Conflict Resolution. Do we all experience conflict? Yes, we do. Whether interacting with family, friends, or co-workers, we are bound to face disagreements. However, not seeing eye to eye does not have to mean the end of a relationship. Keep reading to learn about conflict resolution—a set of skills intended to manage conflict healthily.
What Causes Conflict?
Conflict is described as disputes or disagreements between two parties. The presence of conflict can arise at home, in schools, at work, and in community organizations—any place where there are social interactions.
The main cause of conflict stems from poor communication. One individual is unable to adequately convey their complete message to another. This causes them to make assumptions about their thoughts, feelings, or stance on a particular issue.
Outside of poor communication, conflict is also caused by:
- Differing Viewpoints
- Conflicting Roles
- Improper Planning
- Resource Allocation
- Incompatible personalities
- Unmet Needs
Effects of Unresolved Conflict
When poorly managed, conflict is detrimental to both the individual and their relationships. Firstly, unresolved conflict poses the risk of severing ties with important people in our lives. With constant arguing, ignoring the person completely, or tension, a relationship is unlikely to possess the trust and harmony to prosper.
On an individual level, the unresolved conflict has detrimental effects on physical health. Studies show the resulting psychological stress weakens the immune system, increasing susceptibility to developing illnesses. Research from Northwestern University also confirms that 80% if males involved in arguments suffered high blood pressure and chest pain.
Overall work productivity steadily declines in the presence of unresolved conflict. Rather than the job at hand, time is dedicated to reducing avoidable problems arising from the conflict. This causes poor decision making.
What is Conflict Resolution?
Conflict is inevitable, and can even be a healthy aspect of social interactions only if it is managed through conflict resolution. Conflict resolution is the process in which individuals peacefully arrive at a solution to their disagreement. It is essential for maintaining effective, rewarding relationships for both parties.
The goal of conflict resolution is to avoid damaging relationships. Through compromise, conflict resolution preserves limited resources, fosters understanding, explores possibilities, and creating a foundation for forming new interactions.
Conflict Resolution and The Brain
The brain perceives conflict as a stressor. As the body recognizes a threat, a portion of the brain known as the amygdala triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to provoke the fight or flight response designed for survival mechanisms. The brain becomes equipped to identify objects, make a judgment, and carry out the appropriate reaction. Our bodies, however, have elevations in heart rate, flushed skin, sweating, and tense muscles.
Attention focuses solely on surviving the problem at occurring. To do so, the amygdala deactivates other brain regions such as the pre-frontal cortex. An inactive pre-frontal cortex narrows complex thought processes needed for decision making, along with memory function. This is a protective mechanism. While conflict is not typically the same life-or-death situations experienced by our ancient ancestors, these physiological responses shape how we interact in conflict resolution.
Common Conflict Resolution Styles
Humans are diverse creatures—each possessing unique qualities, personality characteristics, and environments. The qualities we display the impact on how we approach conflict, ultimately leading to our preferred conflict resolution styles.
Conflict Resolution: Avoiding
As the name implies, the conflict resolution style of avoidance involves withdrawing from conflict entirely. Rather than confronting the problem, those who avoid conflict pretend it does not exist or shut down. Fear is a common motivator for avoidance. However, avoidance of a conflict not necessarily negative. Ignoring the problem gives additional time to think of the ideal response to resolve the conflict without harming either party.
Conflict Resolution: Accommodating
Accommodating is a style of low assertiveness. When accommodating for conflict resolution, there is no compromise to establish a middle-ground solution. Instead, one sacrifices their wishes for that of the other party. It is best used in situations of low importance.
An example of accommodating is the following:
“Where do you want to go out for dinner?”
“I don’t care. Wherever you want.”
Conflict Resolution: Competing
Conflict resolution through competing is characterized by dominance and a sense of power. It is taking a firm, unwavering position against the opposing party. This style is optimal for moral issues and situations in which a quick decision is required. The downfall of competing is that the other person may feel disregarded or unheard, potentially adding to the tension of conflict.
Conflict Resolution: Compromising
Comprising is establishing a middle-ground solution that pacifies every party. Each person has a different viewpoint, and compromise seeks to partially satisfy them all. The effectiveness of compromise varies on the original conflict. It is optimal for temporary decisions such as an approaching deadline or if a decision must be reached, yet the quality of that decision is not as important.
Conflict Resolution: Collaborating
Collaborating uncovers a win-win solution that is pleasing to all parties. It entails cohesive teamwork to arrive at a pleasing solution for everyone. This conflict resolution style entails cohesive teamwork where no individual is dissatisfied and attempts to preserve important relationships.
