Bill Southworth

Last month this column examined various levels of consciousness people display while responding to conflict, and the appropriateness (or not) of the response. “Appropriate”, here, means responses that lead to preventing or at least reducing conflict. Many of our actions in potential conflict situations are inappropriate and contribute to or even start the conflict. Inappropriate behavior can become a way of life, but not a way that most people would choose. You can change your inappropriate responses, but it will require being conscious of what you are doing, making a commitment to yourself and others to change, and constantly practicing. The good news is that you will have plenty of opportunities to practice at home, at work, and with neighbors to strengthen your relationships. The bad news is that it’s not easy to do. So, what can you do to respond appropriately and thereby prevent or reduce destructive conflict?

Let’s begin by looking at those one-on-one situations where you are already aware that the topic or the person you’ll be dealing with might create a conflict situation. For instance, you need to talk with a colleague you’ve argued with previously, or you need to talk with your spouse about a money issue. Knowing that you are going into delicate situations will allow you to prepare in advance. The first thing you need to do is to think about your expectations. Remember the old adage about being careful what you ask for since you just might get it? If you expect conflict, you may be unconsciously setting up conflict. Instead, expect a positive outcome, no matter how small, and actively work at it. Where you meet for your conversation, how you greet the person, your body language, your tone of voice, the words you choose, and even the amount of physical space you allow between you will also be part of how you are handling this situation.

For example, with a colleague, pick a neutral place to meet, be prepared to shake hands when you meet, use open body language (smile, use eye contact, lean forward), start with an ice breaker question or positive comment about something or someone they care about, keep an even tone of voice, use non-confrontational words. Take some time to think about these factors and consciously prepare for the conversation. You might want to share your thoughts and feelings and then role-play the meeting with a close and trusted friend.

Next, be in touch with your own feelings about the person and/or the topic you’re dealing with. You may feel frustration, disappointment, anxiety, anger or fear. For instance, discussing the money issue with your spouse can give rise to many or all of those feelings. Being aware of your feelings in advance of the meeting allows you to approach the issue and the person in a more reasonable way rather than allowing the feelings to completely take over and become the issue. Of course, feelings about the issue are a part of the whole equation, but they are often the unspoken part of a difficult conversation. At some point they should be openly discussed, along with the particulars of the issue, especially if the difficult relationship or topic is of long standing and the feelings are strong. If the feelings aren’t addressed, they will find some way to emerge and damage the relationship. They are like the elephant under the rug that both of you are aware of, never talk about, constantly walk around, and are negatively impacted by.

This is a lot to think about and do. But these actions will set off a sequence of events: preventing or minimizing destructive conflict sets the stage for a relationship based on trust and mutual respect which in turn yields major benefits for your work and family.