Whether you’re struggling with workplace politics or want more harmony in your personal relationships, it’s time to shed light on:

  • How your mind works when you feel under siege
  • What’s helpful to know about conflict, and
  • Strategies and tools for resolving disputes.

Humans are hardwired to avoid loss or failure.

From an evolutionary perspective, you should probably know that we’re up against it.

As human beings, we are creatures of habit, some of them not so helpful. From the perspective of managing conflict, our deeply entrenched predisposition to overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities is a touch unfortunate.  It’s a phenomenon called negativity bias.

Oftentimes we take differences in opinions about what needs to be done (task conflict) or controversies about how the job should be done (process conflict) as personal slights. These disagreements can fester and quickly escalate into relationship conflict that triggers the vicious circle of further undermining trust, cohesion, morale and performance.

Simply being aware of our innate motivation to ‘take things the wrong way’ is a crucial first step in restoring objectivity and combatting our naturally critical reactions.

Take in the good.

Detecting and neutralising the negative emotions we feel towards someone that’s causing us some distress is easy to say, but like so many personal change endeavours, hard to achieve. By forcing ourselves to ‘take in the good,’ we lay down new neural pathways in our brains, strengthening our chances of experiencing more of the positive emotions that reduce our inborn negativity bias.

Here are some ways to prevent simple disagreements escalating into personalising:

  • Focus on what others bring to the relationship, rather than on what they don’t, won’t or can’t do
  • Articulate what you most value and appreciate in the other person when they are at their best
  • Force yourself to purposefully pick out the ‘3 positives’ from each experience, no matter how much reframing is required
  • Remember to savour the good experiences, using them to soothe and replace the negatives.

The starting point in conflict resolution

When you feel stressed, tense or in conflict with another person, it can be hard to respond in helpful and constructive ways. Whether at work or with your family, once things have become personal, the usual pattern is that communication stops, alliances and cliques develop, ‘enemy camps’ form and if left unchecked, open hostility follows.

At risk of being overly prescriptive in what are usually complex and nuanced situations, here’s our list of top tips to break the cycle.

10 Ground rules for resolving conflict

Transforming a conflict situation and preventing issues from deepening is hard work. It requires both parties to bring these attributes to the table:

  1. Respect and responsibility for expressing your own wants and needs
  2. Care, concern and empathy for others’ wants and needs
  3. A positive mental attitude and an open mind
  4. Explicit and sincere desire to get back on track
  5. Finding common ground and mutually desired outcomes
  6. Joint problem solving and co-creation of solutions
  7. Not rushing, proceeding in small steps, noticing emerging increments of agreement
  8. Staying present – not dragging up “old stuff”
  9. Not leaping to conclusions, acknowledging unintentional negative impacts
  10. Taking responsibility for causing ‘pain’ to the other person even where unintentional, sincere apologies.

Tools for preventing and managing conflict

  • Pause – from habitual thoughts and attitudes. Step out of reaction. Mind your mind. Notice and observe what is occurring for you in the minute. Think before reacting. Explore differences in position from a 3rd party perspective. Resolve to act mindfully.
  • Relax – manage your emotional state so that your body and mind feel calm. Withdraw if you need to calm down, take a break. Belly breathe, unscrunch shoulders, unclench your jaw.
  • Listen deeply – bring your awareness away from your internal thoughts and feelings by listening intently to the other’s words, intended meaning and emotions. Acknowledge their feelings and suffering, restate your best understanding of others’ viewpoint, reframe and invite confirmation or correction. Be one step behind as a listener.
  • Speak the ‘truth’ – be mindful of your speech, speak with clarity, authenticity and empathy. Use “I” statements, neutralise and normalise your language, try to avoid definitive language like “always” and “never”. Use others’ key phrases and “we” language (but only where it is genuine).

The good fight.

Cut yourselves (and others) some slack. Let as much go as you can.

If you need to address an issue, bear in mind you might be taking things too personally and seeing daggers where none were intended (and so might the other person). Ask yourself:

  • How might you be helping to create or sustain the conflict?
  • What different options do you have for responding?
  • What can you do to reframe and ‘play the ball not the person’?

Remember, a ‘good fight’ is one where self and other care are upheld in equal measure – where it feels just and compassionate.

So, if there’s someone in your life who you’re butting up against, here’s another way to help bring about a happier and less stressful relationship – Loving Kindness Meditation to Boost Compassion (from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good in Action Science Center in collaboration with Mindful.org). Go on, give it a try – what have you got to lose?