Conflict can be a healthy part of personal and professional relationships. Extensive research has demonstrated that conflict, when managed properly, strengthens relationships and teams and can serve as a catalyst for better solutions, innovation and growth. Healthy conflict can produce more creative solutions and better outcomes.
However few people have been formally taught the skills to foster healthy conflict. Instead, we may have learned through our upbringing to smooth things over or avoid confrontation at all costs. Or we may let conflict build up until it blows up in the form of combat. Combat means you’ve taken an issue and made it personal. In either case, we miss opportunities to grow in our lives, careers and businesses.
Avoiding conflict until it boils up and explodes is not a healthy approach. Instead, we must learn to speak our minds and our needs in a constructive way. This is about learning to communicate assertively, and it starts with emotional awareness -- being aware of emotional triggers or hot buttons that can set us off.
For example, maybe you find yourself getting aggravated when you’re talking to someone and they continually check their phone. You have a few choices when it comes to communicating how you’re feeling:
- Aggressive communication: “You’re not listening to me!”
- Passive-aggressive communication: Ignore it or say, “It’s fine,” when it’s really not.
- Assertive communication: “Would you prefer we talk at a different time? It’s hard for me to concentrate while you’re on your phone” or “When you look at your phone when we’re talking, I don’t feel like I have your full attention.”
With aggressive communication, you’re forcing your anger on the other person. That’s not an effective approach. Neither is treating your own feelings as unimportant. That only builds resentment.
Related: The Real Cost of Workplace Conflict
By taking an assertive approach, however, you’re honestly but not angrily communicating how you feel about the situation. That doesn’t mean the other person will handle it well. Many people don’t like being called on their rude behavior no matter how nicely you try to do it. But by being assertive without being combative, you will have behaved like a mature adult. If the relationship or issue is not that important to you, it may be better to pick your battles. You can’t change people. You can only influence their behavior.
So how do you effectively manage conflict so it doesn’t turn in to combat? Here are seven steps to help keep conflict healthy and productive:
1. Being assertive is OK.
Engaging in healthy conflict begins with learning how to tread the line between “brutally honest” and “necessarily honest.” One is about putting people down while the other is about the free flow of information. Rather than avoiding conflict, getting aggressive or becoming passive aggressive, assertively communicate what you want and need from others. Clearly communicate your expectations and ensure understanding.
2. Get to the point.
Being vague and avoiding the real topic creates confusion and lack of clarity. Start the conversation with candid feedback and then use the rest of the conversation to work toward a mutually beneficial solution.
3. Pay attention to behavior.
We all have a different style in which we communicate and we see the world through our own lens and perspective. Knowing the characteristics of different behavior styles and understanding how to modify your approach will significantly reduce conflict.
4. Replace “you” language with “I” language.
This will avoid putting others on the defensive. Think about how you feel when someone begins with “You should” or “You always.” When someone begins a sentence with “I feel” or “I need,” you are generally more receptive.
5. Focus on the issue, not the person.
Instead of saying, “You said you would finish this by today,” try “The project really needs to be finished today. What do we need to do to make that happen?” As soon as you make the discussion personal, you run the risk of turning conflict into combat. By keeping the conversation about the issue, you will reduce defensiveness.
When you listen and paraphrase what another person is telling you, it demonstrates that you really care about understanding them. Saying “What I hear you saying is ____. Is that correct?” is one of the simplest, most powerful communication tools to keep conflict productive. When people feel heard, they are less likely to be defensive.
7. Seek understanding, not agreement.
Make an effort to try to understand the other person’s viewpoint, rather than convince them of yours. Share your desire to see the situation from their perspective. Get curious and ask questions. The goal should not be to avoid conflict but to embrace it, staying focused on productive outcomes.