Preparation: The First Step in Resolving Conflict

Reconciliation and conflict resolution

Conflict is inevitable. No surprise. The question is how we resolve it. The most emotionally intelligent people in any field or walk of life are good at resolving conflict. They don’t deal with it by retreating or sweeping it under the rug, nor by coming off as aggressive and imposing their will on others. They learn to draw others into give-and-take conversations in which they share their own point of view while making it safe for others to do the same. As they do so, they create a shared understanding of a situation from which to find solutions and move forward.

My purpose is to make it easier for you to resolve conflict by teaching you a structure and process for initiating and navigating sensitive conversations successfully. I’m going to teach you a four-phase process for resolving conflict, which I’ve gleaned from my years of professional experience. I hope they are helpful as you step up to the relationship challenges in your life.

I’d like to apply the phases to a specific situation. I’ll use the following case study to make each of the phases clear. So here we go.

Case Study: Homecoming

George is tired and irritable when he comes home from work on a Friday evening. His wife, Ellen, works retail on weekends and some evenings and has been home with the children for most of the day. She is hoping to talk to her husband about her ongoing frustration with demanding young children, when he pronounces in a disgusted voice, “Some mother! You can’t even control your six-year old kid,” and stomps out of the room.

Ellen has a number of choices. She can trail him out of the room blaring sarcasm and criticism at his disappearing back. She can personalize his message and get down on herself for not being a better mother. She can retreat into tears and give him the silent treatment for the rest of the evening. She can ignore the comment, pretending he didn’t mean it, yet feel a nagging disappointment and increasing distance in their relationship. Whatever Ellen does is likely to be part of an ongoing dance, familiar to her and George.

Instead, Ellen recognizes the consequences of their habitual patterns of acting and reacting and she decides to address this key moment in a more helpful way.

Phase I: Preparation

The preparation phase is about stepping back, if only briefly, and putting yourself in the right frame of mind to handle conflict. Of course, some conflicts are unanticipated so you don’t have time to prepare. However, just understanding the steps of this phase will empower you to deal with them more effectively.

Sometimes we’re tempted to just “wing it” but then find ourselves in a heated conversation in which we lose our bearings, overreact, and are not sure how to move forward productively. It becomes easy to slip into harmful patterns of communicating. So, preparation is key. The more you prepare the more confident and successful you’ll become in dealing with all kinds of conflict.

Three Steps in Preparation

First, understand a few key principles about the nature of conflict.

  • Resolving conflict is not about “winning” or getting your way, which quickly leads to defensiveness and polarization. It is about building a shared understanding and finding common ground so you can find solutions that work for all parties. This requires that we care about what is important to each of the people involved.
  • There is not a “right” and “wrong” way to view a situation. There are many points of view, all of which have some truth and validity. It does not help to approach conflict from believing that your point of view is the truth, whole truth, and nothing but the truth, which only alienates others. Better to be open and willing to understand how others see things.
  • Resolving conflict requires that we make it safe for people to talk. We make it safe as we communicate respect and a sincere desire to understand their point of view. Once they know that you will listen and really hear them, they will be open to your point of view.
  • Recognize that conflicts are not the result of bad intent (on anyone’s part) but rather poorly chosen strategies for dealing with unmet needs and/or negative feelings. It is, therefore, more helpful to become curious about the feelings that are driving another’s behavior rather than assume that they are acting from negative, malicious motives.

Understanding these core principles prepares us to enter into conflict-solving conversations in a way that makes it much more likely we’ll achieve good outcomes.

A second step in preparation is to work through your own thoughts and feelings.

Conflict is not just about what is happening “out there” but what is happening “in here” or inside of you. Therefore, resolving conflict requires that you be able to grow in emotional intelligence or the ability to manage yourself (thoughts and feelings) in tough situations. You grow in this ability as you learn to process your inner experience by working through questions like the following:

  • What am I feeling? What are my unmet needs beneath my feelings?
  • What can I do to calm myself and put myself in a good place mentally and emotionally?
  • What thoughts/story am I telling myself that is causing my feelings and driving my behavior? Are my thoughts fear or trust based?
  • Am I willing to tell myself a different or more helpful story?
  • What story is the other person telling him/herself? How is it different from my story? Can I see some truth in their story? How can I interpret their behavior in a more charitable light?

