Effectively managing conflict isn’t always easy, but it’s always important. In this article, I share four useful approaches for managing conflict, and how to choose the right approach for any situation. I also provide some general tips on ways to approach and manage the inevitable conflicts that we are bound to experience as we go through life.
Before I get into the meat of this subject, I wanted to remind you of some important points from the last article (which is available at livewellandflourish.com/blog). Conflict comes from our differences and conflict isn’t always bad, in fact it can be good. Whether conflict is good or bad is determined by three factors: the type of conflict, the amount of conflict, and how well the conflict is managed. There’s more detail in the last article, but those are the relevant main points here.
Why is conflict management important?
As I just said, the effectiveness of conflict management is a major determinant of whether conflict is productive or unproductive. In addition, the way in which you approach and manage conflict is important for your personal relationships. Have you ever known someone who would argue and disagree constantly if they didn’t get their way? Yeah, I bet you have. I’d wager that you’ve known more than a few of these folks. Did you have a great impression of working with them or being involved with them? Probably not. Now contrast that with someone who was always willing to listen and consider your perspective. Do you have a different opinion of that person? Probably so.
Disagreements are a natural part of personal interactions. They’re just going to happen. If you want others to view you favorably, and if you want to have enriching relationships, then you need to learn how to manage conflict effectively and in a way that shows that you value other people. Keep in mind that interacting with others is a necessary part of flourishing. Better conflict management improves your relationships with others, which increases your flourishing.
Relationships and Outcomes
OK, so what can you do to manage conflict more effectively? I have some thoughts… well, others have had some thoughts, which I’ll tap into. Let’s just say I’ll borrow them.
When involved in conflict, ask yourself two questions, “How important is my relationship with this person (or these people)?” and “How important is the task-related outcome of this interaction?” In other words, how much do you care about the outcome related to the purpose of the interaction? Now picture a 2 by 2 grid, with relationship importance on the vertical axis and task importance on the horizontal axis. There are four squares in the grid -- both relationships and outcomes are unimportant, relationships are important and task outcomes are not, task outcomes are important and relationships are not, or both are important. To simplify things, I’m making these more binary than they really are, there are usually degrees to the importance you place on these two factors.
Now, let’s put a conflict management approach in each of the squares.
When neither relationships nor task outcomes are important, your best strategy is avoidance. Just sort of check out. Yeah, sure, it’s often useful to listen to the conversation, but basically you don’t want to get involved in the conflict because you don’t care about the relationships involved or in the outcome. So, just stay out of it. This might sound bad, but it really isn’t. You can probably think of meetings you’ve been in where there was some disagreement that you just didn’t care much about, you didn't care about the group or the outcome. So, you just sat there. And that’s fine. Anyway, that's fine to check out. Dealing with conflict saps your energy. If there’s no payoff, why suffer the cost?
We’ll move on to when you care about the relationships, but not the task outcomes. In these cases you should do what the experts call yielding. You yield to your “opponent’s” position. Maybe you've had a discussion with a partner or friend (hopefully your partner IS your friend!) that went something like this:
Where do you want to go for dinner?
How about that steak place?
Hmm … I was thinking Thai food.
Now, you have a decision to make. Hopefully, you care about your relationship with your partner or friend. If you don’t care much about where you eat, just say “Sure. Thai sounds good.” That’s yielding. Just give in and move on. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this. You care about the relationship, but you don’t much care about where you go to dinner. So, just yield to your partner and have some Pad Thai. (Sorry, that’s the only Thai dish I know.)
Let’s change the situation. You REALLY want a steak and the person you’re going out with isn’t your partner or a good friend, but someone you don’t really care that much about. (I know that sounds bad, but we also know it happens.) You might want to engage in what is called “contending.” This is basically digging in your heels and trying to bring the other person around to your position. You might do this through gentle persuasion or through dominant, assertive behavior. If several people are going, you might want to try to form a coalition of the beef eaters to get others to argue for the steak house. (When I wrote “beefeaters'' did you picture the guards at the Tower of London, all decked out in their fancy red uniforms? Or maybe it made you want a gin and tonic. No judgment either way.) Sorry, off-point there. The point here is that you don’t give in, you argue for your position. This is OK, but you risk damaging your relationships. If they aren’t important to you, fine. But if they are, you want to try a different approach. There’s another downside to contending, it’s likely to lead to more conflict, especially emotional conflict. In addition, contending makes it more likely that task-oriented conflict will lead to emotional conflict. Remember, task conflict can be beneficial, but emotional won’t be, so you want to avoid emotional conflict when you can. One way to reduce the effects of contending on emotional conflict (and your relationships) is to not be a jerk. Contending doesn’t mean being an ass. You can be firm, but also respectful when you hold fast to a position.
