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Disagreements and differing opinions are a normal part of human interaction, and although conflicts can generate uncomfortable feelings, they may also be an opportunity for growth. The process of conflict resolution can build trust and understanding, and improve your communication skills.
Learning how to resolve disputes successfully, rather than avoiding them, is critical for maintaining successful personal and professional relationships.
Sources of Friction
The most common sources of conflict are differences in background, culture, opinion, and communication style. Your experiences and background influence your behaviour and values, and can be the root of strong emotions.
Everyone needs to feel understood and respected, and if you don’t, it can be unsettling. The natural urge is to resolve that feeling, which can lead to conflict.
Dr. Shawn Malley, an ombudsperson at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Quebec, explains, “Conflict is emotional by its very definition.” Therefore, it’s essential to be in touch with your emotional reactions and able to manage them under stress, as aggravation can interfere with interpreting communication accurately.
Some common responses to disagreement are anger, confusion, frustration, fear, and avoidance. How you behave in a tense situation depends on two main things: your emotional reaction to the specific trigger and the communication strategies you’ve observed and learned.
Together, these form your conflict-resolution style. Here are the most common:
- Clear and Direct:
Unambiguous thoughts and feelings are verbalized to the other person, without violating his or her rights. This usually opens the door for resolution.
- Clear and Indirect:
A straightforward message is provided, but not to the other person directly. The other person may not be clear that you’re bothered.
- Masked and Direct:
An unclear message is directed at the intended person. He or she may know you’re upset, but may be confused about the cause and therefore unsure of what to do.
- Masked and Indirect:
Both the intended message and recipient are unclear. Disappointment or disagreement may be vaguely communicated to people who aren’t directly involved with the situation. This means feelings are expressed, but there’s little opportunity for resolution.
Situational examples of conflict-resolution styles
Communicating With Style
Different communication styles can be a source of misunderstanding. Here are some sample situations that demonstrate how you can recognize and respond to various styles:
Clear and Direct Communication Style:
Situation: Your roommate asks you to clean up your part of the room.
Example Statement: “Please clean up. I’ve already asked twice.”
Helpful Response: Accommodate: Calmly agree to clean up tonight, and follow through.
Clear and Indirect Communication Style:
Situation: Your boss comments on your jeans during a staff meeting.
Example Statement: “Our office doesn’t have ‘Casual Fridays.’”
Helpful Response: Accommodate: In the future, follow the appropriate dress code. You may also speak to your boss privately to apologize and express that it won’t happen again.
Masked and Direct Communication Style:
Situation: Your partner seems annoyed when you’re late for a date.
Example Statement: “People just don’t seem to value punctuality.”
Helpful Response: Compromise: Apologize for your tardiness, and say that you’d prefer if he or she expressed any disappointment more directly.
Masked and Indirect Communication Style:
Situation: You decline a party invite from your friend, who makes a remark in your presence.
Example Statement: “People who aren’t coming to the party are lame.”
Helpful Response: Avoid: Choose to ignore the statement since it wasn’t directed to you. Or, address it later, when you’ve both had time to cool down.
Hearing vs. Being Heard
Isis B., a third-year student at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, recognizes that her responses to conflict depend on the relationship. “I like to assess the individual circumstances surrounding a conflict,” she says. “I think diplomacy is key in every situation. Know your audience, and try to approach them in a way that won’t cause them to get defensive.”
With a supervisor or coworkers, it may be tempting to hold in your feelings, but this can lead to resentment. With family and friends, you might express more anger, thinking that any repercussions will be limited. But yelling and acting out can cause defensiveness in others. You’re not likely to be heard, and the anger may escalate.
Here are some conflict-resolution guidelines:
- Approach the conflict in a calm and open manner.
- Pay attention to both what the other person is saying and to non-verbal cues, such as eye contact and body language.
