Even in the best of relationships and work environments, conflict is inevitable. Rather than hunker down and make things worse, we can adopt a set of skills that produce better results for everyone involved.
That’s the approach of Dr. Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, author of Optimal Outcomes: Free Yourself from Conflict at Work, at Home, and in Life.
In the first part of this conversation we discussed ways to notice our conflict habits that get us into trouble (see “Steeped In Conflict? Here’s How To Break Free.”)
In this part, we explore freeing ourselves from mindsets, emotions and behaviors that work against us.
Rodger Dean Duncan: You’re known for your expertise with irreconcilable differences. How often are “irreconcilable” differences actually resolvable, and what are the most important first couple of steps to achieving a breakthrough?
Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler: Some conflicts can be resolved by meeting your own and others’ interests in ways that allow all parties to win. But when attempts to resolve conflict have failed despite multiple good-faith attempts to generate mutually beneficial solutions, then trying to “solve” these conflicts becomes futile. The best thing you can do in those situations is to stop trying to resolve something that has shown itself to be unresolvable.
Instead, in unresolvable conflicts, we need to learn to free ourselves from the mindsets, emotions and behaviors that have gotten us stuck. One way to begin this process is to create a conflict map by writing down and mapping out the people, groups, events, backgrounds, relationships and anything else that might be relevant in your situation. The purpose of creating a conflict map is to tell a different story about the situation than you have in the past. This gives you new insight and suggests levers for change that had previously been impossible to see.
Duncan: What role does “projection” sometimes play in a person’s handling of conflict, and what’s the best way to recognize what’s happening and shift to a more helpful perspective and behavior?
Goldman-Wetzler: Projection is a psychological process in which we deny certain parts of ourselves and attribute those parts of ourselves to other people instead. We distance ourselves from those parts we are not proud of. Projecting onto other people allows us to maintain a positive view of ourselves. But it can also cause conflict with others, especially when they resent or reject our projections. The best thing we can do is to own our projections, and honor them. One way to do this is to ask yourself how you can honor the parts of yourself that you may not be proud of. How can you think about, talk about, or act on them constructively?
Duncan: Some leaders find a discussion of values to be touchy-feely and uncomfortable. How can values be discussed in an open and honest way that helps lubricate conflict resolution?
Goldman-Wetzler: Values can be tricky to talk about, especially when they seem to clash. Ask yourself the following three questions to determine whether, when, and how to discuss values with others.
Question 1—Is it necessary? My experience helping hundreds of executives and students is that, much of the time, it is not necessary to discuss values explicitly with others in order to free yourself from conflict. What is necessary is for you to free yourself from the situation by changing the way you view it. Ask yourself whether it is necessary to discuss values with others, or if a change in your own perspective on the situation is enough to free you from the conflict pattern.
If discussing values does seem necessary, then ask Question 2—Am I ready to say it kindly? Going into a conversation about values when you’re feeling resentful or angry creates a high risk of escalating tensions. If you feel confident that you’ve developed the capacity to speak kindly, great; move on to the next question. If not, practice in a role-play with a friend or coach. Once you can stay in an empathetic frame of mind for more than a few minutes, ask yourself: Am I saying this kindly? If yes, your risk of escalating the conflict is low. There’s one last question to consider, though.
Question 3—Is the other person ready to talk? What indications do you have about the other person’s readiness to engage in a conversation with you on this topic? If you’ve asked to talk about it and they have agreed, they are probably up for it. If not, I caution you against moving ahead with a conversation at this point. If you sense that they are not ready, check back in a few days and wait until you get a clear signal to go ahead.
Next: Conflict Pulling You Down? You Can Break the Pattern
(This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.)
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