Conflict Resolution: Skills That Can Turn Conflicts into Opportunities

By: Margaret Wood, Freelancer 10/12/2017

Conflict resolution is all about finding amicable solutions to disagreements amongst two people. Whether the disagreement is financial,  personal, emotional or political, when a dispute arises, often the best course of action is negotiation to resolve the disagreement.

The ability to successfully resolve conflict depends on your ability to:
  • Managing the stress and quickly diffusing the situation while remaining alert and calm…
  • Controlling your own behaviour and emotions …you will be able to communicate your needs in a non-threatening, non-intimidating manner…
  • Pay close attention to the feelings being expressed as well as what the other person is saying…
  • Be cognizant and respectful of differences…avoiding disrespectful actions or words almost always brings resolution more quickly
  • Be in touch with your deep-rooted needs
  • Communicate your needs clearly
No two people can agree on everything all the time; conflict is just a normal part of any healthy relationship.
Although avoiding conflict would seem to be the right approach, the key is to learn how to resolve it in a healthy manner. Mismanaged conflict can cause irreparable harm in a relationship. However, when handled respectfully,  conflict can provide an opportunity to strengthen the bond, and  keep your personal and professional relationships strong and growing.

Let’s Look at What Causes Conflict

Basically, conflict arises from differences; it happens whenever people disagree over their motivations, values, ideas, perceptions, or desires. Although some differences may seem trivial, when a conflict triggers strong emotions and reactions, there is often a deeper personal need at the core of the issue.  These needs can be anything from a need to feel respected and valued, a need to feel safe and secure, or maybe a need for greater closeness and intimacy.

Most Conflicts Arise From Different Needs

Besides air,water and food, everyone has other basic needs:

  • to feel comfortable
  • to feel safe
  • to feel understood
  • to feel nurtured
  • to feel supported
  • to feel needed

However, the manner these needs are met can vary widely, creating some of the most difficult challenges in our personal and professional relationships.

Think about the conflicting need for safety  versus the need to explore. Take for instance, toddlers; the child’s need is to explore, so dangling cords meet that need. However,  the parents’ need is to protect the child from harm, thereby limiting exploration and creating a conflict.

Both party’s needs are equally important in the long-term success of most relationships.  Each deserves respect and consideration.

Take personal relationships, for example: if there is a true lack of understanding about differing needs, and unless resolved, rifts emerge, resentment, arguments, and eventually, break-ups.

Workplace conflicts revolving around differing needs can erupt in severe disputes,  resulting in broken deals, loss of business, and ultimately, loss of jobs.

Recognizing the legitimacy of conflicting needs and developing a willingness to examine them in a healthy environment of compassion and understanding, creates opportunities for team building, creative problem solving,  and improved relationships.

Truisms About Conflict

  • A conflict is more than just a disagreement. It is a situation in which one or both parties perceive a threat (whether or not the threat is real).
  • Conflicts continue to fester when ignored. Because conflicts involve perceived threats to our well-being and survival, they stay with us until we face and resolve them.
  • We respond to conflicts based on our perceptions of the situation, not necessarily to an objective review of the facts. Our perceptions are influenced by our life experiences, culture, values, and beliefs.
  • Conflicts trigger strong emotions. If you aren’t comfortable with your emotions or able to manage them in times of stress, you won’t be able to resolve conflict successfully.
  • Conflicts are an opportunity for growth. When you’re able to resolve conflict in a relationship, it builds trust. You can feel secure knowing your relationship can survive challenges and disagreements.


Responding to conflict

Do you fear conflict or avoid it at all costs?

  • Painful memories from prior unhealthy relationships can affect how one perceives conflict, expecting all disagreements to end poorly
  • One may view conflict as humiliating, demoralizing, or threatening
  • Previous experiences that have left you feeling powerless or out of control may even be traumatizing

Conflict is not to be feared; if you go into a conflict situation already feeling threatened, it’s going to be extremely challenging to deal with the problem at hand in a healthy way. Chances are, you will either blow up or shut down, neither of which brings about resolution.