- Try to see the other person’s point of view and use this information when creating a solution. In his world-renowned book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People®, Stephen Covey emphasizes, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
- Aim for the goal of resolving the conflict, not “winning” the argument. Finding a solution that’s agreeable to both parties will feel more satisfying than getting your way. Jennifer B., a third-year student at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, says, “Value the relationship more than you value the fight.”
- When appropriate, use humour. Laughing together can relieve tension, reframe the situation, and increase bonding. Enhancing your relationship may prevent conflicts in the future.
Understand less-ideal strategies
Some conflict-resolution strategies are less likely to be successful. Here are some to watch out for—in yourself and others:
Avoidance: Sometimes it’s useful to just walk away from a situation, especially if you’re feeling very upset or unclear about how to proceed. But this will leave feelings unexpressed, and they can build up.
If you decide to avoid a situation now, consider revisiting it when you’re more clear-headed or talk with someone neutral to let off steam.
Competition: Here, you assert your needs and make an argument about why yours are more important or correct than the other person’s. This approach is usually viewed as highly aggressive and may be coercive.
This option frequently results in at least one person feeling threatened and can make a fair resolution difficult.
Turn Things Around
Philip S., a third-year student at the University of Ottawa in Ontario explains, “Most of the time, people argue points without taking the other side’s view into consideration. If you want to have a productive conversation, it’s best to try to understand the other person’s position.” He suggests asking the following questions to mitigate the urge to avoid or compete:
- What’s the problem?
- What’s my stance?
- What’s the other person’s stance?
- What is each of us trying to accomplish?
- Why are we trying to accomplish these things?
“When you consider these factors, you’ll be more prepared to address the other person’s concerns,” says Philip.
Here are some ways to resolve a conflict more quickly and smoothly:
Both parties yield a bit on their needs in order to focus on maintaining the relationship. This may be effective, but make sure everyone is still able to express his or her feelings.
Everyone works toward a common goal. This requires assertiveness and cooperation.
There’s give and take among parties, but make sure each person understands the other’s experience so as to avoid frustration.
While conflict can be difficult and stressful, managing and resolving it can be an opportunity for developing deeper connections. Just remember to stay calm and keep an open mind.
- Be open to accepting differences in opinion and experience.
- Tune in to your emotions before responding to conflict.
- Find a conflict-resolution style that fits your personality and the situation.
- Work on communicating clearly and directly.
- Explore conflict-resolution resources.
Need something resolved?
Use your resources
If a conflict appears unmanageable on your own, consider seeking assistance from a third party. Many campuses have an ombudsperson, a staff member who’s available for confidential mediation and conflict resolution. This person can help facilitate communication between people, empowering everyone to find a mutually agreeable solution.
Residence life staff and campus counsellors are also a great resource. Janika R., a third-year student at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, involved a neutral counsellor to resolve a conflict she was having with her roommate. “It was liberating because the situation had become too difficult for us to deal with on our own,” she explains.
More communication tips
Dr. Spencer Boudreau, an ombudsperson at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, offers these tips for resolving conflicts:
- Use neutral language. Avoid name-calling and emotionally-loaded words like “stupid,” “liar,” “lied,” or “ambushed.” Using these will only cause the other person to get defensive and prevent the dialogue from moving forward productively.
- Don’t get sidetracked by simple questions or attempts to provoke you. Dr. Boudreau says, “Think about the goal of resolving conflict. You have to let some things go.”
- Avoid using superlatives like “always” and “never.” These words can mean different things to each person.
- Speak with “I” statements. “You” may be perceived as pointing fingers.
- Be diplomatic, but not to the extent that your message gets lost.
Get help or find out more
The University of British Columbia, Conflict Resolution Clinic, Mediation—Frequently Asked Questions
The University of British Columbia, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, Conflict Resolution
Government of Alberta, Alberta Learning Information Service, Let’s Talk: A guide to resolving workplace conflicts
Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Resolving Conflict
Covey, S.R. (2013). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People®: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change (25th Anniversary Edition). Simon & Schuster, New York.