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University of Wyoming Extension

College of Agriculture and Natural Resources

LIFE - Individual Growth and Development

Conflict Resolution

Since conflict is an inevitable part of caring about each other or living together, developing positive strategies for surviving and growing through differences is critical to the health and happiness of the relationship. Conflict resolution is really a matter of attitude: partners must want to work together, take risks, show flexibility and sacrifice unselfishly; and a matter of skill: no matter how good the intentions, emotional control and relaxation skills, listening, speaking, and problem solving provide the discipline necessary to work through difficult issues and feelings.

Steps to Conflict Resolution

Emotional Control

The ability to differentiate or maintain balance in emotional and rational responses, is critical to effective conflict resolution. Everyone has some "hot button" issues (strongly held beliefs, hurts from past experiences, biases, and fears) that trigger feeling reactions (sometimes invisible) which override rational thought. Emotional explosions or evasions (sarcasm, withdrawal, sabotage, or gossip) signal a person's difficulty in working through an issue. Unfortunately such tensions and attacks make it more difficult for the couple to resolve issues.

Substituting a calm, controlled, and analytical approach--without emotion--illustrates the other extreme of differentiation. Appearing to be in control, open, and objective without expressing genuine emotions can be just as damaging to individuals or the relationship as emotional overload.

Emotional control grows from personal disciplines

  • Relaxation, involving stress management through a balanced schedule, deep breathing, muscle relaxation, exercise, and mental breaks (change of pace, humor, recreation, or companionship)
  • Reflection, involving reframing stressful situations to focus on reducing worry, looking for opportunity, minimizing damage, and cooperating with persons and circumstances as they now exist
  • Receptiveness to the other person (rather than to tensions or conflicts) in a more relaxed, positively-focused, and proactive approach; often a more tentative and experimental approach

NO ONE IS IN CONTROL ALL THE TIME. Persons in healthy relationships more often keep themselves in balance (through relaxation, reflection, and receptive response). However, stressful circumstances (including life's surprises) can throw any person out of balance temporarily. (Some of us are better at hiding effects of the disruption). When overload occurs, partners who recognize rising tensions in themselves and others (flushed face, fast/high-pitched/intense speech, muscle tension, rising skin temperature and blood pressure, feelings of fear or anger) are better able to call "time out" and take 15-20 minutes to calm down. Rescheduling a conversation until partners have had time to think through ideas and emotions--their own and their partner's--may add greater reflection and receptiveness to conflict resolution. Focusing conflict resolution to a neutral and supportive ground--away from peer pressure or personal intimidation--provides the best prospects for resolving concerns and building a stronger relationship.

The most destructive aspect of conflict occurs when discomfort, fear, or hostility is directed from an event, issue, or object to attack a person or shut down a collaborative relationship.

Problem Discussion

Once partners are in a positive frame of mind to work together on resolving differences, meaningful discussion can begin. Successful problem-solvers are

  • Optimistic--confident in their ability to influence things for the good and work out difficulties in the real world
    • Thus partners and families need to guard against cynicism, sarcasm, or despair about other people and situations
  • Cooperative --willing to work together by sharing needs and coordinating efforts to address a common concern
    • Thus partners and families need to guard against leaving solutions to individuals (separate actions or one acting for the whole group)
  • Patient--willing to explore, experiment, and evaluate the approach which works best over the long run
    • Thus partners and families need to guard against a "quick fix" in order to avoid working through confusing options or painful feelings

Tools for Effective Problem Discussion

Structured Dialogue - creating a supportive structure for sharing and hearing feelings is critical to a climate of trust and transfer of clear and accurate ideas and feelings. Mutual acceptance and increased understanding of the facts and feelings involved is the first step to agreement--even on what issue(s) are most important--and cooperative action.

Take turns as speaker and listener, giving full energy (especially when listening) to the role of the moment. The speaker should speak for self, without trying to blame or placate the listener. (Notice how hard it is to avoid "You think…you feel…you did…")

The speaker should keep thoughts and feelings brief, prioritizing and speaking to one point at a time. After each brief statement, the speaker should pause for the listener to paraphrase, or repeat the idea or identify the feeling in his/her own words.

An XYZ statement captures specific events, interpretations, and reactions: "When you do X in situation Y, I feel Z." For instance, "When you leave your socks on the floor after basketball practice, I feel irritated." Partners are much more successful dealing with specific events, ideas, and feelings than vague accusations or assumptions.

The listener should give the speaker full attention, noticing but not being distracted by facial expressions, tone of voice, or gestures which emphasize ideas or indicate emotions. The listener should try to remain still, open, and receptive (not smiling broadly or scowling). It's tough to say nothing, but as a listener, that says it all: "This is your story…let me hear it."

Paraphrase--state in your own words--the speaker's main ideas and feelings, briefly, emphasizing your interpretation: "What I heard you saying" rather than "You said" (unless you're quoting directly). After paraphrasing, ask the speaker to confirm that the paraphrase is accurate or clarify it to reflect his/her true thoughts and feelings.

Allow the speaker to state his/her key points (3-4) with paraphrasing and clarifying after each. Then reverse roles, and allow the original listener to take the speaker role.

Reflecting on Speaker and Listener Roles

As in the listener role, interruptions and questions tend to divert and discount the speaker's message rather than emphasize attentiveness and openness. Understand that openness and ability to repeat ideas and feelings does not imply agreement. Refusal to listen, criticism, and argument, on the other hand, almost guarantee that the conflict will not be solved. Using structured dialogue to guide conflict resolution often seems artificial and manipulative. As partners become more adept at slowing down and focusing discussion in productive ways, listening with sensitivity (noticing words and actions) and empathy (appreciating feelings and personality), turn-taking, paraphrasing, clarifying, and self-control become a more natural part of even the most heated issues and personal concerns. Like any discipline, repetition and refinement of skills leads to the most successful results.

You can't get somewhere until you know where you are… and where you want to be.

Problem Solution

Once the climate is positive and the issues are clear, partners can do some productive exploring of options and actions to work out conflict. Once the issues have been discussed and partners understand opinions and feelings, the following strategies can be helpful:

Agenda setting--agreement on what needs to be solved and what kind of solution is workable. Specific concerns or decisions rather than general complaints will focus partners on what needs to be done. If partners concentrate on the most critical issues, other events may fall into place. Focus on actions which either or both can influence--vs. things out of their control--also aids problem solving.

Brainstorming--refocusing energy on cooperative problem solving, partners can playfully invent many possible solutions. What seem like ridiculous ideas when first suggested, often turn out to be practical and desirable solutions upon reflection. To make the most of the idea-generating process, couples should try these rules

  • Accept any idea suggested
  • Invent now, evaluate later
  • Be creative
  • Have fun

Agreement and Compromise--using the list of ideas invented in brainstorming, select specific strategies to work out the conflict. Avoid deep discussion and focus instead on specific and practical steps which will help you start moving, Outline what will be done, by whom, and how each partner is to support the plan.

Follow-up--at a pre-arranged time, check with each other to see how the plan is working, what new concerns have arisen, and what else needs to be address (i.e., a more difficult part of the problem). Use the structured dialogue approach to assess success from each partner's point-of-view. Exchange positive words of encouragement for sticking with the strategy, but be honest when one or both partners have not lived up to promises.

Exercises

Using a relatively simple, but recurring problem (something you're familiar with), use conflict resolution strategies to talk out issues and feelings and come to a solution. Chart and discuss your progress.

Developed by Ben Silliman, University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service Family Life Specialist, and Cristine Braddy, student worker

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