Taking The "No Win" Out of Conflict

Conflict is a common stressor for my clients.  It makes sense that it would be!  Conflict is a natural byproduct of independent individuals working at interdependent relationships.  But it’s uncomfortable.  We often feel as if we are not seen or heard when we are in conflict.  We often feel insulted and defensive.  We often walk away feeling as if things weren’t really solved, or that one person won and the other lost.  For all of these reasons, we tend to avoid conflict or approach it with intense anger.  This causes us to have poor experiences with conflict, which leads to avoidance and anger, and thus the cycle continues.


The biggest barrier to having a discussion vs. an argument is often our attachment to the outcome.  Typically each party puts all of their feelings, hopes and personal perceptions into a brain blender—creating their own personal outcome smoothie.  And once done, it feels completely true that any other outcome will simply not meet their needs.  Meanwhile, the other party has created their own outcome smoothie.  Then we spend a lot of time arguing about which outcome would be better.  But when that happens, someone has to loose and often both people do.


As an experiential and auditory learner, I hate discussion checklists.  I tend to believe they often widely miss the mark.  I also believe that we can overly depend on how-to guides to change relationships when the path to true change is far more complex.  Having said that, I often have clients ask for a step-by-step guide to use when they are practicing conflict at home.  So for the visual and concrete learners out there, I must oblige you!  Do an experiment and see how focusing on combined needs can lead to incredible brainstorming. 


1.     Time and Place:  Make sure it’s truly a good time for both people to talk.  This means the environment is free from distractions and both parties feel calm and ready to hear each other out.  If this isn’t the case, ask yourself and the other party if it’s truly necessary to solve the issue immediately.  Sometimes it is, but more often it isn’t.

2.     Respect, Love and Valuing Solutions:  Say to yourself “Resolving this conflict in a way that meets both of our needs is important to me because ______”.  Oftentimes conflict happens with those we love the most.  Please remind yourself that the person who sits before you is someone you love and, therefore, you care deeply about his or her perspective.  This will help you to remember that it’s not all about you being heard, it’s also about hearing someone else.

3.     Speaker and Listener:  Choose someone to start the conversation.  This person is the speaker and the other person MUST listen, make eye contact and nod.  As you begin to share, take notes of what is said. 

4.     Needs and Concerns vs. Outcomes: Speaker, calmly use “I” statements focused on your concerns and your needs.  Speak your truth without blame or judgment.  “I’m concerned about the fact that our account is overdrawn regularly.”  “I would like to come up with a solution that helps me feel more informed and empowered in regards to our decision making with disciplining our children” or “I feel like I need more social time with my friends.”  (Please remember, “I feel like you’re being a jerk” or “I’m concerned that you can’t manage our money at all” are judgmental and blaming “I” statements and therefore not helpful).

5.     Reflection:  The listener will reflect back what they heard without judgment, eye rolling, or sarcasm.  “It sounds like you’re stressed about the effect our account overdraws have on us.”  “You’re feeling unbalanced without solid social time”.  Reflection is SOOOO important.  If you don’t reflect, the other person will not feel heard and will therefore be defensive.  It’s a guarantee.

6.     Needs and Concerns vs. Outcomes Take Two:  The listener becomes the talker and uses I statements to express their needs and concerns. 

7.     Reflection Take Two:  The new listener reflects what they heard.

8.     Last Thoughts:  Often after listening to the other person, the original speaker becomes aware of needs or concerns that they hadn’t shared earlier.  Give each person a chance to explore anything additional that has come up and hear that reflected back.

9.     Brainstorm:  As with all good brainstorming, no idea is a bad idea.  Throw them all out, even if you KNOW you won’t want to do it.  You may actually find that the craziest idea is the best one.  Or, the crazy ideas will highlight your shared needs and concerns and help to narrow in more.  Brainstorming ideas must be an open experience where it is clear that neither party is attached to any outcome.  If either party is attached to an outcome the other will be able to tell.  This will cause each party to feel like the whole exercise was a waste of time and energy. 

10. Attempt Consensus:  Some ideas will easily fall away.  Work on that first.  Talk honestly about which ideas fit better for each of you and why.  Listen openly, reflect compassionately.  Acknowledge when something you hoped for isn’t truly as important as your other needs and concerns and/or the other person’s needs and concerns.   For example, you may have hoped to move to a new house this spring when the weather is nice, but can live with moving in winter because all of the other needs are met.  Know what to let go of for the greater good, but also know what to hold onto for the health and happiness of each party and the relationship.



Common Pitfalls to Avoid:


Arguing About Facts: Memories are flawed—seriously flawed.  I know you both think your memory of the facts is the truest memory, but you will waste a lot of energy on this and it will take you nowhere.  This is about emotional truth and each person’s emotional truth is equally valid!

Passive Aggressive Body Language:  This is why you must remember why it’s important to really hear the other person.  If they express a need or concern and you roll your eyes, or sigh deeply or chuckle a little you are totally invalidating their perspective.  Remember, you do not have the corner on the most mature and valid perspective.  Truly listen or this doesn’t work.

Mistaking Outcomes for Needs:  A need is “I need to feel comfortable in my home”.  An outcome is “I need you to do half of the chores”.  A need is “I need time on my own in a regular and consistent way”.  An outcome is “I need to go to the gym every other day at 9:00”.  The more you stay true to the true underlying need, the more options become available to you. 

Using Brainstorming to Achieve Your Original Desired Outcome:  The only way to truly partner is to throw out your outcome smoothie and start from scratch.  It is rare that this process lands you at the outcome you were formerly attached to.  This means you have a decision to make.  Is the outcome more important or is the relationship more important?  Sometimes the outcome IS more important—but then you need to be honest about that with yourself and the person you are talking with. 


What If The Conflict Is With My Child?


Of course a parent gets the final say!  No questions asked.  But allowing your child to be a part of this process teaches them how to handle conflict with others, how to express their needs and how to understand someone else’s perspective.  It helps them to understand how you land on your final decision and allows them to feel that they have been heard in the process.  And if you are truly open to brainstorming options that meet everyone’s needs, you are less likely to have power struggles or children doing sneaky things behind your back.  It’s a great idea to go through this process with them and then say “Okay, I’m going to take some time to think about everything we talked about and will have an answer for you tomorrow.”  This teaches kids to think ahead and prepare themselves for a mature conversation when they want new privileges or things.  What an awesome tool for them to have!


Good luck!