Opinion Column

Managing conflict to build healthy relationships

By Larry Schruder, The Delfi Group

This is our third in a series of Delfi columns on conflict.

No – we are not being a pessimist, always dwelling on the negative. Rather, we are very optimistic that by doing a deeper dive into this topic, we can all start making a difference in our lives and the lives of those that we care about. We are focusing on this topic because frankly, we all need to be much better at how we can constructively manage this regular reality in our relationships.

Our previous columns highlighted several key points in this examination. Conflict is a reality that stresses almost every relationship at multiple points in time. Simply stated, conflict is a difference of opinion that involves strong emotions. Conflict needs to be worked through rather than avoided – because left unresolved, it weakens our relationships with others. Conflict situations are made up of four key components – facts and situations, frames of reference, beliefs and opinions, and finally, emotions. An additional complication is that all involved in the conflict bring their own personal versions of these four components to the table. And finally, addressing conflict is a critical skill, a valuable interpersonal tool that can be used to either build up or weaken relationships. Today let’s explore ways to better use conflict as a tool to build healthier relationships.

Listen to understand – rather than to aim your next missile or counter-argument. Conflict always involves some emotion – and the best method to diffuse an escalation of emotions is to step into the shoes of the other person or persons, and shift your point of view or perspective. This does not mean giving in – but rather going out of your way to see the issue from the other perspective. Then it is easier to look back at yourself to see if you are still in agreement with your position – or whether moving somewhat makes more sense. Use phrases like “Tell me again how you see this”; “Help me understand why this issue is so important to you”; “So what I hear you saying is…”. When people feel heard and understood, the ground is much more receptive to explore other options for resolution.

Remember the relationship – the third party present when any two people are in conflict. This is the only participant that should come out ahead at the end of the exchange. Reframing the conflict as “us against this disagreement” keeps the focus where it needs to be – on how we can resolve this in such a way that our relationship is better as a result. A conflict positioned as “me against you” creates one winner and two losers. Our relationships with those that we find ourselves in disagreement with should always be remain top of mind as we work towards a solution to our differences. The loser always needs to be the issue that is threatening to harm the relationship. Again – it is not a matter of giving in, but rather a matter of keeping things in perspective. In the bigger picture of our relationship, we can usually find a better place to be on this issue – or the issue is deemed insignificant enough that we can simply agree to disagree, diffuse the situation and move on.

Remember your ABCs. We are quick to assume that ‘A’ – an action, automatically produces ‘C’ – a consequence. But we have missed the ‘B’ – the belief or automatic thought or emotion that always intervenes after the ‘A’ and usually determines the ‘C’. When presented with a different point of view, our automatic thoughts, our ‘B’ might be: “I need to win this one”; “You are not in charge here”; “I’m going to prove that I am right”, “How dare you challenge me”; “I’m going to stay quiet until this thing is over”. Each of these automatic thoughts are laden with emotion – usually either anger or anxiety – emotion that fuels the conflict response and makes it difficult to focus on the relationship. We need to recognize and challenge these automatic thoughts and beliefs and reframe them as “we need to work out a solution here – so we best listen to understand.”

To close, conflict is not bad or unhealthy – but our responses to conflict can certainly make it seem so. Avoidance is not a good survival strategy for the longer-term relationship. Both at work and at home, conflict is an important tool to building a better world – and something that we need to work on to make sure that it is helping us build healthier relationships with those around us. As the picture above reminds us – our conflict skills are usually played out in front of important audiences. People who look up to us are quick to imitate both the bad – and the good. Always wishing you productive conflict.

Larry Schruder is president and co-owner of The Delfi Group, an Ontario-approved Vendor of Record. He can be reached at Larry.Schruder@thedelfigroup.com. 

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