The Best Way to Resolve Conflict

by Kassandra Lamb

A couple weeks ago, I posted about how to handle bullies, those who promote conflict for its own sake to make themselves feel better about themselves.

But what about more everyday conflicts? What’s the best way to handle all those times when we find ourselves locking horns with someone who has no more desire to fight than we do?

I saw this approach to handling conflict in a video in graduate school many (many, many) years ago. It’s stuck with me ever since. I, in turn, taught it to my psychology students. They often came back with reports of how well it worked with bosses, boyfriends/girlfriends, parents, etc. I think it is the absolute best approach to conflict resolution.

This angry lioness is assuming the other lioness is encroaching on her territory and will somehow keep her from getting her needs met. (photo by Tony Hisgett, Birmingham, UK, CC BY 2.0)

This angry lioness is assuming the other lioness is encroaching on her territory and will somehow keep her from getting her needs met. (photo by Tony Hisgett, Birmingham, UK, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia)

First, let’s realize what conflict is all about. It occurs when two beings assume that their needs/desires are mutually exclusive of the other’s needs/desires. “If you get what you want, then I won’t get what I want” is the underlying belief. But often, if we can stop fighting long enough to analyze the situation more carefully, we will discover that there is a solution that meets both parties’ needs.

This process makes that possible.

Here are the four steps, then I’ll give an example.

  • DISENGAGE:  This is the old “count to ten” adage. Separate yourself physically from the other person and take as long as it takes for both of you to calm down.
  • EMPATHIZE: This is more than just acknowledging the other person’s feelings. It’s truly putting yourself in their shoes and realizing how you would feel (in most cases, we discover we would feel the same as they do).
  • NEEDS ASSESSMENT: What does each party REALLY need? This requires digging beneath the surface. What the person is asking for/demanding may not be what they really need. Often it is what they think will satisfy their needs, when something else will also do so, and perhaps better.
  • SOLUTION: Look for a solution that satisfies each party’s needs COMPLETELY. Often we are told that in order to resolve conflict, we have to compromise, i.e., each party gives up something to get part of what they want. Well, sometimes that’s true. Most times, however, there is a solution available that gives both parties all of what they want. But we have to look for it.

The first step is the easiest of them. Steps 2 and 3 are harder, especially if you do them right and really dig beneath the surface. But if those steps are done properly, often step 4 isn’t all that hard.

Here’s the example I used with my psychology classes. For anyone who ever dated, it will strike a chord. Most of us have been there, on one side of the dispute or the other.

Jane and Phil, both full-time college students with part-time jobs, have been dating for several months and have committed to an exclusive relationship. More and more often lately, they have been fighting over how much time Phil is willing to spend with Jane.

Jane says: “I feel like you don’t appreciate me. You want me when you want me, but the rest of the time you expect me to sit on a shelf, waiting for your phone call. I feel like you don’t love me as much as I love you.”

Phil replies: “I do love you, but that doesn’t mean we have to be joined at the hip. I need some time to myself sometimes, and time to hang out with the guys. I’m starting to feel smothered here.”

My students had little trouble coming up with a way for them to Disengage. Their best suggestion was that Phil and Jane should take a day or two off from each other, and then make a date to sit down and talk about the problem when they were both calm, rather than when emotions were already running high.

young couple sitting apart on bench

photo by Elizabeth Ashley Jerman CC-BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons

When I’d ask about the Empathize step, I’d almost always get this response: “That’s easy too. Phil is feeling smothered and Jane is feeling neglected.”

“No,” I told them. “That’s not good enough. They each have to step into the other’s shoes. Phil needs to imagine how he would feel if half the time he wanted to get together with Jane she said she’d rather be doing something else.”

The students admitted that he would probably feel neglected.

It’s a little tougher to get Jane to empathize with Phil. The question for her is: “How would you feel if Phil wanted to be with you every waking moment, even when you want to wash your hair or when a friend calls for a heart-to-heart talk?”

I’d ask the class: “Ladies, have you ever had a boyfriend who was clingy and always wanted to be with you?” At least half the female students would raise their hands (as would I since I did indeed have a couple boyfriends like that).

“Drove you crazy after a while, didn’t it?” I’d ask. They’d all nod. “Jane has to imagine this scenario and realize she’d feel smothered too.”

Now for the toughest step in the model, the Needs Assessment!

Phil is relatively easy. He has stated his need–for more alone time and time with his friends (assuming he isn’t intimacy-phobic and just using this as an excuse…hmm, another good idea for a blog post. *stops to jot that down*)

Jane is tougher. On the surface she’s saying she needs more time with him, but look again at her words about her feelings. She feels unappreciated and wonders if he loves her as much as she loves him. So is it more time with him that she really needs?

There would always be a pregnant pause in the classroom at this point. Then someone would get it. “She needs reassurance that he loves her.”

