For anyone who would rather wipe their flatmate's crumbs off the kitchen bench than ask them to uphold a reasonable level of cleanliness – or would quietly accept an incorrect food order over raising it with the wait staff – this article is for you.
Be it confronting lazy flatmates or standing up for yourself in the workplace – conflict is not only unavoidable, but downright necessary. Unfortunately, knowing this doesn’t make dealing with it any easier. What might help is some advice from UQ conflict management expert, Dr Serge Loode.
Contact sat down with Dr Loode to better understand how to deal with conflict (rather than, you know, avoiding it at all costs).
What is conflict?
According to Dr Loode, most conflicts are a result of a perceived misunderstanding between two people who have an interdependent relationship. Whether that be your flatmate, your boss, your partner, or your parent – for some reason, you depend on this person, and that dependence makes the misunderstanding stressful.
Dr Loode says that during a conflict, each party will naturally aim to maximise their needs and this is where a breakdown in communication can occur.
However, he says you must remember a conflict is a perceived clash in interests or needs. It’s not necessarily real, and that’s why it can be well worth addressing – rather than letting it brew as an unresolved issue.
Why do we hate conflict?
Well, conflict creates uncertainty, and after the past year, we could all do with a little less of that.
For many of us, the uncertainty associated with conflict is also associated with feeling stressed and overwhelmed – and even helpless or fearful. Not only are these feelings uncomfortable, but they can deactivate the brain’s cortex (the part responsible for higher-order thinking) and activate the brainstem (the part responsible for safety and protection). Meaning, when faced with conflict, we act less rationally, and more emotionally (cue the tense muscles, faster breathing and raised voices).
To prevent these feelings and reactions, we avoid addressing whatever it is that could lead to conflict. And we see this avoidance reflected, reinforced and normalised in our social discourse.
If you struggle with addressing conflict, you’re not alone and Dr Loode has some advice to help.
Image: Nik Shuliahin/Unsplash
So, how can we address conflict?
For Dr Loode, it all starts with communication – specifically, a structured conversation. Here’s what he recommends:
1. Set the scene
If you know a conversation is looming, pick an appropriate time to have it. So, maybe not when the other person is rushing out the door, but when they are relaxed and have the time and mental clarity to focus.
Image: Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash
2. Let them speak
Begin by asking how they feel about the situation. Understanding their point of view is paramount to having a constructive conversation – one where they feel heard, not attacked.
"Hey Justin, I've noticed the dishes have piled up a bit. Just wondering how you feel about this, or if anything has changed for you?"
3. Reflect their feelings
Research has revealed that by vocalising emotions, we reduce them. So, if Justin tells you that he’s been really stressed at work and hasn’t had time to do the dishes – repeat this to him.
“I’m sorry you’ve been stressed at work. Is there anything I can do to help?”
4. Summarise the situation
Once you’ve listened to the other person’s needs, it’s time to express your own. Summarise the situation (including both facts and emotions) from both points of view.
“So, what I’m hearing is that you’ve been struggling to keep on top of the dishes, because you’re stressed from work. I'm also working a lot at the moment, but I do it from home. That's why it really impacts me when the dishes are piling up in the sink.”
Image: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash
5. Ask for their solutions and then suggest your own
The purpose of this conversation is to find a solution you're both comfortable with – remember that.
“I’d really like for us both to feel less stressed about work, while also keeping the kitchen clean. Do you have any ideas for how we can achieve this? Do you think we could agree on a rotation of who does the dishes, for example?”
Image: Ekaterina Bolovtsova/Unsplash
Having a structure can help direct difficult conversations as it provides a framework from which to share your views and reach a resolution. However, we know that not all cultures address conflict in the same way. While the above conversation may be acceptable in one culture, it may be unacceptable to address conflict so directly elsewhere.
Let us know in the comments below – where are you from, and how do you manage conflict?
Other ways to deal with conflict
Still not sure about addressing conflict head-on? Try some of Dr Loode’s other tips for improving conflict management:
- Talk to a friend who is removed from the situation. Talking issues through helps our brains to process and analyse them.
- Practice! Start by addressing a low-key situation (for example, asking for a refund). Once you become comfortable asserting your needs in relatively relaxed situations, you can build your confidence to combat larger discussions – like asking for a pay rise, discussing political views, or taking on climate change policies!
- Use other communication methods. Sometimes an in-person conversation is either too confronting or just unachievable. It’s also okay to phone, email or text to resolve conflict – just know that these forms of communication reduce the amount of information that can be communicated, leaving more room for misinterpretation.
Okay, but conflict still sucks. Do I really need to address it?
Yes and no. In some situations – whether there’s a threat to your safety or it’s detrimental to your relationships – it’s smarter to avoid conflict (permission granted!). However, in many of our everyday situations (asking friends to pay you back, asking for leave from work, voicing your opinions or organising plans that actually suit you) – being comfortable with a little bit of conflict is definitely an advantage. If you still need convincing, here are just a few of the benefits to addressing conflict:
- You can resolve the problem (clean kitchen anyone?).
- It can strengthen your relationships.
- It’s important for growth – both personal and professional.
- You’ll feel more confident for next time.
- You’ll become a better communicator.
The truth is that conflict is difficult for many people, and if you struggle with it, you’re not alone. At the end of the day, you deserve the confidence to ask for what it is in life that you want. You have the tools to combat conflict, you just need the confidence to communicate it, and we hope this advice has helped.
Want to know more about conflict resolution?
Did you know UQ offers a Graduate Certificate in Mediation and Conflict Resolution? This course will equip you with the practical skills to professionally deal with a range of conflicts.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The University of Queensland.