THE BLOG
02/20/2013 03:11 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2013

What to Do When Conflict Happens

Whenever I encounter conflict, something in the pit of my stomach turns and I feel a burst of adrenaline shoot through my body. It's that instinctual fight-or-flight mechanism preparing me for battle... or to run.

If the conflict occurs in a dark alley and involves more than a dozen people, my instinct is to (wisely) run. If the challenge occurs anywhere else, such as with a friend, in a customer service situation or in the workplace, I tend to be drawn into the fray.

I remember one of my first conflicts. It was in Mrs. Sturgill's sixth-grade class. Most of us were a bit afraid of Mrs. Sturgill, even though we never saw her eat a child or do anything to warrant our fear. She was a large woman with big hair who would sit at her desk behind a big wicker purse, twirling her hair while peering into a small cosmetic mirror. Maybe that's why we were afraid of her!

If the students were working on an assignment, she would look out from behind her purse every few minutes to see if we were behaving. If she caught someone misbehaving, she would assign her favorite punishment -- writing proverbs. She would say, "Write 'a rolling stone gathers no moss' 500 times," and the student would spend the rest of the day writing proverbs. I suppose it wasn't as bad as being eaten and we did learn a lot of proverbs. A lot of proverbs.

One day, Mrs. Sturgill told us to work quietly at our desks. The obvious problem was that our sit-quietly-and-focus gland had not fully developed. So, as was our nature, we talked. After reminding us to be quiet 27 times, Mrs. Sturgill came out from behind the wicker purse and slammed her fist down on the desk.

She said, "You boys and girls would talk until doomsday if I'd let you."

I raised my hand.

"What?" she said.

"Well, wouldn't that put an end to the talking?"

Several kids laughed. Some went pale. Several ducked under their desks in case she reached for the wicker purse.

Mrs. Sturgill hid a slight snicker. Then, she composed herself and said, "Ronnie Culberson, I want you to write 'look before you leap' 40 times."

I was shocked. She said, "40." The punishment was always 500, or at least 400. No one ever got only 40.

Apparently, I had won the battle, not by meeting it head on, but by using a bit of humor to get around it. It was a small victory for sixth-graders and humorists everywhere.

I only wish that every conflict was that easy to resolve. Unfortunately, it's not. When we find ourselves in disagreements, we often assume a defensive posture. Sometimes it's because we feel strongly about the issue, sometimes it's because our egos have been hurt, and sometimes it's because we know we are right. In these situations, we can react in ways that do not resolve the conflict, but instead inflame it.

The key to managing conflict is to first and foremost recognize that we are different from other people. We each have different values, priorities, and perspectives. Everyone is not going to see the world the same way we do. And that's probably a good thing that can lead to an appreciation for new insights -- if we allow ourselves to see them.

In the meantime, however, we must manage our conflicts constructively. Here are a few suggestions for managing the day-to-day conflicts we encounter:

  1. Identify the source of the conflict. Is it just different information, which is easy to solve, or is it something deeper such as a difference in values or beliefs? Knowing the source helps us know the best way to approach the conflict.
  2. Discuss your respective interest in the conflict. Often, when we find out why someone is defending their position, we understand them better and we can negotiate the outcome more sensitively.
  3. Brainstorm win-win solutions. If we work together to consider the solutions to a particular conflict, we share responsibility for the outcome.
  4. Embrace humor as a way to avoid conflict. When we can see the humor in a stressful situation, we can often avoid being too caught up in the stress.

Conflict happens. And the better we're able to deal with it, the less stress we'll experience.

For more by Ron Culberson, MSW, CSP, click here.

For more on emotional intelligence, click here.

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