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How to Resolve Most Any Conflict: The Solution (This post is part 2 of a series)

Mastering the five essential steps for conflict resolution.


KEY POINTS

  • Miscommunication is inevitable in human relationships and often leads to conflict.

  • When fight-or-flight takes hold, conflicts quickly escalate and become more difficult to work through.

  • There are five steps that can be learned and applied to reliably resolve most conflicts.




Miscommunication is inevitable in human interactions. Biases, filters, assumptions, expectations, and nonverbal information cause distortions in interpersonal communications, altering them to fit our own point of view. As noted in part 1, up to 75 percent of all spoken communication is misunderstood, ignored, or forgotten (Guffey & Loewy, 2016; Tankovic, Kapeš & Benazić, 2023).


Miscommunications often lead to conflict. When communicated information is perceived as a threat, our fight-or-flight response is activated. Fight-or-flight shuts down both higher-order thinking and efficient information processing, increasing the possibility of further miscommunication. Once the brain is hijacked by fight-or-flight, conflicts quickly escalate. Learning how to manage communications capable of reducing threat and promoting problem-solving requires attention to several key points.


Managing Communications

To begin with, the earlier you take notice that a conflict exists, the easier it will be to manage it. You don’t need to fully understand what is transpiring to step back. By mutually acknowledging that there seems to be a problem, rather than pushing ahead with a discussion that is becoming heated, everyone becomes empowered, and you are able to start from a place of agreement.


The next goal, before addressing the conflict itself, is to diffuse negative emotions so a conflict does not continue to escalate, induce more fear and anger, or heighten the flight-or-flight response. Creating a sense of safety allows for the diffusion of negative emotions. Some ways this might be accomplished include (but are not limited to) taking a 15-minute break to calm and center, signaling to one another a desire to work together positively, giving voice to how fight-or-flight may have taken hold, and reassuring one another that you both want to resolve the problem positively.


When we do not acknowledge that a stress response has taken hold, the situation can feel dangerous and out of control. Taking a step back allows the stress response to calm so that the focus can shift to a more rational discussion of the conflict itself. Establishing common ground, before attempting to resolve a conflict, also demonstrates respect and compassion, which facilitates trust in the relationship and efficacy in your mutual abilities to resolve the conflict. Check in with one another before you move on to the next step, providing additional time or assurances as needed to build a sense of safety.


Active Listening

Once a conducive atmosphere has been established, the goal shifts to understanding each other’s point of view. It is not yet time to begin trying to solve the problem. Understanding the other’s perspective is a critical step, only possible with active listening. Active listening differs from passive listening, where information is absorbed and processed unilaterally with no opportunity for questions, clarification, or feedback. We are not able to fully comprehend what is being communicated with passive listening. Miscommunication happens when you interpret, without seeking clarification, and listen passively, simply awaiting your turn to speak. Active listening is when you pay full attention to another’s point of view, without judgment, and, when they finish speaking, clarifying to make sure you understand their perspective before switching to stating your point of view.


There are numerous forms of active listening including restating, paraphrasing, asking open-ended questions, and using "I" statements. Further, use your body language and gestures to show you’re engaged. You can do this by angling your body toward the other(s), sustaining eye contact, and nodding. Simply saying “I understand” and moving on to stating your point of view will not do the trick. This is still passive as it does not allow the other person insight into what you have heard, nor offer opportunities for clarification. Often, one person believes there is a significant relational conflict and the other may not even recognize that a misunderstanding has occurred or may judge it as slight and inconsequential. Active listening requires that you restate what you believe you have heard and then ask if you are correct, providing the time and opportunity for clarification and correction. Active listening allows all voices to be heard and truly understood. The goal of this step is for each person to prove that they understand the viewpoint of the other. Do not move on to the next step until all parties agree that what is being restated is, in fact, the intention of the communication.


Once the conflict has been clearly defined, from all perspectives, it is time to move on to the next step. The goal here is to list all the conditions that must be met for a solution to be acceptable to everyone involved, even if the conditions appear to be contradictory. There is no limit to how many pre-conditions are set, only that they be specific and realistic. When all of the pre-conditions are listed, you are assured of understanding the problem as well as is required for a true solution to be generated. This step is frequently skipped. However, listing the essential preconditions, before searching for possible solutions, allows you to move ahead together, with shared goals. It increases the precision of the solution and decreases the probability of crystalizing a desired outcome early on, before the situation is entirely understood. Reducing investment in particular solutions opens everyone up to alternatives and increases the likelihood of a win-win scenario (Likert & Likert, 1978). It is noteworthy that many conflicts can be resolved with these four steps alone. Once all perspectives are clarified and preconditions are stated, a solution often naturally evolves. So, it really pays to put in a considerable and conscious effort in establishing common ground at the outset of communications.


Generating Possible Solutions

Only now it is time to generate possible solutions. Consider the advantages and disadvantages of each possible solution and be open to compromise. By working together to creatively brainstorm potential solutions, all parties will feel respected. Once you choose a solution, clearly define all the terms and conditions for implementation and make sure everyone understands their responsibilities. Set times to check in with one another to make sure the solution remains sound and is accomplishing what you had hoped for.


Of course, some conflicts do not resolve with this process. There are dynamics that can get in the way including a lack of honesty or commitment to the process, power imbalances, unrealistic expectations, insufficient time, or an unwillingness to compromise. Some people are more transactional, confrontational, or focused on winning rather than creating mutual resolution. Conflicts can also be sustained by factors such as inequality, resource scarcity, political factors, lack of trust, cultural issues, and emotional entrenchment in a respective position. In some cases, there has been too much damage, in which case forgiveness and reconciliation must be established before moving toward conflict resolution.


Solidarity—that is, creating a commonality of understanding, feelings, and purpose—is a powerful force for conflict resolution. When collaboration, empathy, trust, and shared commitment are implemented, almost all conflicts can be resolved in equitable ways that promote healing and resilience.


References

Likert, R., & Likert, J. G. (1978). A Method for Coping With Conflict in Problem-Solving Groups. Group & Organization Studies, 3(4), 427–434. https://doi.org/10.1177/105960117800300406


Paxton, A., Roche, J. M., Ibarra, A. & Tanenhaus, M. K. (2021). Predictions of Miscommunication in Verbal Communication During Collaborative Joint Action. J Speech Lang Hear Res., 64 (2), pp. 613–627. doi: 10.1044/2020_JSLHR-20-00137.

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