Effective Conflict Resolution Strategies
Regardless of the conflict resolution style one instinctively employs during a disagreement, developing a conflict resolution plan is vital to positively diffusing controversy.
The below conflict resolution strategies transform conflict from a problem that is toxic to relationships to a productive interaction that motivates change, breaks down barriers, and increases understanding. Communication is at the center of resolving any and all of the conflict resolution strategies.
The initial step of conflict resolution should be recognizing the conflict that exists. Acknowledging conflict is the mutual agreement to address the problem and to find a solution that eliminates harm from either party.
Acknowledgment also involves:
- Distinguishing the conflict’s source
- Assessing the risk of addressing the conflict
- Identifying the needs of both parties
- Declaring your intention to actively resolve the conflict
Emotions run high in conflict. The stress response conflict triggers can lead to a lack of emotional control. We must know how we feel to understand the problem, your own needs, and the needs of others. Emotional awareness is the conscious awareness of your emotional state. Do you feel sad? Are you angry? Fearful? These feelings are normal during the conflict. How we choose to handle our feelings determines the effectiveness of conflict resolution.
We all wish to have our opinions, thoughts, and feelings heard. Listen to the other person’s view. Despite disagreeing with their perspective, understanding their stance on the conflict is necessary to effectively communicate. However, listening goes beyond hearing another’s words. Active listening ensures you truly comprehend the other party’s meaning.
Clarify what the person is saying. Rephrase their dialogue as a question:
- “From my understanding, you meant….”
- “You’re saying that…?”
- “Am I correct in thinking you said…?”
Validation is a significant part of feeling heard. Encourage the other person to share their stance. Express your eagerness to understand the cause of conflict and what is upsetting them. Ask to know their interest in resolving conflict. What do they have to lose? What do they wish to gain from this exchange? What are their concerns? Validation communicates that you care enough to resolve the conflict.
Assertiveness is often assumed to be rude, confrontational, or domineering. However, being assertive differs from aggression. In conflict resolution, assertive communication is expressing your position using respectful open dialogue. It is not an attempt to gain power, nor is it passively complying with the other party in a way that does not meet your needs. Assertive communication is straightforward, communicating your needs, attitudes, and intentions. It maintains confidence and builds self-esteem while standing up for your rights and the rights of others.
Accusations lead others to feel judged, which precipitates defensive behavior to defend their position. That causes the conflict to be counterproductive, as it delays arriving at a solution. Accept your fault in the conflict without blaming the other person.
I-messages are helpful to state the problem without accusations of blame. I-messages or I-statements describe the conflict and the feeling the conflict creates. They begin with “I” and focus on your feelings without implying causation. Instead of a You-statement (i.e. “You make me mad,) an I-statement (i.e. “I feel upset…) is effective.
Utah State University outlines the general format for I-messages:
- I think ____________ (your thoughts about the situation).
- I feel ____________ (be sure to state an emotion rather than a thought. For example: excited, frustrated, concerned, etc.)
- because ____________ (provide the specific reason you are feeling this way, preferably with an example).
Manage Nonverbal Communication
Although verbal communication is the most prevalent mode of communication, we are constantly conveying messages nonverbally through body language such as:
- Eye Contact
- Tone of Voice
- Facial Expressions (i.e. frown, smile, etc.)
Speaking the words to diffuse conflict is great, but if unsupported by appropriate gestures and facial expressions, the message is easily disregarded. For example, wildly waving your arms does not communicate trust and respect during a heated exchange, but a reassuring touch is a welcoming sign to proceed with amicable conflict resolution.
Approaching someone with rudeness is almost a guarantee that conflict will escalate. The person will feel attacked and defensive rather than valued and understood. To address a conflict, be respectful. Treat the other as an equal deserving of understanding. A positive way to convey politeness is to pay them a compliment before conveying anything negative. If you are respectful, the other party will likely treat you with the same respect to optimize conflict resolution.
Darrington, J. & Brower, N. (2012). Effective Communication Skills: “I” Messages and Beyond. Retrieved from https://articles.extension.org/sites/default/files/I%20messages%20and%20beyond%20Utah.pdf
Hamilton, D.M. (2015). Calming Your Brain During Conflict. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2015/12/calming-your-brain-during-conflict
Cheyanne is currently studying psychology at North Greenville University. As an avid patient advocate living with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, she is interested in the biological processes that connect physical illness and mental health. In her spare time, she enjoys immersing herself in a good book, creating for her Etsy shop, or writing for her own blog.