve the problem for you. The best person to ask for help is someone who can listen to both sides of the argument without getting emotionally involved and help each person involved in the argument to hear the other side out. In conflicts that feel too big or too sensitive to get the help of a colleague, consider seeking out the help of someone trained in this area like a coach or therapist.
By understanding your conflict style and practicing strategies that promote conflict resolution, you can approach arguments with a more mindful perspective. Knowing how to step back from the situation and seeking solutions will give you the confidence to take on challenges with an open and growth-oriented mindset. What strategies do you intend to use when tackling conflicts?