The concise guide to interpersonal conflict resolution

interpersonal conflict resolution

How to transform interpersonal conflict into strong relationships at work and home

This guide is intended to give you a concise overview of interpersonal conflict resolution at work or home. If you’re intrepid and willing to experiment, the ideas presented here will point you in a direction. But no guide can substitute fully for a skilled professional’s help and this guide is no exception. If you’re hesitant to proceed on your own, feel like the conflict is overwhelming, or would just prefer some help implementing what is described here, consider hiring me to help you. I work with clients worldwide thanks to mass transit and technology.

Know, too, that my style is to simplify wherever possible. Conflict is complicated and most of us cannot possibly remember a long recipe of things to do and not do during a conflict conversation. So, this guide is decidedly minimalist and attempts to focus your energy and attention on the places you have the greatest likelihood of shifting the conflict to a better place.

Ongoing tension or states of conflict in relationships do not mean the relationship is irreparably damaged and doomed. An alternative to enduring the misery or ending the relationship is to forge connectedness and meaning from the conflict and use that to strengthen the bond between you.

“Happiness comes not just from within…happiness comes from between.”
Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis

The “between” in Haidt’s quote above is the relationship between you and others. If you agree that happiness is dependent in part on connection and relationship with others, then nurturing personal, professional and business relationships becomes very important. Attending to conflict that can pollute those relationships is part of such nurturing.

In interpersonal conflict situations involving relationships that you want or need to continue, the following are usually the primary goals for everyone involved. There may be others, but these are the ones people return to again and again when I’m mediating, coaching or otherwise transforming a workplace or personal conflict:

  • Alleviate ongoing tension so that the personal relationship is more joyful or the professional relationship returns to being productive.
  • Handle yourself in a way you can feel good about, doesn’t further damage the relationship and, if at work, fosters your career.
  • See if you can sort out the primary dispute and, if not, figure out how to move forward without resolution.

To achieve these goals, I’ve outlined below the three interpersonal conflict fundamentals:

  1. Manage your own response
  2. Do your part to make collaborative problem solving feasible
  3. Focus your energy where it really matters

1. Manage your own response

You’ve no doubt noticed that all three of the above fundamentals call on you, without regard to what the other person does or doesn’t, will or won’t do. That’s because the only person you can truly manage during conflict is yourself. During conflict conversations, many people focus attention on the other’s behavior, on the other’s transgressions, and on what they demand the other person start or stop doing. If that worked, you wouldn’t be reading this. So let’s have you stop doing what isn’t working and disempowering yourself in the process. When you make the fix to a conflict entirely the other person’s job, you hand all power to them for how the future unfolds.

“Every person you fight with has many other people in his life with whom he gets along quite well. You cannot look at a person who seems difficult to you without also looking at yourself.”
Jeffrey Kottler, psychologist

The way you act in conflict is heavily influenced by the way you think about conflict and its resolution, by the narrative you tell yourself and others about the situation. By choosing a certain kind of narrative, you create opportunity to change the conflict and its impact on the relationship. The narrative you choose to tell yourself and others about the conflict will determine your words and actions.

What does it mean to manage your own response and choose the right kind of narrative? I’m writing an entire book on the subject at the moment, but until that’s available, use these guidelines to figure out what kind of response will serve you best:

  • Work to understand what it is about the other person’s behavior that is getting under your skin. Understanding that will give you the key to neutralizing your “inner lizard.”
  • Identify “stoppers,” quick mechanisms to help you stop doing something you know won’t serve you well but is still a habit that’s hard to break. Stoppers are a mental shortcut to help you bridge the gap between what you know and what you actually do.
  • Notice the narratives you tell yourself and others about this conflict. Is it helping you or blinding you to a fuller understanding of the problem?
  • Stop blaming. It wastes energy, escalates conflict, sidetracks the conversation and achieves little beyond feeding your inner lizard’s bad behavior.

2. Do your part to make collaborative problem solving feasible

When there’s an ongoing period of tension, every little transgression registers, just like a minor scrape on a scab can start it bleeding again. Relationships that took a long while to become tense and unhappy will take a while to heal. One of your primary tasks is to create space for that to occur and to protect the “between” (see reference to Haidt, above, if you skipped that part) from further damage.

Here are some effective ways for protecting the relationship the best you can from increased tension while you work to sort out the problems that caused it:

  • If a conversation gets tense or begins to go downhill in another way, stop until you have your balance back. Proceeding when you’ve lost your cool serves no one well.
  • Use door openers to initiate conversation about the tension, to invite the other person to understand it with you. Don’t focus on fixing first — focus on understanding first.
  • When you do have to confront a problem, do your part to increase the odds the other person will want to stay in conversation with you. The other person(s) can choose to leave the conversation whenever they wish; do your best to conduct yourself in a way that makes them more likely to stay. If you can’t, rely on the advice in the first bullet.
  • If you’re implementing some new behaviors of your own, practice them during low-stakes conversations, not ones where emotions are escalated. You want to give yourself room to grow into a new habit before putting it to the hardest test.

3. Focus your energy where it really matters

As noted above, when things are tense it can seem like every move by you or the other becomes yet another nail in the relationship’s coffin. In part, it’s because you’re stuck in a reflexive loop. In part it’s because when you focus on problems, that’s what you see, just like hitting a pothole you’ve been watching in order to avoid.

“You can’t talk your way out of something you behaved your way into. You have to behave your way out of it.”
Doug Conant, CEO, Campbell Soup

In general, the approach I recommend for interpersonal conflict that’s evolved into an ongoing state of tension is this sequence:

  1. Put most energy to reducing the tension by emphasizing 1 and 2 above. Changing how you engage the conflict will go a long way to helping you later address the differences that initiated it.
  2. Get very clear on what’s most important to you in terms of the relationship problems/differences you want to sort out. This is soul-searching work and yours alone to do. Until you know what’s most important, you risk solving the wrong problem.
  3. Work on lesser problems after the most important ones are sorted out, if at all. Here are some tips for deciding whether or not to confront a problem. Teach yourself how to let go of the rest.

Would you like a stronger relationship at work or home?

I help business partners, couples and individuals prevent conflict from leaving debris in the relationship and instead use it to deepen personal and professional bonds. From two decades mediating, coaching and teaching conflict resolution to thousands worldwide, I’ve developed an innovative, transformative process that my clients use to turn even the most complex and stubborn matters into better relationships and the peace of mind that comes from doing something well.

If you’re interested in how I can help you with transforming an interpersonal conflict into a happier, stronger relationship, please contact me to discuss the possibilities. And for additional ideas to help you navigate interpersonal conflict, try these articles:

© 1997-2010 Tammy Lenski. All rights reserved.