Getting 'good' at conflict

You know how a lot of people hate confrontation? Well, I’m not one of them. I don’t mean that I like petty arguments or fighting with my friends and family; in fact, I hate those things. But I do enjoy intense discussions and debating topics (sometimes a little too passionately), which can create a difficult home environment for my family. And although I’m much better at managing how I respond to things I disagree with than I once was, conflict is nonetheless a fundamental and unavoidable part of life, so it’s helpful to understand how to ‘do’ conflict in a way that is constructive rather than counterproductive.

We all have our own conflict styles. Some of us are accommodators, and some of us are confronters. Some of these styles work better with one another than others. Two confronters in a room together? Good luck. A confronter and an accommodator together, well, that poses problems, too (i.e. the accommodator acquiescing to the dominating arguments of the confronter). So, with all these variables to consider, how do we become ‘good’ at conflict? How can we be better, more empathetic listeners? How can we form more reasoned arguments that rely on deliberate thought rather than reflexive emotions?

On an episode of the goop Podcast, professional negotiator Daniel Shapiro explains an idea I feel has fundamentally changed the way I think of conflict: ‘Before I can change your mind,’ he says, ‘I need to understand where your mind is.’

I think most of us could hazard a guess that healthy confrontation involves listening to the other person, but perhaps the more complex issue is what you’re meant to be listening for.

We tend to approach conflict from a positional place, fighting over our differences without considering what the underlying interests of the distinct positions are. So, the simplest and most effective thing we can do is to simply ask why. Why do you feel that way? Why do you want what you want? Why don’t you want what I want?

Sometimes, we might not feel safe to engage in conflict if there isn’t some existing foundation of trust with the person that you’re engaging in conflict with, but Shapiro says that you can trust the credibility of the process without necessarily trusting each other. You can focus on being honest and looking at respective interests rather than positions by rising above self-righteousness and recognising the legitimacy of what the other person is saying. By building a process for conflict this way, we can shift the very form that conflict takes so that it’s no longer me versus you, it’s us side-by-side working together towards a mutually beneficial solution.

Tagged in What messes with your head, mental health, relationships, friends, family