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Effectively Communicating During Conflict: Building Bridges, Not Walls

Conflict is an inevitable part of human interaction. Whether in personal relationships, the workplace, or society at large, disagreements and clashes are bound to occur. Conflict can feel scary for some, so much so that they avoid it altogether. For others, the need to defend their point of view can escalate the conflict into something that feels unmanageable. So, how do we keep the fighting to a minimum when engaged in a conversation that involves conflict? Here are a couple of important actions you can take to de-escalate conflict keep communication clear:

Active Listening (Don’t Interrupt!): The foundation of effective conflict communication is active listening. Too often, we're so focused on what we want to say next that we don't truly hear what the other person is saying. Make a conscious effort to listen attentively without interrupting. This not only helps you understand the other person's perspective but also shows that you respect their point of view. Also try to maintain eye contact as much as you can; this allows the other person to see you respecting their voice in that moment and makes space for their feelings.

Empathize: Try to see the situation from the other person's perspective. Ask yourself how they might be feeling and why they hold their view. Demonstrating empathy can help create a sense of understanding and reduce tension. It can also help you calm any upset emotions in the moment by helping you to see the other person’s feelings as valid, instead of seeing them as your enemy.

Use "I" Statements: When discussing your own feelings or needs, use "I" statements. For example, say, "I feel frustrated when..." rather than "You always make me angry when...". This shifts the focus to your feelings and needs, making the conversation less accusatory.

Stay Calm: It's easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment, but raising your voice or becoming overly emotional can escalate the conflict. Try to maintain your composure and speak in a calm, composed manner. Remember to breathe deeply while you’re listening to the other person talk. If you find yourself becoming too emotional, take a break and return to the conversation when you're more level-headed. It’s very common to need to take a moment to self-soothe before you resolving a conflict. Don’t hesitate to tell the other person that you need a break so you can take a walk or simply spend a few minutes alone.

Avoid Blame and Judgement: Blame and judgment can quickly turn a conversation into a battleground. Instead of saying, "You're always so careless," try saying, "I've noticed some mistakes, and I'm concerned about the impact on our project." This approach is less confrontational and invites a more constructive discussion. Again, this approach emphasizes beginning your sentences with “I” and not “you,” a verbal strategy that automatically shifts the focus of blame.

Seek Common Ground: Look for areas of agreement or common goals. Finding common ground can be a unifying force in conflict situations. It helps to remind everyone involved that, despite the differences, there's a shared interest in resolving the issue.

Ask Open-Ended Questions: Encourage the other person to express themselves by asking open-ended questions. These questions invite them to share their thoughts and feelings more fully, fostering a deeper understanding of their perspective. For instance, if your partner is saying “you never listen to me,” instead of responding defensively, you could ask “what can I do to let you know that I’m listening?” This creates an opportunity for your partner to be specific about what listening looks like and means to them.

Clarify and Summarize: After the other person has expressed their viewpoint, take a moment to clarify and summarize what you've heard. This not only shows that you've been actively listening but also ensures that you understand their perspective correctly. It can be incredibly helpful after a conflict to reflect back to the person “What I’m hearing you say is _______ and what you need from me is ______” in order to ensure both parties are hearing and understanding one another. Summarizing also helps keep the conversation centered around the issue at hand, instead of bringing up past issues or unrelated problems.

Propose Solutions Together: Conflict resolution often involves finding a compromise or solution that works for all parties. Involve the other person in brainstorming possible solutions. This collaborative approach can lead to more effective and satisfying resolutions. When you shift the focus from thinking “what would make me feel better” to what can you do to make the situation better, it becomes easier to relate because you’re working on a shared goal.

Learn from the Conflict: After the conflict is resolved, reflect on the experience. What can you learn from it? How can you prevent similar conflicts in the future? Self-reflection and growth are essential aspects of effective conflict communication. Maybe you’ve realized you need to set clearer boundaries at work so people know the hours you’re available. Maybe you and your partner have realized that when you have conflict, you both feel afraid of being hurt, so you actively work towards being more gentle with each other. Maybe you got into a fender bender and instead of screaming at the other driver, you imagined their own stress and decided to keep the situation as calm as possible on your end. Conflict can actually be a really rich place to grow emotionally, but it’s a bit like handling fire: you want to take the warmth and light from fire, but manage it carefully to avoid explosions and destruction.

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