Humans are social creatures. We are hardwired for hyper-connectivity. We have a deep need to connect, collaborate, and be part of something larger than ourselves. This aspect of the human experience helps explain why so many relationships—personal and business—start out good, even great, and then get more challenging over time.
At the beginning of any relationship, we focus on what we have in common. Over time, the relationship is likely to evolve as differences become clearer, interests change, the relationship moves in unexpected directions, disagreements occur, or we just begin to see things differently.
In these moments, our deep need for connection and our yearning for commonality can become a trap. We want the other person to affirm our way of seeing things. However, we do not see things exactly the same way. We may be connected, but we are not the same.
Often, our ever changing interests and desires compete with the ever changing interests and desires of others. Our differences, disagreements, and discrepancies will wax and wane over time. Sometimes, they turn into disputes, and these disputes sometimes boil over into conflict.
How we respond in these moments of conflict plays a significant role in the success of every endeavor. Conflict is like rocket fuel: it can launch us toward our destination or blow everything up.
Below is an overview of five simple strategies to transform conflict in your life to advance your goals and objectives.
First, some conflicts can and perhaps should be avoided. (More on this below.) This is a situational analysis. Your decision to participate in a conflict situation, and how you engage, should be a strategic choice based on your goals and objectives. Conflict avoidance as a default reaction does not fuel success.
Second, the strategies below may be simple, but they are not necessarily easy. To be successful, you may have to let go of ingrained patterns to develop new ways of responding to conflict. This takes practice, but the result will be greater success in business, personal relationships, and life.
1. Embrace Conflict as an Opportunity
Today, many forces seek to divide people along real and artificial lines: in the workplace, at home, and especially online. Our differences and divisions as humans are exploited for a wide variety of purposes.
As just one example (but a very significant one!), research has shown that social media intensifies extreme reactions and amplifies perceptions of polarization. Even though actual positions on various issues haven’t changed, we feel like we are more divided than ever and our response to these divisions is more severe, fueling a feedback loop of fear, resentment, anger, and outrage. Recent findings also suggest that many proposed “solutions” to this problem are actually making things worse, not better. These and other trends have made authentic communication and connection more difficult.
At the same time, we are inundated with messages about the “costs of conflict” and offered tips on avoiding, preventing, reducing, or even eliminating conflict.
In all of this, we are conditioned to see conflict as inherently bad.
But what if that’s not true? What if conflict is simply a natural part of the human experience?
In a literal sense, conflict is a form of energy. More accurately, it is the friction that forms in the interaction of two or more people. In physics, friction is definedas the resistance to motion of one object moving relative to another.
Friction can make objects slow or stop, but it can also propel something forward. For example, a vehicle transfers energy from the engine to the wheels, but the vehicle won’t move without friction between the tires and the road.
The next time you are faced with a conflict situation, imagine a mental alert that pops up in your brain that says, “Opportunity Alert! How can I welcome this conflict as a resource to fuel my success?”
2. Clarify and Focus on Your Objectives
Next, ask yourself what you REALLY want. Take the time to think about your core values and your ultimate goals and objectives.
If you’re launching a new marketing campaign and there’s disagreement about the launch date or some other such detail, what is the ultimate goal? It might not be the strategy itself (remember: the menu is not the meal). Rather, it might be to increase sales, secure new clients, or improve customer satisfaction.
Gaining clarity about ultimate goals will help you determine what to focus on and what to simply let go of. This will help transform the immediate conflict situation into an opportunity for growth.
How often do you hear someone say, “just breathe?” It’s easy to dismiss, especially in the heat of a disagreement. You might think (or say) “NO! I don’t need to breathe. I need to be heard!” Yet, numerous studies have conclusively proven just how much deep breathing benefits us, both physically and mentally. Taking a deep cleansing breath helps our muscles relax, reduces blood pressure, improves circulation, boosts focus and concentration, reduces anxiety, and can improve our emotional and mental state.
Taking one to three deep breaths in the heat of an argument or disagreement will help you gain clarity, remain focused on your ultimate objectives, and direct the conflict toward a successful outcome.
4. Listen So the Other Person Feels Heard
Part of our deep need for connection is a desire to be heard. There is something in each of us that sees itself as a distinct identity with unique values, experiences, needs, and desires. This part of us wants to be acknowledged and respected by others. In conflict, it is often difficult to listen to the other person. Studies show that in conflict situations, people feel like they have lost some level of personal agency or power compared to where they were before. This sense of disempowerment causes us to become more self-focused, disengage, distance ourselves, and even demonize the other person.
In this dynamic, neither side is listening. So, what can you do? First, practice Strategy #3. Take a deep breath to help gain clarity and increase your capacity to listen.
