Like any other skill, you can get better at communication and resolving conflict over time. Sometimes, we try to just “wait things out” to hope they resolve themselves, but then it can be more uncomfortable the longer conflict lingers and now feels like a shock to the other person.
Everyone knows you can’t fully resolve a conflict without at least talking to the other person about it. But, what happens when that person is difficult to confront? Sometimes the stage that looks like procrastination or avoidance can really be uncertainty surrounding the conversation itself.
Help reduce your anxiety during an already stressful time with these tips to help you start a difficult conversation:
#1: Direct Request
A large number of people tend to talk to others when they have conflict with someone because it’s easier to talk to friends, family, or coworkers about the situation than it is to actually deal with it. Often in close circles, these people might even have shared experiences of the same conflicts that you’re venting about. However, this doesn’t resolve the issue at hand, it just fans the flames.
Take the first step towards resolving the conflict you’re experiencing by reaching out directly to the party you have conflict with. You’re going to know the best method of communication based on your relationship with them. If you’re coworkers, you might email them, but if they’re friends or even family you could text or call.
Don’t suddenly try some new method of communication just because it feels like you’re following these steps, you just want to ask when you two could sit down together (or have a phone/video call) to address some things that have been on your mind.
Sometimes, people will hear that cliche “we need to talk” trigger and immediately ask “what it’s about.” Consider this before asking for the meeting to sound decisive in your response. Have a quick, high level, synopsis ready like, “I’d like to discuss some ways we can improve our communication and work better together.” Don’t say offensive comments like, “I want to talk about what you did or need to change.” Both parties should enter this discussion calmly with open minds.
#2: Indirect Request
While any communication professional will tell you to start with the person you’re having issues with, what happens if they continue to refuse/avoid you? What if you tried to talk to them about the issue, but they don’t take the resolutions seriously or just create new conflicts? Sometimes you do need to escalate the situation.
When you go to a boss/mentor or even an influential friend to try to get through to the party you’re in conflict with, articulate the steps you’ve taken up until that point. Did you reach out? How was it received? These details will help the person you’re asking to assist you understand where you’re coming from.
If this is a conflict in a professional setting, your boss may have a vested interest in resolving the conflict, too, since this can distract a team from their goals. Friends or mentors may offer enlightening advice that you might not have considered because we can sometimes get “tunnel vision” when dealing with a challenging conflict and only focus on a few potential outcomes.
Your goal by recruiting the help of others is not to have a team to “gang up” on the person you’re in conflict with, it should still have the mission to sit down and seriously discuss the issue at hand.
When things are just too serious, or complicated, to resolve amicably on your own, you might need the help of a professional. In short, this person is called a “Mediator” and their role is to ensure the communication flows fairly; no one gets too much or too little time, language is respectful and people are heard.
While professionals are available, you can also have someone else sit in as a mediator, unofficially. In a professional setting this could be your boss or an unbiased coworker to keep both parties accountable. This means that one person doesn’t get to act like the hero while the other is vilified. From both sides, there is listening and understanding.
This can be especially difficult with sensitive conflicts like family/financial matters and romantic relationships. When we become passionate, it can be harder to check the “no you’re wrong and I’m going to tell you why/how” attitude at the door. Even the most confident people who feel like they’re certainly right/justified should listen closely to what the other person is saying because they could still have assumptions proved false and learn something from the experience.
Just as we mentioned with the indirect request method, you should do what you can to resolve the conflict before exploring this option, but when you are ready for this step, know it’s not limited to legal matters – you could get a mediator to talk to your neighbor about a fence you don’t like them building.
#4: What to Avoid
Even if you follow all of those steps and get to talk to the person you’re in conflict with, you need to have the right mindset when you go into that meeting/call. To keep it simple, we’re just going to talk about some major errors to avoid to help you get started on the right foot.
You’re heard them. “My way or the highway, this is how it has to be, etc.” These statements are extreme demands to the other person no matter how reasonable or just they seem to you. At the end of the day, the conflict might take some negotiation or compromise to fully resolve. Don’t cave on strong values or beliefs, but still take a creative approach to possible solutions.
Now or Never
You need to start by asking them when you can meet to discuss the issue. Out of respect to the person you’re in conflict with, you can’t just pick a time and say, “I expect you to show up then.” By asking them and having them confirm the date, you’re inadvertently getting them take the first step of “agreeing” with you which sets you up much better than the meeting itself starting off as an ultimatum. If they miss the meeting they agree on, it might be time to escalate the tactic and get assistance, but give them a chance to be involved in the decision.
This may seem like a given when you consider threatening bodily harm (if this is likely, you might want the Structured/Mediated tactic). However, there are other kinds of threats that can be just as dangerous to peaceful resolutions to conflict. Aggressive statements can create an environment that isn’t conducive to open communication. “If I don’t get what I want” followed by a threat like, “I’ll just leave” is counter-productive for a few reasons. That statement implies that you have one outcome in your mind that you’re expecting to happen and if that one solution doesn’t happen, everything is a failure. That’s very destructive thinking. It doesn’t allow you to be creative with solutions or imagine a different outcome. Additionally, tacking on the “I’ll just leave” threat probably doesn’t make them invested to stay since you were the one who requested the discussion.
Before you lash out, breathe and remember the common goal of having both parties walk away feeling like they were part of the solution and no one was coerced or felt guilted into the decision.
It’s never easy confronting conflict, but you do learn a lot when you address it. Conflict resolution is a valuable skill that’s transferable to many areas of your life. Practice makes perfect, so check out or Lunch & Learn workshops to continue growing!
For a deeper dive into this subject, check out our New Course debut which features activities and additional tips on Conflict Resolution.