Conflict Management

Conflict Management

Conflict is virtually inevitable in relationships of all kinds, including partner, family, work and friendship relationships. It is not necessarily a sign of trouble, and good conflict management skills are an essential life skill so you can ensure inevitable conflict situations are handled respectfully, effectively and strengthen the relationship rather than compromise it.

CATEGORY: Life & Coping Skills

SOURCES: APS | verywellmind.com | BMD | health.gov.au | aihw.gov.au

Number: #8

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A study released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing in 2023 (5,500 people aged 16 to 85 years old during 2020-2021) showed that more than two in five Australians experience a mental health issue in their lifetime. In 2020–21 more than 3.4 million Australians sought help from a health care professional for their mental health.

The study is published at https://abs.gov.au/statistics/health/mental-health/national-study-mental-health-and-wellbeing/2020-21

You can reduce a significant amount of stress and strengthen your relationships at the same time if you build the knowledge and skills to handle conflict in a healthy way.​

A lot of people equate conflict with either anger or violence or both, and this makes them very afraid of coflict of any kind and likely to avoid it.

It’s very important to understand that conflict refers to disagreement, large or small. Anger is an emotion, and may be present in a disagreement and therefore in conflict, or it may not. Violence and aggression are behaviours and they are never an appropriate way to express or demonstrate any emotion including anger, nor are they acceptable ways to respond to disagreement and conflict.

Distinguishing between anger (an emotion, appropriate and important to acknowledge); conflict (disagreement about something big or small); and violence/aggression (behaviours that are always an inappropriate way to express feelings or respond to conflict).

While many people keep quiet when they are upset, this isn’t a healthy long-term strategy and unresolved conflict can lead to resentment and additional unresolved conflict in relationships of any kind. Even more important, ongoing conflict can actually have a negative impact on your health and longevity.

Conflicts at Work

When spending time with the same group of people for most of the day and most of the week, it’s only natural that conflicts arise from time to time. Heavy workloads or poor leadership can contribute to conflict. It could also be that employees are confused about their responsibilities, and clash with each other about what their roles are. Other times, conflict results from people not getting along, either because they have different personality types or because there is toxic behaviour (such as bullying) going on.

Conflicts With Family

Different members of the family may have opposing viewpoints or values. These values can be religious, cultural, or lifestyle-related. For instance, if your parents expected you to get married and live close to them, you might end up arguing with them over your decision to stay single and move across the country. Siblings fight with each other, especially during childhood when they may fight for parental attention. But they may also fight when they are adults. Conflict over money, caring for elderly parents, or family business of any kind may arise over the course of a sibling relationship. In general, it can be difficult to set boundaries with loved ones, and sometimes, even more difficult for them to respect your personal boundaries.

Conflicts With Partners

Partners often fight for common reasons including money problems, one partner feeling a lack of affection or intimacy, decisions related to childcare, how to spend leisure time, and issues related to in-laws and household chores.

Characteristics

H ere are some examples of negative and even destructive behaviours, attitudes and communication patterns that can exacerbate conflict in a relationship.

Conflict Avoidance

This is very common, and very destructive. Unfortunately many people are afraid of conflict, for all sorts of reasons, including what they learned about conflict growing up, for example whether it was physically and/or emotionally safe or unsafe to be in conflict.

Rather than discussing building frustrations in a calm, respectful manner, some people just don’t say anything to the person they are upset or angry with until they’re ready to explode, and then blurt it out in an angry, hurtful way. This seems to them to be the less stressful route — avoiding an argument altogether — but usually causes more stress as tensions rise, resentments fester, and a much bigger argument eventually results.

It’s much healthier to address and resolve conflict. Assertive communication skills can help you to say things in a way where you will be more likely to be heard, without being disrespectful to the other person.

Being Defensive

Rather than addressing a complaint with an objective eye and willingness to understand the other person’s point of view, defensive people steadfastly deny any wrongdoing and work hard to avoid looking at the possibility that they could be contributing to a problem.

Denying responsibility may seem to alleviate stress in the short run, but creates long-term problems when others don’t feel listened to and unresolved conflicts and continue to grow.

Overgeneralising

When something happens that they don’t like, some blow it out of proportion by making sweeping generaliations. Avoid starting sentences with, “You always,” and, “You never,” as in, “You always come home late!” or, “You never do what I want to do!” Stop and think about whether or not this is really true.

Also, don’t bring up past conflicts to throw the discussion off-topic and stir up more negativity. This stands in the way of true conflict resolution and increases the level of conflict. Sometimes we’re not aware of the ways the mind can blow things out of proportion. Cognitive distortions* can get in the way of healthy relationships with others and can exacerbate stress levels.

