Conflict Resolution and Healthy Relationships

I recently wrote this after taking a webinar on Making Difficult Conversations Easy by the Effectiveness Institute. It was first published in my workplace newsletter. I’ve put the techniques into action a couple of times this month and they work! If conflict stresses you out, give it a whirl – you have nothing to lose.

Photo by John Mark Arnold

Photo by John Mark Arnold

The most dreaded conversation starter must be “We need to talk.”

A typical reaction is to feel panic, discomfort, or dread. But what if that conversation didn’t have to be uncomfortable? For many it takes a lot of mental and emotional effort to deal with conflict, whether at home or in the workplace. However, conflict doesn’t always have to be negative.

By changing your approach, a positive outcome is entirely possible and isn’t as emotionally draining. In order to make those difficult conversations easier, first we have to delve into what triggers conflict.

  1. Unmet Expectations

The conflict has developed due to something that did or didn’t happen, which was out of line with your own expectations.

  1. Values Violation

Your values have been violated by the other’s behaviour or comments.

Obviously, these are both uncomfortable experiences. In reality, they happen quite often and our natural approach needs to be examined before we can learn new habits for addressing conflict in our lives.

Do you Fight or Fly?

There are usually two responses to conflict in the heat of the moment that everyone is very familiar with: Fight or Flight.

Ask yourself which of the actions or emotions of fight or flight you display when confronted with conflict.


Fight or flight are the go-to reactions when one feels that conflict is bad. Conflict is not good or bad, it is simply tension between two people over a particular situation. Conflict provides an opportunity for us to gently move towards a solution. In the workplace, reactions often start with flight and grow to fight. With the fight response, it’s easy to lose the “big picture” of the conflict and focus on the short term implications. This reaction doesn’t help the situation.

If conflict is approached as an opportunity to learn and fix problems, difficult conversations are handled better. In order to create a situation where this is possible, an atmosphere of safety must be present.

A person’s level of safety can vary depending on their approach to conflict. A safe environment is created by keeping each person’s dignity and trust intact throughout the discussion.

An unaddressed communication method that hovers below the surface of conflict conversation are assumptions based on behaviour, voice, appearance, and body language. People often make assumptions about others especially in times of conflict. Assumptions are damaging when trying to create a safe environment to solve conflict.

In order to reduce assumptions and avoid power struggles during times of conflict, be sure to ask open-ended questions for clarity and show (rather than tell) that you respect the person’s dignity.

Changing your outlook

In addition to creating a safe space, it’s important to look inward to evaluate your attitude towards the situation.

A reactive attitude is focused on the present or the past, tries to find blame, and makes conversation more difficult.

A proactive attitude is focused on the future, seeks clarity, and increases understanding between both parties. With a proactive attitude, you won’t go down that troublesome path of the past concerned with who did what, when, and how.

After creating the atmosphere of a safe space, how do you move ahead in the conversation? There are four steps to remember:

  1. Give clear expectations.
  2. Be specific and concrete.
  3. Make sure the expectation is realistic.
  4. Has the expectation been confirmed?

What happens if the expectation isn’t met?

This situation requires an accountability conversation but it can easily turn into a power struggle. The key is to ask WHY the expectations didn’t happen to seek clarity.

  1. Start your conversation with ‘I’.

The conversation begins with less intense emotions rather than the finger pointing pronoun ‘you’. It also lets the other party know you are taking ownership for your feelings in the situation.

  1. Pause.
  2. Explain your feelings.
  3. Provide a Way Out With Dignity (WOWD).

Keep a normal volume of voice, relax your muscles, ask what happened but don’t let go of the previous agreed upon expectation.

  1. Keep questions open-ended.

There sure are a lot of techniques involved with making difficult conversations easier. The essentials are:

  1. Change your outlook on conflict.
  2. Check your assumptions.
  3. Stay focused on the desired future.
  4. Be clear on your expectations.
  5. Ask for accountability.
Photo by Thomas Lefebvre

Photo by Thomas Lefebvre

The tricky situations

Repeat Offenders – express your concern, identify what has happened, and ask “What do I need to do so the expectation can be met?”

Micromanagers – Ask for clarification on the level of authority you have and then possibly move into conversation about the impact the micromanager has on your productivity.

Over phone/text – Avoid addressing conflict using this method. The risk for misinterpretation is incredibly high. If you MUST, ask an open ended question. If the situation has a lot of emotion, use phone over text.

Negative past relationships – Try to recognize the other person is seeing the relationship differently. Avoid taking a ‘power stance’.


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