One situation in which contending is especially appropriate is when doing something will compromise your values, ethics, or integrity. When you’re in this situation, stand up for what you know is right. Again, you don’t have to be a jerk, but you don’t have to give in and act against your values either.
What do you do when you care about the outcome AND the relationship? You turn to our last strategy, problem-solving. You try to integrate your interests with those of the other party in order to achieve a mutually-satisfying outcome. Problem-solving is different from compromising, which usually ends up with an outcome that’s not really satisfying for anyone. When you compromise you give something up in order to allow the other party to gain something, and they do the same. You kind of meet in the middle, which, like I said, usually isn’t very satisfying. Problem-solving, on the other hand, is a collaborative approach in which everyone tries to understand the deep-seated needs behind demands. You and the other person exchange information about your priorities and preferences and search for alternatives that are satisfying for everyone.
Problem-solving is often hard work, which is why you don’t need to take this approach when you don’t care about outcomes or relationships. But when you care about both, collaborative problem-solving is worth the effort. Problem-solving not only improves outcomes, it can also improve relationships. The open, honest communication helps strengthen relationships and, maybe more importantly, the fact that you’re willing to take a problem-solving approach is a strong signal that you care about and respect the other person. Remember, innovative, effective solutions can come about from conflict that’s managed through collaborative problem-solving.
OK, so hopefully that all made sense. When you care about relationships, but not task outcomes, yield. When you care about task outcomes but not relationships, contend. When you don’t care about either, avoid, and when you care about both, problem solve. Now let’s talk about some kind of general tips for better conflict management. These are gonna seem a little bit random, I guess maybe because they are.
First, when you problem solve, LISTENING is job number one. You have to really listen carefully to understand what the other person wants, and, just as importantly, why they want these things. Try to uncover hidden assumptions that might be underlying their viewpoints, and also try to understand your own. Find points of agreement and shared interest and capitalize on them to find satisfying solutions.
Also, remember that value conflict, which is conflict about the purpose or goal of the interaction, is always bad. So, it's really important to reach agreement on goals. Reaching this agreement allows the conversation to shift from arguing about the goal to seeking the best ways to pursue the goal. This is critical to effective collaboration and problem-solving.
Take a stance of intellectual humility. Yeah, if you’re like me, you usually think that your way is best. But you also know that you’ve been wrong in the past. So, staying open to the possibility that you’re wrong now will keep you from digging in your heels unnecessarily and damaging important relationships in the process.
It’s also useful to remember your emotional regulation. You want to be able to control your emotional reactions when experiencing conflict. Remember that emotions are contagious. (By the way, I talked about emotional regulation and emotional contagion in earlier articles, which are available at livewellandflourish.com. Yeah, you guessed it. There are links below). When things start to become heated, calm yourself which will help calm others. Taking a break sometimes isn’t a bad thing either.
Keep in mind that your flourishing depends on your use of reason. This applies to conflict as well. Use your ability to think rationally and compassionately to find effective, mutually-satisfying solutions. As the saying goes, God gave you a brain, use it.
Finally, remember that conflict is a natural and healthy part of human interactions. Conflict can lead to good things when managed effectively. Aristotle said that conflict is a good and necessary part of a flourishing state, and the same can be said for flourishing interpersonal relationships.
OK, it’s time for three things you can do to put these ideas into action.
The next time you experience conflict, pause and consider the importance of both the task outcome and relationships. Then, choose the strategy that matches the importance you place on both. Remember that you don’t need to do the hard work of problem-solving every time. The important thing is to match your approach to the importance of relationships and outcomes.
When you find yourself in a conflict situation and both relationships and outcomes are important, ask questions that will help you better understand the other person’s wants and needs, and the assumptions that might underlie their position. LISTEN to them carefully and respectfully. When they’re talking, don’t try to put your brain on trying to plan your next remark. Listen to understand, not to respond.
Finally, after you go through conflict, take time to reflect on whether you chose the appropriate strategy, and how things turned out. Consider what you did that was beneficial or detrimental to gaining the desired outcomes. Remember effective critical reflection leads to learning, which leads to better outcomes in the future.
I’ll close with this quote from Seneca. “No good thing is pleasant to possess without having friends to share it.”
Until next time, be well my friends.
The Live Well and Flourish podcast covers this and other topics that can help you live a flourishing life. Episodes are available at https://www.livewellandflourish.com/ and on all major podcast apps.
If you liked this article, you might want to listen to episode 29, ”Emotional Contagion”
Controlling Your Emotions Through Emotional Regulation
The Cage of Your Assumptions
For a deep dive on what it means to flourish, check out episode 8. “Human Flourishing – Living the Excellent Life.”