03/05/2014 06:15 pm ET Updated May 05, 2014

What to Do in Conflict

Quarrel not at all. No man resolved to make the most of himself can spare time for personal contention. -- Abraham Lincoln in a letter to J. M. Cutts, October 26, 1863

You know the feeling: the air in the room changes. An old issue rears its head or a battle of wills springs fresh: either way, conflict is the beast which kills too many relationships and some of them permanently.

Show me a person who likes conflict and you're either dealing with Buddha or someone who feeds on drama. On the other hand, the paradox is that we need conflict. Conflict creates the energy from which new ideas and closer relationships form.

Great leaders and caring people both know how to use conflict. The twist is: conflict is only valuable if it is temporary. Abe telling us not to quarrel provides the first tip on how to make conflict an asset:

1) Keep an attitude that nothing is personal.
We know it's not personal, but we still fall for the trap. When conflict happens, and the moment you notice it, even if it's directed at you, pause.

Next, find its source.

2) Most expressed conflicts are not actually about the topic raised.
For instance, someone not getting work done on time is rarely about the deadline. It's about the communication that created the deadline, the trust in the relationship, or something in his personal life.

The person you live with isn't really yelling about the dishes. Figure out what's really bothering her (it could be work, health, or she's just tired) or what she really needs from you (and yes, sometimes it is simply for you to do the dishes).

Then, remind yourself why your relationship matters.

3) You can't resolve a conflict unless you have a reason to reconnect.
At work, you have to know why people want to be there. At home, it's what the person really needs to feel safe and loved. In community challenges, it's the first thing everyone can agree needs to be fixed. We need the people in our lives and when we can express why, conflict is ready to be resolved.

Last, find a safe space to end it.

4) Have a conversation with one purpose: get reconnected.
You can't dance around conflict. With a mediator, a closed door session (where people can't hear you yelling), or lunch away from the office, have a face-to-face conversation where you either talk through the conflict itself, or refocus on what really matters to you and the person or people with whom you want to start over.

Unfortunately some conflicts don't end because people are too stuck. In those cases, you have to make bigger changes.

Most of the time, however, we don't want the tension. When conflict is used intentionally and faced directly, the result is deeper partnerships or friendships or more of the love we all crave.