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Where people live and work together, conflict is as natural – but perhaps not as welcome – as laughter.
Conflict is the struggle that comes out of a difference of opinion, attitude or action. When the stakes are not high – when the people involved don’t have a lot to lose or gain – the conflict can die down very quickly in a spirit of “live and let live”.
However, when there is something important on the line – money, esteem, a principle – for one or both of the parties involved, the situation can quickly deteriorate into something which is unpleasant for them and for those around them.
Yet, as uncomfortable as conflict feels, it is not necessarily a bad thing. It can help un-stick problems, contribute towards personal development, create space for new ideas and allow us to adapt to changed circumstances when our personalities or attitudes are still lagging behind.
Conflict itself is not usually a problem. The way in which it is approached is crucial. If it’s not handled well, the fall-out can be exhausting and even devastating.
When you sense a conflict arising, don’t fear it. The sooner you spot the signs of a brewing argument, the less likely you are to become so emotionally entangled that you can’t find a way out.
To fight or to flee
You’ll recognise two almost universal responses to conflict: some people will immediately take the stance of a boxer, fists raised and ready for a good old fight. Others will become quiet, will shut down emotionally, scuttle away and try to get as far from the potential fight as possible.
Neither of these responses will make the problem or the friction go away, though. In order to not just resolve conflict, but to use the opportunities it presents, we have to find a straightforward way to deal with it.
Bring it out in the open
Sometimes underlying tension simply erupts and can cause real damage to relationships. It is better to tackle it before people become too emotional.
However alluring the idea of withdrawing, it is better to tackle the issue head-on. Do it delicately, though, and give consideration to these aspects:
Keep your focus tight
If it is possible, be very specific about what you think the problem may be. Don’t generalise and don’t go into historical details that have nothing to do with the current situation. You may find the colleague you are having conflict with terribly irritating in general, but that’s not the point.
If the conversation starts meandering towards past slights and old resentments, you can acknowledge those, but try to bring the conversation back to the current problem
Don’t dwell on the problem
Once both parties have agreed that there is tension, the next step is to identify what the problem is. It is not going to be the same for both people or the groups involved in the conflict. There’s no right or wrong definition of what the problem is, so both will have to listen carefully and then come to an agreement about what precisely the issue is that is causing problems.
Once you have both agreed on what the problem is, stop. You don’t want to get into a circular situation of describing the issue over and over again. Move quickly to what the solutions might be.
Conflict is not all bad
If you can avoid conflict becoming damaging – unpleasant remarks, the threat of violence, turning someone into a scapegoat – then conflict contributes to growth in relationships, whether they’re at work or at home. It can bring out underlying feelings, bring new insights and realisations and offer unusual solutions. In short, conflict can be a great energiser and stimulant, if it is handled correctly.
Conflict can only really be resolved through communication. Communication is two things: it is expressing yourself as clearly as you possibly can but, perhaps most importantly; it is about listening carefully, with empathy and understanding. Here are some tips for communicating during conflict:
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