* See the Coping Skills blurb for details about Cognitive Distortions.

Being Right

It’s damaging to decide that there’s a “right” way to look at things and a “wrong” way to look at things and that your way of seeing things is right. Don’t demand that the other person see things the same way, and don’t take it as a personal attack if they have a different opinion. Look for a compromise or agreeing to disagree, and remember that there’s not always a “right” or a “wrong,” and that two points of view can both be valid.

Mind Reading

Instead of asking about the other person’s thoughts and feelings, people sometimes decide that they “know” what they’re thinking and feeling based only on faulty interpretations of their actions — and always assume it’s negative. For example, deciding a late mate doesn’t care enough to be on time, or that a tired partner is denying sex out of passive-aggressiveness. This creates hostility and misunderstandings. It’s important to keep in mind that we all come from a unique perspective, and work hard to assume nothing; really listen to the other person and let them explain where they are coming from.

Forgetting to Listen

Some people interrupt, roll their eyes, and rehearse what they’re going to say next instead of truly listening and attempting to understand the other person. This keeps you from seeing their point of view, and keeps them from wanting to see yours. Don’t underestimate the importance of really listening and empathising with the other person. 

Paying the Blame Game

Some people handle conflict by criticising and blaming the other person for the situation. They see admitting any weakness on their own part as a weakening of their credibility, and avoid it at all costs, and even try to shame them for being “at fault.” Instead, try to view conflict as an opportunity to analyse the situation objectively, assess the needs of all parties and come up with a solution that helps everyone.

Wanting to ‘Win’

The point of a relationship discussion should be mutual understanding and coming to an agreement or resolution that respects everyone’s needs. If you’re making a case for how wrong the other person is, discounting their feelings, and staying stuck in your point of view, you’re focused in the wrong direction.

Character Attacks

Sometimes people take any negative action from someone else and blow it up into a personality flaw. For example, if someone leaves their socks lying around, looking it as a character flaw and labeling them “inconsiderate and lazy,” or, if someone wants to discuss a problem with the relationship, labeling them as “needy,” “controlling,” or “too demanding.” Labeling creates negative perceptions on both sides. Remember to respect the person, even if you don’t like the behaviour.

Stonewalling

When one person wants to discuss troubling issues in the relationship, sometimes the other person/people defensively stonewall, or refuse to talk or listen. This shows disrespect and, in certain situations, even contempt, while at the same time letting the underlying conflict grow. Stonewalling solves nothing but creates hard feelings and damages relationships. It’s much better to listen and discuss things in a respectful manner.

Prevention

 

While conflict isn a normal part of life, there are things we can all do to reduce the likelihood of unnecessary conflict. These could include:

Be Respectful

It’s a good rule of thumb to respect others’ opinions, even if they differ from your own. It might help to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Maybe their background, experiences, and values contribute to why they say or do certain things.

Choose Your Words Carefully

Consider your word choice when speaking to someone, especially if you disagree with this person. For instance, starting a sentence off by saying “I feel that…” or “I think that…” emphasises the fact that you’re speaking about your own experiences and not assuming you know what’s best for others.

Know When to Apologise

Owning up to a mistake can prevent a conflict from occurring in the first place. While you may not think you did anything wrong, try to consider the other person’s point of view. Saying you’re sorry for hurting their feelings can go a long way.

Ask for Help

Asking for help is not only a helpful tool for conflict resolution, but also for conflict prevention. Try talking to a trusted friend or colleague about the situation to get objective advice. You can also talk to a mental health professional. It’s advisable to talk to a human resources representative if you’re experiencing a potential conflict at work. They can advise you and even address a situation head-on to prevent it from escalating.

Know When to Walk Away

You might walk away from a conflict temporarily or you may decide to walk away from a relationship or job permanently. Remember, you have every right to set healthy boundaries—including time and space away from someone—to protect your health and well-being as well as your sense of safety.

Therapy | Treatment

 

Good conflict management means doing things like:

 

Getting in Touch With Your Feelings

An important component of conflict resolution involves only you—knowing how you feel and why you feel that way. It may seem that your feelings should already be obvious to you, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes you feel angry or resentful, but don’t know why. Other times, you feel that the other person isn’t doing what they “should,” but you aren’t aware of exactly what you want from them, or if it’s even reasonable.

Journaling can be an effective way to get in touch with your own feelings, thoughts, and expectations so you are better able to communicate them to the other person. Sometimes this process brings up some pretty heavy issues. You may want to reach out to a therapist or other mental health professional as you handle emotions that arise.

