With most conflicts, it’s important to find a resolution. This seems like a statement of the obvious, but many people suppress their anger or just ‘go along to get along.' They think that by addressing a conflict, they are creating one, and simply keep quiet when upset. Unfortunately, this isn’t a healthy long-term strategy. For one thing, unresolved conflict can lead to resentment and additional unresolved conflict in the relationship. Even more important, ongoing conflict can actually have a negative impact on your health and longevity. (See this piece for more on the detrimental effects of relationship conflict.)
Unfortunately, resolving conflict can be tricky as well. Handled improperly, attempts at conflict resolution can actually make the conflict worse. For example, researcher John Gottman and his colleagues studied the way couples fight, and can actually predict which couples will go on to divorce by observing their conflict resolution skills -- or lack thereof. (Hint: If you’re constantly criticizing your partner’s character, or shutting down during arguments rather than working through conflict in a proactive, respectful way, watch out.)
For those who weren’t born into a family where perfect conflict resolution skills were modeled on a daily basis (and—let’s face it—how many of us were?), here are some guidelines to make conflict resolution more simple and less stressful.
Get In Touch With Your FeelingsAn important component of conflict resolution involves only you -- knowing how you feel and why you feel that way. It may seem you’re your feelings should already be obvious to you, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes we feel angry or resentful, but don’t know why. Other times, we feel that the other person isn’t doing what they ‘should,’ but we aren’t aware of exactly what we want from them, or if it’s even reasonable. Journaling can be an effective way to get in touch with our own feelings, thoughts and expectations so we are better able to communicate them to the other person. Sometimes this process brings up some pretty heavy issues, and psychotherapy can be helpful.
Hone Your Listening SkillsWhen it comes to effective conflict resolution, how effectively we listen is at least as important as how effectively we express ourselves. It’s vital to understand the other person’s perspective, rather than just our own, if we are to come to a resolution. In fact, just helping the other person feel heard and understood can sometimes go a long way toward the resolution of a conflict. Good listening also helps for you to be able to bridge the gap between the two of you, understand where the disconnect lies, etc. Unfortunately, active listening is a skill that not everybody knows, and it’s common for people to think they’re listening, while in their heads they’re actually formulating their next response, thinking to themselves how wrong the other person is, or doing things other than trying to understand the other person’s perspective. It’s also common to be so defensive and entrenched in your own perspective that you literally can’t hear the other person’s point of view. (If this any of this sounds familiar, you may want to read this helpful article on listening skills.)
Practice Assertive CommunicationCommunicating your feelings and needs clearly is also an important aspect of conflict resolution. As you probably know, saying the wrong thing can be like throwing fuel on a fire, and make a conflict worse. The important thing to remember is to say what’s on your mind in a way that is clear and assertive, without being aggressive or putting the other person on the defensive. One effective conflict resolution strategy is to put things in terms of how you feel rather than what you think the other person is doing wrong, using ‘I feel’ statements. (See this assertiveness training article for more on this, or take the Conflict Resolution Quiz to see what your conflict resolution communication style is, and find tips on being more assertive.)
Seek a SolutionOnce you understand the other person’s perspective, and they understand yours, it’s time to find a resolution to the conflict -- a solution you both can live with. Sometimes a simple and obvious answer comes up once both parties understand the other person’s perspective. In cases where the conflict was based on a misunderstanding or a lack of insight to the other’s point of view, a simple apology can work wonders, and an open discussion can bring people closer together. Other times, there is a little more work required. In cases where there’s a conflict about an issue and both people don’t agree, you have a few options: Sometimes you can agree to disagree, other times you can find a compromise or middle ground, and in other cases the person who feels more strongly about an issue may get their way, with the understanding that they will concede the next time. The important thing is to come to a place of understanding, and try to work things out in a way that’s respectful to all involved. (For more information, see this article on communication skills.)
Know When It’s Not WorkingBecause of the toll that ongoing conflict can exact from a person, sometimes it’s advisable to put some distance in the relationship, or cut ties completely. In cases of abuse, for example, simple conflict resolution techniques can only take you so far, and personal safety needs to take priority. When dealing with difficult family members, on the other hand, adding a few boundaries and accepting the other person’s limitations in the relationship can bring some peace. In friendships that are unsupportive or characterized by ongoing conflict, letting go may be a great source of stress relief. Only you can decide if a relationship can be improved, or should be let go.
Newsom JT, Mahan TL, Rook KS, Krause N.Stable Negative Social Exchanges and Health. Health Psychology, January 2008.
Gottman JM., Carrère S. Predicting Divorce Among Newlyweds From the First Three Minutes of a marital conflict discussion. Family Process, Fall 1999.