Recently, one of our clients (we’ll call him Jeff) had the opportunity to address a conflict with a friend of his. Jeff completely disagreed with the way his buddy was handling a situation. But rather than speaking directly to his friend, Jeff gathered 4 other buddies who agreed with Jeff that his way was the better way. Together they confronted Jeff’s friend—guns blazing. When his friend became defensive and rejected their intervention, Jeff was bewildered and grew angry, swearing that the friendship was over.
As this example shows, conflict is a reality in our relationships. It’s inevitable. We face conflict daily, from a disagreement with a co-worker or boss, to an argument with a friend or spouse. There is plenty of day-to-day tug of war happening around us. We are imperfect people, living in a world where much is out of our control. If you are like me, sometimes you do not handle conflict well… okay, I’ll be honest; it’s most of the time.
So, how do we effectively address conflict in a way that the other person will be receptive, promote understanding and resolution of the issue, and foster a closer connection? The following is a list of 5 things that may help positively change your approach to conflict so that it is fruitful:
1. Explore Your Family of Origin – Think back to your childhood for a minute. How did your family deal with conflict? Did your father, mother and sibling(s) tend to avoid it, address it through a third-person, or address the issue with the person directly? And, how did they engage? Did they wait until emotions calmed and approached you gently, or was their an immediate reaction and accusatory approach? Did family members tend to “bottle it up” until a seemingly tiny incident totally set them off? Who can you relate to the most? Chances are, after answering these questions you will begin to see consistent relational patterns. Exploring this may give you valuable insight into how you currently view and engage in conflict.
2. Take a Personal Inventory – Now, here comes the hard part. Time to focus on you. Ask, “How do I respond to conflict?” When someone hurts you, how do you initially react? What is your typical coping mechanism or way of managing painful emotions? How do you work through the issue with loved ones, with classmates or colleagues at work? When you hurt someone, how do you initially react when they approach you to talk about it? How do you typically work through the issue with them? There are many questions here, but I encourage you to take your time and write down your answers. You may be surprised at what you discover.
3. Take Personal Responsibility – Ultimately, you cannot change other people. You can only be open to change yourself. When you focus on someone or something that is out of your control, you feel powerless. By focusing the conversation on what the other person is doing wrong, you will likely elicit a defensive response. However, when you switch your focus to yourself and what is in your realm of responsibility, you will feel more at peace. By focusing the conversation on what you are responsible for, your own thoughts, emotions, and actions, you will likely elicit a receptive response. You are responsible for yourself first.
4. Identify and Communicate Your Thoughts and Emotions – When you can differentiate between your thoughts and emotions during a conflict, you are less likely to be influenced by your emotions in the moment, and more likely to calm your emotions in order to think and effectively work through the situation with the other person. This is not easy—for anyone. It takes practice to develop this skill. One way to practice is to track the major events (good or bad) of the day, listing them in a journal. Thinking back to a specific event, describe your thoughts (message you received from the other person’s actions) before, during and after the event. Next, your emotions (e.g. excitement, joy, fear) before, during, and after. Finally, your actions before, during, and after. The tracking may look like this:
As you practice this skill of differentiating, you will recognize your patterns of relating. Once you can identify your thoughts and emotions in the moment, you can communicate them to the other person. Here is a simple but useful way to address the issue with another:
“When you do ___________ I think it means (your thought) and I feel (your emotion), so I’m asking you to do ___________, and/or I’m going to __________.”
The idea is to practice deliberately separating emotions vs. thoughts so you can more clearly communicate.
5. Set Clear Boundaries – In times that you have been hurt, or even when you have hurt another, setting a clear boundary is of paramount importance. The last two blanks above are an example of setting a boundary. Boundaries help protect yourself and others, while making it easier to enjoy the relationship. So how do you know what is in your control, and what is not, in order to set a boundary? Your relationship with God can provide the answer to such a difficult question. When trusting and yielding to His will, you may find that you will learn more about yourself, and He will teach and guide you through a situation. The serenity prayer speaks to this: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” In addition, you may seek wise counsel from a family member, close friend, minister or mentor. This person can provide much needed guidance on what course you can take.
Now this is not meant to replace the need and benefit that can come from talking to an objective therapist about more complicated or painful issues that arise in life. It is also not meant to apply to circumstances such as abuse or neglect. If this ever occurs, please contact the authorities or an outside third party that can provide immediate help.
Here at i360, we believe change occurs in the context of relationships. We offer a variety of ways to address the conflict in our lives that so often plague us. Our various support, process groups, and counseling opportunities provide a safe environment, and help mimic a real world experience that allows clients to experiment with new behaviors, learn how a variety of people perceive them, and explore different styles of relating. The groups and workshops we offer provide a great opportunity to place the client directly in a community of a diverse group of people. Here, not only do clients learn how to meet their therapeutic goals together, but they also learn how to address conflict in different, more effective ways so that they can carry these skills forward into future relationships—and ultimately live more satisfying and fulfilling lives.
Written by Mitch Isle, LPC & Client Advocate
- Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend
- Extraordinary Relationships: A New Way of Thinking About Human Interactions by Roberta M. Gilbert
- Understanding Group Psychotherapy by Irvin D. Yalom