When is the last time you felt negative emotions toward someone else? When was the last time you had a disagreement? When is the last time you wanted to argue? For most of us, the answer to those questions would be “recently.” That reality points to just how common conflict it is, and why healthy conflict resolution is so important.
Here are a few more questions to consider about the role conflict plays in your life:
- How did your last conflict go? Was it resolved?
- Did you and the other person “fight fair,” or did one or both of you use unhealthy tactics?
- How did the conflict affect you emotionally?
- Are you satisfied with your ability to handle conflict?
We all have instinctive ways of handling conflict, based on our personality, upbringing, and life circumstances. Some people prefer to work their issues out immediately, even if it means having a tense conversation, while others will do anything to avoid a disagreement.
Have you ever fantasized about finding the “perfect” spouse and avoiding conflict altogether? Or maybe you’re on the other end of the spectrum, and you’ve resigned yourself to endless arguments and bickering over issues large and small.
3 Ways Healthy Conflict Resolution Can Improve Your Life
It is possible to have peaceful relationships and navigate conflict effectively. Of course, you can only control yourself, not other people. But learning conflict management strategies can make a big difference in every area of your life.
Here are three ways healthy conflict resolution can improve your life:
- Improving your mental health by allowing you to detach emotionally and focus on problem-solving and relationship-building.
- Helping your relationships by making your end of the communication/conflict healthier.
- Solving interpersonal problems by increasing the likelihood that an acceptable solution will be found.
Again, you can’t guarantee outcomes from conflict, but you can act according to your values and be a good influence on those around you.
Types of Conflict
Experts agree that there are five basic styles, or categories, of conflict. These styles are measured/described by the TKI, Thomas-Killmann Conflict Mode Instrument, which is often used in the workplace but can apply to other situations as well.
The five types of conflict are:
- Avoidance: a passive approach, used when you’d rather sidestep an issue than address it.
- Competition: trying to win; more focused on the outcome than on a relationship.
- Accommodation: trying to keep the peace, while often making sacrifices to get there; used when the relationship is more important than the outcome.
- Compromise: both sides making sacrifices, while nobody gets 100% of what they want.
- Collaboration: both sides taking a problem-solving approach to come up with a proactive solution.
Now that you know the five basic styles, let’s break conflict resolution down into unhealthy, neutral, and healthy approaches. While we’re discussing these approaches, think about which one(s) you might tend towards.
Unhealthy Conflict Resolution
What makes a conflict style unhealthy? It fails to address the problem, repair the relationship, or improve the situation in any way. Here are some of the most common unhealthy ways to handle conflict:
AvoidanceThe Bible extols the virtue of forbearance (Colossians 3:13). It’s a sign of maturity not to make an issue out of every problem that surfaces, but it’s also detrimental to habitually avoid addressing major problems in relationships.
While avoidance can be a useful temporary strategy in some situations (see below), it’s detrimental when used as the go-to coping mechanism.
The problem with avoidance is that conflict has a way of surfacing eventually, and if it’s been stuffed down for too long, it compounds the problem. Avoidance can also lead to internal stress, resentment, and/or anxiety.
Feeling defensive is normal, but to listen well, we have to learn to manage our immediate desire to defend ourselves. Dr. Harriet Lerner says, “Defensiveness is normal and universal. It’s also the archenemy of listening.” We get defensive to protect ourselves from negative emotions of guilt, self-doubt, etc. Yet if we make a habit of this in our adult relationships, we won’t be able to grow closer or mature individually.
Verywell Mind describes defensiveness this way: “Rather than addressing a partner’s complaints 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.”
Defensiveness can also stem from the fear of vulnerability. If you admit what you did wrong, does that mean the other person is never going to admit what they did wrong? But if you’re in an emotionally safe relationship, there will eventually be mutual humility and respect. The Bible often talks about the importance of humility, which is the opposite of defensiveness (James 4:6, Luke 14:11, Proverbs 11:2). Humility and self-respect can coincide.
Here are a few examples of this approach:
- Using the words “always” or “never” to describe someone else’s behavior.
- Assuming you know another person’s motives, and using that assumption to characterize the current issue.
- Assuming the current problem is indicative of a major character flaw.
It’s okay to use your brain in conflict, of course. There are legitimate character flaws and behavior patterns that can sabotage relationships, for example, a drinking problem, chronic unemployment, emotional abuse, etc., but overgeneralizing can be harmful when you assume the worst about another person every time they do something that bothers you.
Sometimes accommodation can be a helpful strategy. As mentioned above, if the relationship is more important than the outcome, and accommodation doesn’t involve long-term repression of your personal self-worth and needs, then it can be a gracious response.
But watch out for patterns of accommodation that occur in close relationships and involve one person constantly suppressing their own wants and needs. This pattern will eventually lead to other problems.
Some examples of dysfunctional conflict include:
- Personal attacks
- Asking the other person to make moral compromises
- Chronic disrespect
When a relationship is abusive, solving conflict is no longer the priority. Rather, the priority is for the victim to be physically and emotionally safe. Trying to resolve conflict with an abuser will only perpetuate the abuse cycle.
Healthy Conflict Resolution Strategies
Being assertive means communicating your wants and needs directly, while remaining respectful and open to others.
High levels of assertiveness are associated with:
- Reduced anxiety and depression.
- Lowered stress levels.
- Enhanced self-esteem.
- Better relationships.
Practicing assertiveness allows you to handle conflict without being a) passive, b) aggressive, or c) passive-aggressive.
Assertiveness includes the following types of behaviors:
- Using “I” statements to describe your perspective, rather than using accusatory “you” statements about the other person.
- Feeling prepared to say no and set boundaries without being rude.
- Sometimes, rehearsing what you want to say or how you want to handle a situation ahead of time.
- Having the ability to self-regulate your emotions and responses.
Reflective listening/Active listening
Reflective listening is 1) understanding another person’s perspective, and 2) repeating it back to them to make sure you understand what they’re saying.
Reflective listening doesn’t mean you agree with their perspective; it’s just demonstrating you understand where they’re coming from. This can be surprisingly difficult, especially if you feel defensive.
Active listening is similar to reflective listening, but it goes a step further. You might offer further thoughts or other follow-up or feedback.
Good listening skills are crucial for conflict management, but they’re also a vital ingredient in healthy relationships even outside of conflict.
Boundaries are imperative in personal relationships, even healthy ones. They’re part of being assertive.
Even people with the best intentions can’t read your mind. And people who would like to take advantage of you need to understand that they can’t do so with impunity.
Setting a boundary is not trying to control other people, but letting them know what you can do and allow. You don’t control their behavior, but you decide how to respond.
Collaboration is generally a healthy approach that is both assertive and cooperative, used when both the long-term outcome and relationship(s) matter. The priority isn’t just that both sides get 50% of what they want (a compromise), but that through creative problem-solving, both sides will be satisfied with the outcome.
Getting Help for Conflict Management
Solving interpersonal conflicts can be stressful even for the most laid back person.
According to Psychology Today, here’s a quick summary of healthy conflict management strategies:
- Conflict is a rupture in the relationship. Conflict can be beneficial, but only if the rupture is eventually repaired.
- If you’re in a safe relationship, let your guard down and be vulnerable. Show that you’re hurt. Apologize for anything you did wrong.
- Be accountable and take responsibility. De-escalate the conflict.
- Be responsive. Show that you care about the other person. Ask questions. Be willing to make amends.
Taking these steps to resolve conflict doesn’t come easily. If you need help resolving interpersonal conflict in your life, contact one of our Christian counselors today.
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