“Bingo! Now for the Solution. How can Phil give her that reassurance without spending more time with her? Because that does not meet his needs.”

The ideas would fly around the room. “Text ‘I love u’ or ‘thinking of u’ several times a day.” “Buy her flowers.” “Leave her little notes to find, like in her textbooks or on the windshield of her car.” (That one is my favorite!)

Jane might even be content with less of Phil’s time, if he’s giving her these reassurances of his affection.

This process works like a charm most of the time. If you remember to use it (which I often don’t, sadly).

What do you think of it? How do you tend to deal with disputes?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist/college professor turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

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12 thoughts on “The Best Way to Resolve Conflict

  1. K.B. Owen

    I like this, Kass! Especially the part about seeing if the stated need is really what’s going on. That’s often easy to miss.

    Your sample scenario reminds me of a funny story my mom likes to tell about when she and my Dad were dating. He wanted to be with her ALL THE TIME. They each had full-time day jobs, and she still lived with her parents back then. Every evening, he’d come to the house to spend time with her there, or they would go out. Finally, my mom was feeling a bit hemmed in, and asked her father to talk to him. So my grandfather pulled my dad aside and explained that girls liked to have time to themselves, to “wash their hair, stuff like that.”

    “Oh, sure, Mr. Flood, I understand. No problem,” my dad said.

    My mom was relieved when he didn’t come around the next night. It worked!

    Then my dad came back the night after that. And the night after that. And so on.

    He gave her ONE night off. She said she married him so she’d get a little time to herself, LOL. 😉

    Reply
  2. Kassandra Lamb

    LOL Love that story, Kathy! Hope she got to wash her hair again at least once before the wedding. 😉

    As for the conflict resolution model, I’m amazed at how well it works, and sometimes what the real need is totally surprises me.

    Reply
  3. August McLaughlin

    Great tips! I find that taking some breaths before replying when I feel heated helps a great deal. (Disengaging is the perfect word!) It really does help put things in perspective, and prevents lashing out and saying something we might regret.

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb

      Glad you found this helpful, August. Yes, that’s the tough part for me, sitting on my tongue when I’m pissed! My brother sometimes teases me that I have “foot IN mouth” disease.

      Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb

      Thanks, Jami! Yes, the digging deep is the key.

      It was great fun watching my students’ faces as they tried to figure out what I was digging for. When one of them would finally say reassurance, I’d jump up and down. “Yes, yes, yes!”

      Lordy, I miss teaching sometimes.

      Reply
  4. Shannon Esposito

    August takes a few deep breaths? LOL, she’s way too sweet for this world. I take waaaay longer to cool off and figure out how to say what I want diplomatically. They say never go to bed angry but there have been times that was the better choice. Of course that was mostly at the beginning of our marriage. After 14 yrs. we’ve learned how to co-habitate pretty well.

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb

      LOL Yeah, counting to ten rarely works for me. I need more like 100, or sometimes 1000.

      And I agree. Sometimes going to bed mad is better than duking it out while one or both parties are still pissed.

      Reply
  5. Shan Jeniah Burton

    I learned no effective conflict resolution strategy as a child. I’m determined that my own kids will have more to work with.

    I use most of these techniques, in a more organic manner. One thing I often say, when there’s conflict, is, “What’s your goal here?” Often, that leads to seeing that they’ve (or I, when I remember to ask myself that Very Important Question) lost track of the purpose we had at the beginning.

    Often, the conflict is a misunderstanding, or getting too entrenched in one’s own needs or story to see the needs or story of the other – or how everyone can win,

    Lovely, meaningful post. Would you mind terribly if I reblogged you?

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb

      Absolutely, reblog away, Shan!

      “…too entrenched in one’s own needs and story to see the needs and story of the other…” what a great way of putting it. That is exactly what happens all too often, and I do it as much if not more than anyone else. IF/When I can remember to use this approach, it usually gets me un-entrenched.

      Reply
  6. Karen McFarland

    Hi Kassandra! I told you I’d make it over here. It’s only taken me more time than I thought. Am I settled? Don’t ask. lol. Any who… Great explanation on resolution. All of your suggestions ring true. That is if you’re dealing with someone who is reasonable with a sense of humility. I have found that fear is an underlying culprit of conflict. As you said, each party could be in fear of not having their needs met. But if the ego gets in the way, watch out. Yet, one of the parties has to be willing to yield. I find it’s so worth taking the high road. At this point in my life, I don’t always need to be right. I am so into keeping the peace. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb

      Excellent points, Karen, about fear and ego. One of the things couple counselors do is have a couple practice “externalizing the problem.” In other words, the problem is “over there” and “we” (the couple) are “over here” trying to solve the problem. This puts things in a different perspective where egos are less likely to get in the way. I think the model above helps with this externalizing the problem, because it gives people a concrete way to work toward a good solution.

      And we’re always delighted when you show up!!

      Reply

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