Then, Listen to what the other person is saying. Even if you disagree or intensely dislike what they are saying, just listen without judgment, comment, or any adverse reaction.
If you are trying to listen, and you feel yourself reacting negatively to what the other person is saying, simply acknowledge what you’re feeling, take another deep breath, and then listen some more.
If you feel yourself itching to respond, that’s your ego raising its hand. It wants a turn. Take another deep breath and gently tell your ego that it will get its turn, just not yet. Part of why listening is so important to transform conflict into success is that both parties are already full emotionally. Your emotional cup is full, and so is theirs. They may need to empty their cup completely before they have capacity to hear what you want to share. When the other person feels heard, it allows them to breathe and open up their ability to listen.
You might be thinking, “well, that’s not fair! Why should I listen first?” Remember, your goal here is to succeed by advancing toward your objectives. You’re not giving in by listening, and you don’t have to agree with what the person is saying. However, for this to work, the listening must be real. You can’t fake it. You will need to make a genuine effort to let the other person share freely without resistance or argument on your part.
Some might complain that listening is exhausting and leads to “empathy fatigue.” Listening does take energy. For this reason, it’s important to fill your own tank in ways that work for you. Complaints about empathy fatigue also highlight a common misunderstanding about listening. Listening does not mean you suddenly “own” the other person’s issues. Authentic listening requires letting go of the urge to solve or fix or even fully understand the other person’s situation. Rather, it’s about letting the other person share whatever they choose to share and being okay with that. In conflict situations, this allows you to focus on your needs and interests, and to communicate those more effectively.
5. Give Your Ego a Constructive Voice
After you have listened, and when it’s your turn to talk (“Finally!” says your ego), go back to Strategies #1 and #2. This conflict is an opportunity to move you forward to greater success. So, what are the ultimate objectives here?
Focusing on your ultimate goals will help you deliver constructive messages in as few words as possible. In most situations, you will be better off not diving into a point-by-point rebuttal of everything they just said. You might choose to respond to one or two items, or ask clarifying questions, or explore something they shared in more detail to deepen your understanding.
Another approach might be to simply acknowledge their sharing and then go straight to what you want to discuss.
You might respond with something like this: “I heard everything you just said, and I appreciate you sharing. What I would like to focus on is…” and then identify your top issue or concern.
At that point, you can give your ego its constructive voice. There is no ‘one-size’ formula for this, but there are some simple techniques you can try out. The idea, though, is to communicate your interests, needs, desired outcomes, and perhaps also your feelings and how you have been impacted by things the other person has said or done. It is vital to do this constructively.
An I-message is one way to constructively identify and communicate your needs, interests, and desires as well as explain how the other person’s words or actions may have impacted you.
Business Example: Suppose a business partner committed to a major new project without consulting you. This action caused delays in other projects, impacting client relationships. This has caused a severe rift in your business partnership. To add insult to injury, your partner never acknowledged their role in the entire affair, causing you much grief.
Using the I-Message, you might say something like, “When I found out you took on this project without consulting me, I felt really hurt, confused, and angry. We agreed at the outset that open communication and shared decision-making were part of our core values. I felt blindsided by this. It undermined our partnership and made it difficult to manage our workload from that point forward.”
Here might be a good point to pause to see if they respond. If they do, regardless of what they say, it’s another opportunity to listen with the goal of advancing the conversation toward your ultimate objectives.
Another strategy for giving your ego a constructive voice is WINFY: “what I need from you.” Once the other person has been fully heard and you’ve delivered any constructive statements you feel are necessary, you might say, “at this point, what I need from you is…” and then communicate what you need or want to have happen.
An alternative approach is to go straight from listening to asking for what you want. Picking up on the suggestion above, after listening to other person, you might say, “I heard everything you just said. I appreciate your sharing that. Would it be possible if we …?” and then just ask for what you want.
Sometimes we don’t know what we want. In these situations, it’s okay to simply acknowledge that. You can still express what you are experiencing in that moment and allow the episode to unfold over time. Not every conflict needs a quick resolution. In some cases, no solution might be the best outcome if that helps advance your ultimate objectives.
In a time when conflict has been weaponized to divide us across so many planes, it makes sense why people try to reduce, prevent, and eliminate it. In reality, conflict cannot be avoided. It is a natural part of the human experience. Just as friction helps move a vehicle forward, conflict can help fuel our success. The key to unlocking the constructive energy in conflict is how we respond.
The next time you experience conflict, follow the five steps: Welcome it as an opportunity. Breathe. Clarify your objectives. Listen so the other person feels heard. Then, use constructive messages to communicate your needs, interests, and desires. At the end of the day, remember to embrace our differences, experiment, and explore what works for you. Have fun with it and enjoy the dance of authentic dialogue.