Crash Course: Conflict Resolution
First and foremost, this is meant to be a quick crash course to get you thinking about how to manage conflict, either in an admin or mediator role or when you yourself are involved in the conflict. This little guide is not meant to be an exhaustive resource, so if you find this helpful I really encourage you to read more or go out and find courses you can take to help develop these skills.
I will also mention this guide focuses on conflict resolution. This means trying to resolve the conflict so all people involved can feel better, move forward and return to enjoying themselves or being productive in whatever they are doing. In the workplace, this is the only acceptable outcome as everyone still has to come to work and do their thing.
In an online world meant for fun, moving on is an option and there may come times where kicking someone out or walking away from the situation is the best course. This guide does not cover those situations, because those are more about discipline than conflict resolution.
The Main Goal
This is worth stating more than once. If you find yourself in or mediating a conflict your primary goal is to defuse and deal with the problem. Leaving it aside, or not getting to the real problems causing the conflict will only ensure the conflict comes back later on. Sometimes taking a bit of time to rest or reflect can be part of the problem solving process, so long as there is a clear intent to return back to solving it. So again, the major goal is always:
- Defuse and then Deal With the problem.
Starting off – Understanding Conflict
Sometimes conflict is pretty obvious, because two people are standing there screaming at each other. But often it is not that clear cut, and even when it is we need to have a better understanding of what is going on behind the surface expressions like yelling, insults and so on.
Most of us are familiar with personal conflicts creating stress and high emotions like anger, fear, despair, etc. While this is certainly true, it is a limited way of understanding it.
As our emotions run higher and higher and we become more angry or frustrated, our intellect becomes impaired. We lose more and more of our ability to think critically and to reason. Because of this, while conflict can create high emotions, it is also extremely common that high emotions lead to conflict. Something stressful happens and causes emotions to rise, then maybe something else and then one other thing creates a crisis point where someone lashes out or snaps defensively. In this case, a conflict breaks out directly because the people involved are emotional and cannot reason the way they normally would. That conflict certainly contributes to the stress, but the stress actually started first.
This intellectual impairment with high emotions is one of the biggest reasons why sometimes it is best to make a point of taking a night off for all involved to reflect on what happened, and coming back to discuss the conflict the next day. The critical part here is the delay is part of the resolution plan to get the best possible result, not putting the problem off indefinitely.
Responding defensively, especially to aggressive behaviour, is an instinctive response and we all do it. However, defensiveness is also likely to escalate a conflict further and is almost never productive at solving the problem.
Alternatively, a harsh defensive response can appear to resolve the conflict, but it actually just pushes it away without solving anything. The most likely result is the conflict will return later in an even worse state. For example, responding with something like “Look, this is stupid. I’m done. See you later.” A statement like this pulls one person out of the conflict for now, but does nothing to solve the problem, deferring it instead.
Remember too that defensiveness does not need to be directly confrontational. While defensive responses can be competitive (“No, I’m the more experienced person here and you will listen.”), they can also use avoidance (“This isn’t worth my time. Get that out of here.”) or accommodation (“Fine, it’s stupid but you know best. We’ll do it your way.”). None of these solve anything, and are likely to make the conflict worse.
Trying to Deal with Conflict
Ways of Conflict
Generally, people will naturally try to resolve a conflict in one of 5 major ways.
- My Way – asserting their own position as superior to all and trying to enforce it.
- Your Way – conceding to someone else just to stop or avoid the conflict.
- No Way – dismissing the conflict by making it so no solution is used. (“Fine if you feel that way we just won’t do anything. Done, goodbye.”)
- Half Way – attempting to resolve a conflict through compromise, using give and take. Each side gives up something to gain something else.
- Our Way – attempting to use collaboration to resolve the conflict, discussing and working on a solution until all sides can agree to it, even if it is not what they initially wanted.
When trying to resolve a conflict, the way in which you communicate is critical. You need to be someone who is there to defuse the stresses, but also make progress on solving the problem.