Active Listening

When it comes to effective conflict resolution, how effectively we listen is at least as important as how effectively we express ourselves. It’s vital to understand the other person’s perspective, rather than just our own, if we are to come to a resolution. In fact, just helping the other person feel heard and understood can sometimes go a long way toward the resolution of a conflict. Good listening is one of the most effective conflict resolution strategies. It helps to bridge the gap between you and another person and to understand where the disconnect is.

Unfortunately, active listening is a skill that not everybody knows. It’s common for people to think they’re listening, while in their heads, they’re actually formulating their next response. It’s also common to be so defensive and entrenched in your own perspective that you literally can’t hear the other person’s point of view

Assertive Communication

Communicating your feelings and needs clearly is also an important aspect of conflict resolution. As you probably know, saying the wrong thing can be like throwing fuel on a fire, and make a conflict worse. The important thing to remember is to say what’s on your mind in a way that is clear and assertive, without being aggressive or putting the other person on the defensive. One effective conflict resolution strategy is to put things in terms of how you feel rather than what you think the other person is doing wrong, using “I statement” for example.

Make a Decision

When a conflict occurs, you’ll want to make a decision about how to handle it. If it’s a minor issue and something you can overlook for now, you might choose to avoid confrontation. This tactic may be worth considering if the conflict doesn’t threaten you and your overall well-being, and if the situation itself is temporary.

Have a Third Party Present

If you do choose to engage in conflict resolution with another person, it may be helpful to have a third party present. This is especially true if the conflict is happening at work. You’ll most likely want to inform your boss or a human resources representative that there is a conflict that needs resolving—especially if you and a co-worker have tried resolving it on your own to no avail.

For couples who are resolving a conflict, a relationship therapist can help to moderate your discussion and make sure both of you are listening to (and actually hearing) each other. A family therapist may be helpful for families who are experiencing conflict.

If you don’t have access to a mental health professional, you might enlist the support of a loved one who is neutral about the conflict. Make sure you are setting healthy boundaries before resolving family or relationship conflicts. These boundaries may include:

  • Taking a break from the discussion if it gets too heated
  • Respecting the other person when they’re talking (not interrupting)
  • Agreeing to reconvene at another time to continue the resolution if necessary

Consider a Compromise

Though you may initially be disappointed by the idea of compromising, try to think about what’s best for all parties involved. If there is a way that everyone’s needs can be met by one solution, be open-minded. While you don’t want to compromise on your physical or emotional safety, consider whether you’re open to an alternative resolution that you may not have thought of before.

Seek a Solution

Once you understand the other person’s perspective, and they understand yours, it’s time to find a resolution to the conflict—a solution you both can live with. Sometimes a simple and obvious answer comes up once both parties understand the other person’s perspective.

In cases where the conflict was based on a misunderstanding or a lack of insight into the other’s point of view, a simple apology can work wonders and an open discussion can bring people closer together. Other times, there is a little more work required, and you’ll need to use your conflict management skills to reach a resolution. In cases where there’s a conflict about an issue and both people don’t agree, you have a few options.

Sometimes you can agree to disagree, other times you can find a compromise or middle ground, and in other cases the person who feels more strongly about an issue may get their way, with the understanding that they will concede the next time. The important thing is to come to a place of understanding and try to work things out in a way that’s respectful to all involved.

If your conflict is at work, remember that there are laws protecting employees from workplace bullying and harassment. Try doing some research first. Human resources can let you know about your organisation’s policies against bullying as well. In many cases, there are specific actions that a person committing harassment in the workplace is subject to, such as warnings or termination, depending on the severity of their offenses.

Know When It’s Not Working

Because of the toll that ongoing conflict can exact from a person, sometimes it’s advisable to put some distance in the relationship or cut ties completely.

In cases of relationship abuse simple conflict resolution techniques can only take you so far, and personal safety needs to take priority.

When dealing with difficult friends or family members, adding a few boundaries and accepting the other person’s limitations in the relationship can bring some peace. You may even make some relationship resolutions that help ease any tension. For instance, maybe you both resolve to hear the other person’s point of view when having a disagreement, or to give the other person space when they ask for it and reconvene when they’ve cooled off.

In relationships that are unsupportive or characterised by ongoing conflict, letting go may be a great source of stress relief. Only you can decide if a relationship can be improved, or should be let go.

If you are in a toxic work situation that is causing job stress, and it isn’t getting better, start to consider your options. While you shouldn’t have to get another job simply because your current one isn’t handling a situation very well, it may be your best option. You may also want to seek legal representation if your organisation isn’t appropriately handling your situation and/or if your well-being is negatively impacted.

Therapy can be very beneficial in learning how to do all of the above things and addressing obstacles to good conflict management.