When it comes to conflict, everyone is different. Some of us try to avoid confrontation at all costs while others passionately attempt to deal with their issues head on. One thing that most of us do have in common, however, is that when tension rises we tend to speak negatively about the other party (either to their face or behind their back). It just happens. Its part of the human condition. We tend to get defensive when we are feeling guilty, attacked, scared, or uncertain. In the case of conflict, that often manifests as an intense verbal reaction. We can thank biology for equipping us with a solid system of defense mechanisms but sometimes we gotta work to keep it in check.
You see, negative communication hardly ever produces effective results. But is that what we are really looking for? Effective results? Are we really interested in resolving the problem? Im sure you’re thinking, “of course that’s the goal.” But is it?
There are often so many other things going on in our brains when we experience conflict. Sometimes we feel attacked and the goal becomes just to get our voice heard. Sometimes, when the conflict has a history, the goal can be to bring up and validate our old fights and arguments from the past. There are many outcomes of that we could be searching for that have nothing to do with the resolution of the current issue.
Resolution only works when both parties are searching for… Resolution. Negotiation and compromise are both vital to effectively ending a dispute, but if there’s no intent to resolve it then there will likely be very little room for agreement.
So the first step in this process is determining what results you are looking for. If, with honest reflection, you see no value in resolution then you might need to take some time to determine what you are really trying to accomplish and work towards fostering that goal.
If, however, you do notice that you desire true resolution then there are a few other steps that you need to take to make sure that you are prepared for the tough conversations that are about to inevitably occur.
When we hear negative statements directed towards us or our situation, it automatically moves us out of resolution mode and into our defensive mode. We are then unable to focus on the situation at hand because our mind is too busy processing the negative statements. Arguments thrive on these negative statements because they keep it going. In order to put the brakes on the trivial argument, we must learn to re-frame our negative statements into more palatable and effective words that signal understanding over aggression.
Think before you speak
Yes, this is common sense, but it is much more difficult than it sounds. Often we do not realize the power of our words. Not only do our words have the power to hurt others and to fuel an argument, but they also have the ability to provide an invitation for listening, understanding, and compassion, which are all vital components to effective conflict resolution.
When people say “Think before you speak,” we typically assume this is to prevent us from making a mistake or hurting someone’s feelings. This is often the case. However, thinking before speaking can also help us get our own needs met. Intentionally crafting our language and word choice is an invaluable negotiation skill that will carry us far in our ability to get what we need in difficult situations.
The first step to starting to craft your words with intent is to simply practice some basic awareness. It is surprising how much say each day without even realizing it. Start by simply recognizing your word choices throughout the day. Just by paying more attention to what you are saying you can train you to become more aware of your word choices in the heat of the moment. Awareness of our words can do magical things for the way we communicate with others.
Respond versus react
We often forget that every conflict is a negotiation. Both parties are trying to make their point and gain something, and there is often a fluid conversation of needs and requests. You have to go into it with a plan on how you are going to both advocate for yourself and respond to their requests. If you were an attorney you wouldn’t go into a big trial or negotiation without getting the facts straight and having a plan, right? So why do we jump so quickly into everyday conflict? The answer is emotion. The first thing that we innately want to do when we are in a tense situation is react. When we experience a heavy emotion, there is often a strong sort of compulsive tendency to release a reaction. This is normal and natural but, again practicing awareness, we need to know how and when to let this reaction loose. If we can take some time to process our reaction we can start to ground ourselves enough to balance emotion with fact and create a more effective response to the situation.
Our word choices help us communicate our needs and wants, so planning is crucial. This doesn’t mean spending an entire day drafting out a verbatim script of what you will say to your spouse or colleague during an argument, it simply means taking a few minutes to calm down and plan how you can effectively communicate your needs in the situation. If the situation permits, remove yourself to collect your thoughts before heavily engaging in negotiation. A few minutes may feel like a long time but in reality just a few minutes is usually all you need to gather your thoughts and move from an emotional reaction to a rational response.
If this is difficult for you, it can be helpful to privately think about all of the negative things you want to say, and say them without filter. Play them in your head, write it out in a note, or even say them out loud if you need to. This can help in situations where you just need to explosively react in order to move on to the response crafting process.
After dumping all of your emotional needs privately, then take a step back and ask yourself if they are relevant to the situation. Toss our any irrelevant and unnecessary attacks or statements. Some of it you might want to throw out, but some of it you might way to keep. It may be more about adjusting your tone or language. At this point it will be much easier to carefully craft how you are going to present the issues that you feel need to be addressed.
Replace “You¨ statements with “I” statements
In an argument or conflict, the word “You” has a very strong power. It comes across as accusatory and should be carefully used in moderation. In a tense situation, the word ¨you” abruptly stops people from listening. The minute that it is said, the other party naturally moves into defensive mode and starts to plan a response and counterattack. If your goal is to simply get a rise out of the other person, ¨you¨statements may be the way to go. But if you are truly invested in resolving the conflict you´ĺl want to move away from a¨You did¨ to an ¨I feel” approach.
When you speak from the perspective of yourself, the other person is far more likely to listen to what you have to say. It can also build empathy and allow them to understand where you are coming from. It also forces you to explain the situation from your perspective. This is a very healthy and vital skill because it can really help you learn about your own needs rather than just focusing on placing blame.
A general rule of thumb for “I statements” is to use the following guideline:
I feel/felt ______________ when you __________________ . I need __________________ and I would appreciate ____________________.
Make sure to give the person a chance to respond- they may need a minute to switch from reaction mode too. If you approach situations with this framwork in mind it can really help you to feel heard and get your needs met. When both parties are operating from an ¨I feel” perspective, the chances of a win-win resolution rise significantly.
Practice these strategies on a daily basis because the way we communicate can change with practice and our word choices can become habitual. You will start to become a natural negotiator and find that conflict will start to resolve with ease. You might even find yourself naturally moving into less contentious situations to begin with. If your practice these strategies on a daily basis, it significantly decrease your reaction to response time allowing you to more efficiently get your needs met and generally improve your ability to get along with people.