You have probably heard people say, myself included, that conflict is natural and inevitable.  Those same people probably said something along the lines of, conflict itself is not good or bad, it is how you handle conflict that is good or bad.  Therefore, we should all learn to manage conflict effectively. Chances are that all sounded perfectly reasonable and rational until you found yourself smack dab in the middle of a conflict.  At that point, you started racking your brain feverishly trying to recall all those conflict resolution trainings, workshops and seminars you attended over the years only to find a garbled mess of theories, skills and tools to untangle.  Well, take a deep breath, grab a piece of Halloween chocolate and relax. Below are five tricks to start engaging in healthy conflict.

Trick 1: Request face-to-face communication. Whenever possible, engage in a real, open conversation, ideally face to face.  No email, no social media, no texting. Whether live or over the phone, you need to listen for voice tone, or watch for body language.

Trick 2: Express yourself! People tend to focus on the risk of speaking up and addressing issues.  Rarely do people stop to consider the cost of not speaking up. Take a moment to consider the costs of not speaking up as well as what you have to gain by addressing the issue.  Remember, people are not mind readers. Challenge the common assumption that the other person must know what is bothering you or that they offended you and directly and kindly let them know there is an issue you would like to discuss.

Trick 3: No more “buts”!  Make it a habit to use the word “and” in lieu of the word “but”.  It is amazing the difference a conjunction can make! The word “but” excludes, denies, discounts or negates the speaker’s preceding statement.  Conversely, the word “and” honors the speaker’s message while opening up the possibility for additional opportunities, approaches, ideas and more.

Trick 4: Absolutely avoid absolutes.  Most of us use absolute statements, like “always,” or “never,” from time to time without even realizing it – especially when emotions are high.  However, it is important to understand that these phrases tend to make people defensive. When defenses are up, they no longer hear your message.  Instead, stick to the facts of what occurred. If you have noticed a pattern, say so. Then explain the impact the incident or pattern is having on you and the relationship.

Trick 5: Get curious. Curiosity kills conflict.  Asking good questions to understand the motive behind someone’s behavior and to understand where they are coming from is an effective way to foster mutual understanding and build trust.  Examples might include:

  • What do you mean by that?
  • How do you see it?
  • How did you arrive at that conclusion or decision?

“What” and “how” questions are often preferable to “why” questions because they sound less accusatory and invite less defensiveness. That said, “Why?” may work very well when the other person feels you are truly interested in their point of view.  Regardless of the words used, paying attention to your tone of voice is imperative. An inquisitive and tentative tone lets the other person know you are open to the possibility that additional information or reasons exist, which you have yet to uncover.  Genuinely encourage them to share all of that with you. Make it less about right and wrong or you versus them, and more about you and the other person resolving the issue at hand.

I hope these tricks help sweeten your relationships!

By: Liz Hill, Associate Director, University of Colorado Boulder Ombuds Office