Language is important. Try to stay neutral. Be soft on the people, and hard on the problems. When you cite problem behaviour, be specific. Give examples, express its impact and then detail what you need to change. Always invite collaboration. Ask for ideas on how to solve something. Do they think your solution will work? What could be better about it?
LISTEN. To both sides if you are mediating. You need to understand where both are at and how both perceive the conflict to even begin to solve it:
- Content: listen to the content of what they are saying. Use paraphrase to acknowledge what you’ve been told, then use open questions to get more information. (“Okay, I understand the language she uses is upsetting you over and over, can you describe how frequently this is happening?”)
- Emotions: listen to what the other person is expressing. Give empathetic responses to acknowledge that and open questions to learn more. (“You sound really frustrated, and I probably would be too. Can you explain if there is a specific part of his jokes that are making your frustrated for me?”)
- Process: listen to everything, the use immediacy and reframing to confirm your understanding. (When told: ‘His jokes are disgusting and I’m always in them and it’s fucking creepy.’ Respond: “I see, his jokes are crude and personal, which is leaving you uncomfortable being nearby at all.”)
Once again LISTEN.
By listening first, it allows the others to vent, hear themselves speak out their position and know it has been heard. It also lets you hear all the information available to understand the problems and create a good response to them.
Remember almost all behaviours make sense to the person doing them at the time. Listen and be sure to reflect on all the possible reasons for the conflict as you create potential solutions. The vagaries of online interactions aside, most people do not engage in harassing behaviour to be idiots. It’s pretty common that a genuine lack of understanding of the impact of those behaviours is the problem.
When trying to resolve a conflict your language is always key. Stay neutral and acknowledge the points the others are making as much as you can. This ensures they know they are being heard, and lets them feel validated that their concerns and points have been made.
Acknowledge the past, then focus on changing the future.
You also need to do your best to avoid quite common, but often accusatory sounding words.
“Why,” “calm down” and “feel” are particular phrases to avoid.
- “Why did you do that?” try “Can you explain for me what you wanted when you _____?”
- “Please, calm down.” try “I see you’re angry and I get it, I do. But if we are going to fix this I need you to talk to me.”
- “You feel frustrated,” try “You seem… You sound… I can see you are….”
When you have done all the listening, acknowledging and discussion which needs to be done to
understand the problem and determine what sort of solutions might help, you need to be able
to request changes to behaviour from the others to solve the conflict, hopefully for good.
This should follow 3 general steps:
- Describe the problem behaviour, with specifics. Be clear.
- Express the impact this behaviour has. Explain why it is a problem and what grief it is causing.
- Specify what you need to be different. Be exact and concrete, so there is no doubt in what has to happen.
Keep doing this until you get through all the changes which need to happen to solve the conflict.
Bringing it All Together
So, that is a lot of information thrown your way already. The last thing I want to do is break this down into a general list of how the conflict resolution process goes, whether you are involved directly or mediating.
- Flashpoint. Some stress sparks the conflict. The initial emotional highs could be unrelated, but conflict begins either way.
- Conflict becomes visible. This is where you or others realize the conflict is happening as it is either reported or becomes obvious (yelling in public etc.).
- Optional: get everyone involved to walk away until tomorrow. Hopefully, this lets the worst emotions pass and those involved reflect on what happened.
- Listen. To everyone. Hear them out, respond, ask questions to learn what you need about the problems. Figure out what has really caused the conflict and how to solve it.
- Are you sure you are done with Step 4? You have heard everyone fully?
- Request behaviour changes. Describe problem behaviour, Express impacts, Specify changes.
- Hopefully by this point everyone has agreed to a course of action.
- Monitor, in case the solutions don’t fully resolve things or someone decides not to follow them. If something is wrong, ideally we go back to step 3 or 4, and not 1 or 2.
That is the end of this very small crash course. If you want to know more, have questions or even want to practice some of the items I’ve put down here, reach out and I will do my best to help.
Author: Catalenya Rex