While conflict can end a relationship, sometimes people have no choice but to continue their relationship after a conflict. Management and labour must work together after a strike, separating couples share decisions about their children and feuding neighbours may go on living side-by-side. Even opposing sides in a civil war must find ways to co-exist in the aftermath. How a conflict is managed makes a big difference in whether or not an ongoing relationship is tolerable.
Mediation is an excellent choice for resolving many kinds of disputes because it can preserve and even strengthen relationships. A mediation is basically a structured conversation. Mediators facilitate negotiation and help parties communicate with one another effectively so that they can craft their own resolutions. Mediation does not create “winners” and “losers.” Everyone can walk out of a mediation with dignity intact. Unlike judges or arbitrators, mediators do not impose solutions or make judgments. Instead parties in a dispute have control over the outcome of their conflict. This is important, because research indicates that people are more likely to respect a settlement if they have had a hand in shaping it.
Yet mediation is not always possible or advisable and sometimes a friendly resolution is out of reach. There are still things parties in a dispute can do to minimize the harm done by conflict.
Pick your battles. Think carefully before initiating or joining in a conflict. Is the issue really important to you? If it is, then deal with it as soon as you can. Confrontation may be uncomfortable, but letting things fester almost always makes them worse.
Is the conflict structural? Are the conditions that led to the present conflict likely to recur? If so, see what can be done to change those conditions. For example, have misunderstandings arisen because people have not had the same access to information? If the conflict is in a workplace, has weak or ineffective managment failed to intervene in the early stages of a potential problem?
Recognize your own part in what has gone on. It might be comforting to believe that one “bad apple” is responsible for the conflict. This is rarely the case. While one-sided conflicts exist, it is much more common that a conflict between two or more competent adults has been fed by contributions from all sides. This does not mean, of course, that the contributions are necessarily equal. Avoiding a conflict can prolong it, just as surely as can angry words. Recognizing one’s own share in a conflict is part of ensuring that it will not flare up again. At the same time, be aware that disruptive behavior may be a consequence of mental illness or addiction. Seek professional advice if you suspect this is the case.
Acknowledge hurt feelings and apologize if appropriate. Nearly everyone finds conflict stressful. A sincere apology or an acknowledgement of the other party’s feelings can be a powerful first step in helping everyone move on. Remember that feelings are legitimate, even if the reasons for the feelings may not be. Yet don’t apologize if you can’t be sincere. Most people are good at detecting insincerity, and an insincere apology usually makes things worse. (And whatever you do, don’t say, “I’m sorry but….”)
Don’t gossip. Even if your conflict has ended without formal confidentiality provisions, resist the urge to discuss it with others who may have been involved. Gossip is prohibited by the ancient moral codes of many cultures, from Judaism to Buddhism to Confucianism, because our ancestors recognized that although we may have an urge to engage in idle talk about others, to do so can damage social relations. If you need to discuss the conflict, find someone who is not involved.
Focus on what you can control – your own actions and responses. You cannot make another person apologize, take responsibility for their actions, or do the right thing. Yet you can control your own actions. You can choose to put the conflict behind you and behave with grace. You can choose to treat others with respect. And you can resist the impulse to define yourself and others through the lens of the conflict.
Finally, begin with the end in mind. When Steven Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, identified this as Habit No. 2, he had in mind the simple idea that we need to set a goal before taking action. This rule applies equally well to conflict situations. What kinds of relationships do you envision post-conflict? How do you want to see yourself when you think back over your actions? A clear sense of your own values and priorities should guide your behavior in the conflict and help you make decisions that you can be proud of later.
This post first appeared in a slightly different form in the May 2014 issue of Condo Business.