When you think of conflict, what comes to mind? Is it something that you try to avoid? Something you dread? Do you associate it with words like ‘somebody gets hurt’ or ‘fighting’?
The thing is, conflict is an inescapable part of life. You shouldn’t ask yourself, “Will I experience conflict?” but rather, “How will I manage conflict when it happens?”
What is conflict?
Generally, there are two ways to “work it out” in a conflict: manage it alone, or with others. Conflict resolution books tend to lean into the latter with communication, problem-solving, and collaboration as the primary means of handling conflict. Proven tactics in this domain include:
- Separating the person from the problem
- Using “I” instead of “You” statements
- Asking open-ended questions
- Using active listening
- Differentiating interest from positions
- Coming up with options for mutual benefit
However, there isn’t a lot of of literature on self-managing disputes. This is surprising, as a conflict is first and foremost a perception of incompatibility, which begins and (frequently) ends in our minds.
Conditions like power asymmetries, conflict anxiety, and poor timing prevent us from addressing difficulties with others. But few of us are naturally equipped with the tools to self-manage conflict, and so we end up telling ourselves problematic stories that make everything worse.
Don’t do that. Instead, try one of these three methods ahead.
1. To tame it, name it
Negative emotions are the glue that holds a conflict together. People often speak of “losing” their temper or having a feeling get the “best” of them. These phrases demonstrate the power and pull that emotions can have in a conflict.
One of the simplest and most effective ways to take control of your emotions is to give them a label. Research shows that labeling an emotion—in contrast to suppressing or shouting it—reduces its intensity. Naming the feeling allows you to regain composure, rethink the problem, and make better decisions.
Research also indicates that people who regulate emotions best are those who can go beyond the surface. Instead of just saying, “I’m feeling angry,” they recognize and label the nuances of their feelings (i.e., betrayal, disrespect, disappointment, stuck, frustration, etc.).
Susan David, the best-selling author of Emotional Agility, recommends asking yourself the following questions when you feel emotions taking over:
- What is it that I’m experiencing exactly?
- What is the emotion beneath the emotion?
- What are two other emotions that I’m experiencing?
2. Tell a better story
Many of us also prolong conflicts by telling ourselves problematic stories.
Pause for a moment, and think about the last significant conflict you experienced:
- Did it have a beginning, middle, and end?
- How did it start? Who initiated it?
- Who were the characters: the hero, villain, victim, rescuer?
- What are the central themes: (in)justice, power, respect, betrayal?
When we experience conflict, we default into storytelling mode. We spin narratives with plotlines and often reduce the other person into a not-so-great human being. We say things like, “John is such a jerk. He went out of his way to embarrass me”; “Olivia keeps shooting down my ideas. That megalomaniac clearly wants to be in charge.”
The problem with this line of thinking is not only that it’s often wrong, but it also does us a disservice. It rehashes the conflict in our heads and intensifies our negative emotions.
Here at LifeLabs Learning, we use what we call the three lens model. Anytime you are in conflict with someone, ask yourself: Besides being a jerk, what other forces are influencing this person’s behavior? How am I contributing to the conflict? What would I do in their shoes?
When you ask yourself these questions, you acknowledge that there are nuances to the situation. This mindset allows you to develop more tolerance and understanding, and you’ll have an easier time letting the old stories (and feelings associated with them) go.
3. Do a 180
Another interesting characteristic of conflicts is they become predictable. Person A does something, and Person B reacts, Person A reacts to Person B, and so on. Sometimes the pull of the conflict is so strong that even though both parties can predict what will unfold, they still act their part as though they are following a script.
In these situations, we frequently fixate on how to change the other person or people in the conflict, but we usually fail to realize that the first thing we have the power to change is our behavior.
How can we disrupt the pattern and inject something novel into the interaction?
Marriage scholar and practitioner Michele Weiner-Davis recommends doing a 180: identifying problematic behaviors and doing the opposite of what we usually do. For example:
- Instead of being reactive, invite the person into a conversation.
- Instead of starting with an accusation, show empathy.
- Instead of complaining, show gratitude.
- Instead of being critical, be curious.
- Instead of arguing, suggest doing an unrelated task.
One of my favorite examples of using positive surprise to transform conflict comes via Abraham Lincoln. Towards the end of the devastating Civil War, Lincoln began to publicly speak about the need to unify the country and treat the South with generosity.
On one such occasion, at the White House, he was approached by a disgruntled Yankee patriot who asked, “Mr. President, how dare you speak kindly of our enemies when you should be thinking of destroying them.” To this, Lincoln quickly replied, “Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I turn them into my friend?”
So next time you find yourself in conflict and need self-management, think about following the three tips above. You might realize that you have more control than you think.
Roi Ben-Yehuda is a trainer at LifeLabs Learning where he helps people at innovative companies (like Squarespace, Tumblr, Venmo, WeWork, and Warby Parker) master life’s most useful skills.