“Wherever you have two people with different needs and expectations — and, so, basically, wherever you have two people — you have the potential for conflict,” according to Meredith Richardson, Esq., a mediator, conflict coach and trainer who creates retreats that help partners be their best selves.
She believes conflict gets a bad rap in our culture. While conflict is uncomfortable, it’s perfectly normal, she said. Of course, resolving conflict can be tricky. It’s especially tough when one person — or both — is convinced they’re right, Richardson said.
It’s also hard to resolve conflict when one person avoids it. People who fear conflict stifle their own wants and needs so they don’t disturb others, she said. “That is a tough way to live.”
It’s also tough for others. “It may be that there is no way to address the conflict directly with that person.” And yet their anger slips out in other ways, affecting the relationship.
While navigating conflict may not be easy, there are strategies that can simplify — and enhance — the process. For instance, a simple but important tip is to pick a time to talk that works well for everyone, Richardson said. Here are seven other strategies, from Richardson, to help.
Have a plan.
When you need to have a tough conversation with someone, brainstorm the best ways you can have that discussion, Richardson said. For instance, she suggested asking yourself these questions:
- What’s the best day or time of day for talking?
- Is there someone else I’d like to be there (or not be there)?
- What can I do so that person is able to hear and understand me?
- Will I need to prep for the talk?
- Do I need to deliver the message “in small bites first and then have the hearty discussion at a later date?”
- If I know what they’re going to say, what are the ways I can meet their needs while meeting my own?
Another key is to focus away from wanting to win and toward being open to finding a solution that works for everyone involved, Richardson said. This includes better understanding the other person’s perspective, asking lots of questions and getting as many details as possible.
“First, recognize that most of the time, that person is not doing this behavior intentionally to annoy you,” Richardson said. For the most part people want to be liked by others, she said.
Also, put yourself in their shoes. In fact, “use your whole body.” For instance, sit or stand where your husband was during last night’s fight, she said. Ask yourself how he might’ve been feeling.
Richardson also suggested learning about people in general. “There are countless articles, books, and seminars on people and relationships. The more you learn about others, the better able you are to understand them.”
Point out shifting perspectives.
It’s especially difficult to resolve a conflict with a person who always has to be right, because they may be threatened by your attempts.
Richardson cited Igor Stravinsky’s quote as a good approach: “One’s belief that one is sincere is not so dangerous as one’s conviction that one is right. We all feel we are right; but we felt the same twenty years ago and today we know we weren’t always right.”
Talk to them about how their perspective on what’s right has shifted over time, she said. This may “open the door to them seeing that there can be room for more than one perspective or point of view, that none of us are infallible, that we do make mistakes, hold different beliefs, etc. and it doesn’t make one person bad and the other good, it just is.”
Get to the root of the problem.
“Sometimes, what people are fighting about isn’t really the problem,” Richardson said. And you can’t solve the problem if you don’t know the real issue. Once you know what the problem is, “you can talk about how best to meet that unmet need in the other person.”
Richardson shared this example: One night, Mary goes out, and gets home later than expected. Her partner, David, expresses anger that Mary stayed out so late.
However, David really might be upset because he is lonely, feels neglected or jealous or was worried about Mary.
If he felt neglected, the couple can explore if they’re spending enough time together or need more date nights to balance out time with friends, she said. But if David is jealous — because he didn’t like the person Mary was with — the conversation and the solution would be very different.
Stay calm – or take a break.
It’s also important not to get “triggered into a fight, flight or freeze response,” or to take a break when you have been triggered, Richardson said.
Often we perceive conflict as a threat. That’s when our reptilian brain takes over, and we fight, freeze or flee. This prevents us from being able to rationally and logically problem solve, brainstorm and see the situation from the other person’s perspective, she suggests.
However, “Once you’re fully calm, you can tap into your highest and best self — the human brain. Once you’re there, the possibilities are endless.”
Avoid abusive people.
People who are abusive tend to believe their actions are justified and rarely see themselves at fault for anything, Richardson said. So if you’re dealing with such a person, the best approach is to stay away from them. Understand that you can’t fix the person. They must do the work on their own, she explains.
If you still can’t resolve your conflict, consider seeking therapy or coaching, she said.