Approaches to  Managing/Resolving Conflict
Unhealthy responses to conflict: Healthy responses to conflict:
An inability to recognize and respond to the things that matter to the other person The capacity to empathize with the other person’s viewpoint
Explosive, angry, hurtful, and resentful reactions Calm, non-defensive, and respectful reactions
The withdrawal of love, resulting in rejection, isolation, shaming, and fear of abandonment A readiness to forgive and forget, and to move past the conflict without holding resentments or anger
An inability to compromise or see the other person’s side The ability to seek compromise and avoid punishing
Feeling fearful or avoiding conflict; expecting a bad outcome A belief that facing conflict head on is the best thing for both sides

Resolving Conflict Takes Skill

Reality check!  Pay attention to your emotions: Be sure your are not so out of touch with your feelings or so stressed that you can’t give the situation it’s due consideration. You need to understand your own needs, or you will have difficulty communicating the real issue.

Forget the petty differences—let them go! In the big scheme of things, does the way she hangs the towels really matter? Does the way he slurps his soup mean anything if he’s not doing it in public? Figure out what is really bothering you.

Two core skills to focus on:

  1. Quick stress relief
  2. Emotional awareness

The key to staying balanced, focused, and in control, no matter what challenges you face, is being able to manage and relieve stress in the moment, or else you will become overwhelmed in conflict situations and unable to respond in healthy ways.

Psychologist Connie Lillas uses this analogy to describe the three most common ways people respond:

Foot on the gas. An angry or agitated stress response. You’re heated, keyed up, overly emotional, and unable to sit still.

Foot on the brake. A withdrawn or depressed stress response. You shut down, space out, and show very little energy or emotion.

Foot on both gas and brake. A tense and frozen stress response. You “freeze” under pressure and can’t do anything. You look paralyzed, but under the surface you’re extremely agitated.

Are you Stressed?

Some people may not even be aware of it–they’ve come to accept stress as a normal part of their life. If you identify with the following, then you are stressed:

  • Feel tensed up often, headaches, grit your teeth
  • Conflict absorbs your time and attention
  • Breathe heavy and don’t realize it

How to De-Stress – Quick Stress Relief

Engage one or more of your senses—sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, or movement.

  • get a spinner or click box
  • squeeze a stress ball
  • smell a relaxing scent
  • taste a soothing cup of tea (avoid stress-eating)
  • look at a treasured photograph

We all  respond differently to sensory input;  take time to find things that sooth and help you refocus.


Emotional Awareness is a Key Factor

Emotional awareness is the key to understanding yourself and others. Knowing how you feel and why you feel that way will enable to you communicate more effectively, and resolve disagreements.

Connect to all your strong feelings, including anger, sadness, and fear. Your ability to handle conflict depends on being connected to these feelings. If you only seek strictly rational solutions, you limit your ability to face and resolve differences.

If you develop your emotional awareness you will:

  • have a better understanding of what is really troubling others
  • have a better understanding  about yourself, including what is really troubling you
  • remain motivated to see that the conflict is resolved
  • communicate more clearly and more effectively
  • influence others to seek resolution

Observing Non-verbal Signals

Another effective way to handle conflict is by being observant and paying close attention to “body language,”:  posture, facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice. This may help you better understand what the other person is trying to say. You can then respond in a manner that builds trust, and gets to the root cause of the issue.

The ability to read another person accurately depends on your own level of emotional awareness. Think about what you are communicating through non-verbal signals  during conflict. Does what you say match your body language?

A reassuring touch, a calm tone of voice, or an interested facial expression can go a long way toward relaxing a tense exchange.

Tips for managing and resolving conflict

Resolving conflict is as positive as possible by sticking to the following guidelines:

  • Make conflict resolution the priority rather than winning or “being right” 
  • Listen for what is felt as well as said
  • Focus on the present
  • Pick your battles
  • Be willing to forgive
  • Know when to let something go
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