Asking such questions interrupts your tendency to simply react and act out your feelings. It allows you to gain deeper insight into yourself and, more importantly, make new choices about how to handle a sensitive conversation. Doing this kind of self-assessment is essential to learning to manage conflict effectively.

Step three is to strengthen your commitment to collaboration and seeking win/win outcomes by thinking through such questions as the following.

  • What is my intent going into this conversation? (Punish? Win? Vent? Learn? Build trust?)
  • Am I willing to show respect?
  • Am I concerned for us and not just me?
  • Am I willing to take responsibility for my feelings rather than blame?
  • Am I willing to seek shared understanding rather than building my own case?
  • Am I willing to be curious to understand the point of view of the other party? Can I listen and draw them out?
  • Am I willing to be authentic as opposed to being political or playing games?
  • Am I willing to take the time necessary to arrive at a good outcome?

Answering these questions affirmatively doesn’t mean you won’t feel some anxiety and apprehension about your ability to manage the process or get to a good outcome. But answering them affirmatively does help you deepen your commitment to play a positive role.

So back to Ellen and George.

Homecoming—Example of Phase I

Ellen takes some time, later in the evening and once the kids are in bed, to identify her feelings, thoughts, and usual actions when George shouts at her. (See article and process Stop-Look-Listen-Choose.)

She allows herself some space to be present with her feelings rather than ignore or run from them. Slowly, they begin to dissipate in intensity. She considers her needs underneath her feelings—to feel confident as a mother and feel the respect and support of her husband.

She identifies some of her thoughts and challenges them. “He thinks I’m a horrible mother,” becomes “He knows I love our children but that I go through good times and bad times, like anyone else.” Her thought, “He never supports me,” becomes, “He really does care about me but is exhausted after a hard day.” Her thought that “He’s mean and uncaring,” becomes, “He feels pretty frustrated and powerless when he walks into a house with a screaming child. He’s honestly not sure what to do. He may feel at a loss as to how to help me.”

She thinks about what she wants in the long run—a good relationship with George. This is more important than the payoffs she’s been getting out of feeling sorry for herself. She clarifies her desire to build more trust and goodwill with her husband as well as make his homecoming and their evenings together more pleasant.

In my next posts, I’ll cover the other phases and steps in resolving conflict. However, if you want to read the entire article now rather than waiting, click here. In the meantime, feel free to make a comment about what you’ve read.


About Roger K. Allen
Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation and family development. His tools and methods have helped tens of thousands of people live happier and more effective lives. To learn more, visit www.rogerkallen.com>.

2 responses to “Preparation: The First Step in Resolving Conflict”

  1. J B says:

    the second scenario sounds as if she is excusing his bad behavior. it doesn’t address or resolve his belittling her efforts as a mother, or how he might help her when he gets home. “He really does care about me but is exhausted after a hard day.” She’s probably exhausted too, but didn’t belittle him. He’s honestly not sure what to do. He may feel at a loss as to how to help me.” Can he be taught?

    • Roger Allen says:

      Hi JB. Good points. Ellen does need to bring his belittling comment up to him. So, this has not yet fully played out. In the first phase of conflict, we focus on ourselves, how to put ourselves into a more positive frame of mind so we can communicate honestly and also from love. The reframe Ellen came up with is believable to her (“He really does care but is exhausted after a hard day”) and helps her maintain perspective and goodwill, so she’d less likely to go on the attack. “Can he be taught?” is a good question. I think Ellen wants to respond and interact with him in a way that helps him open up to her needs and feelings. She’ll best do that not from a place of confrontation but understanding and empathy for him.

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