Conflict, clashing disagreements, arguments, differences of opinion. A normal part of every relationship, be it romantic, friendly, family or work. We can’t be expected to agree with each other on everything, but when conflict arises it brings some really unpleasant emotions with it. So much so, many of us may try to avoid it.
Perhaps you’ve drifted from a close friend during the pandemic, or have been struggling to communicate with a work colleague following your return to the office, or your partner’s just been doing your head in again. Brewing conflict is about as comfortable as stubbing your toe. We get that queasy, stomach-churning discomfort, we might limp for a moment or wrap our fingers around it to squeeze it back to life, but then we recover. It’s one of those breathtakingly painful experiences but it does pass and fairly quickly - in hindsight of course.
Many of us worry that conflict is a bad thing, that arguing with our partner must mean we don’t really love them, or that heated disputes with our children mean we’re bad parents, or not agreeing with our colleagues makes us unlikable. We think bringing up a problem might hurt the other person’s feelings or cause more of an issue that we’d rather not deal with.
So it’s not surprising we tend to avoid it, fear it even, and get that queasy toe-stubbing feeling in our stomach.
However, conflict is unavoidable in life, because it’s normal - even for those Instagram couples whose love seems indestructible. Accepting that conflict will occur and that it’s simply a sign that we need change or it's an opportunity for growth takes some of the pressure off. We don’t have to view it as a negative thing. It’s uncomfortable, sure, but when we handle it in a positive, respectful way it can bring an opportunity to strengthen bonds - believe it or not.
So, here are 5 ways to successfully handle conflict when it rises:
1. Hold empathy
The unpleasantness of conflict means all parties involved are likely to be feeling, well, rubbish. Emotions are heightened which tends to see us saying things we don’t mean or cause further problems to deal with. Holding empathy means being aware of other’s feelings, considering how they might be feeling about the situation too. When we do this, we can actually take back a bit of control over our own feelings and resolve the issue together.
2. Listen actively
Active listening is listening with intention, giving our full attention to the person speaking. Listen to what the other person or people have to say, without interrupting or judging, listen for how they feel in what they’re saying to understand why they might have reacted or behaved that way in the first place. Try to be objective or neutral, to avoid jumping in or arguing when your emotions are triggered. It might take some practice which we can do when we’re listening to anyone, conflict or not or try next time you're watching the news.
3. Write stuff down
It can be difficult to get our head around what to say when conflict rises, and the emotion can make this even more challenging. Write some things down, specific issues that bother you, the actions that lead to the conflict, how you feel or would like to resolve the problem. Writing it down gives us a chance to figure out how to communicate in conflict, without going round in circles, dwelling on one thing or missing something out.
4. Speak up when the problem occurs
Hiding our feelings, ignoring problems, avoiding conflict can lead to bigger bust ups further down the line. And while we might be protecting the feelings of others, we’re likely hurting our own even more. Speak up when a problem occurs, although unpleasant, talking through a small problem prevents them from worsening and causing bigger conflicts to resolve. Be honest about how you feel and what possible solutions you might have for resolution, and if you don’t, come up with them together.
Some of us like to ponder our feelings for a while, mull the situation over; to understand it or even decide how we feel about it really. That’s ok, just be sure to not let it go too long before bringing it up, especially if you find yourself getting more annoyed or upset dwelling on it.
5. Know when to let go
Conflict is draining, mentally and physically, and sometimes resolution might take a long time to reach. In these cases, consider how important it is to you to resolve the issue. If it’s a relationship that frequently sees conflict or the issue is something that doesn’t really resonate with you, it might be time to let go. Or agree to disagree, resolution doesn’t always mean we find a solution where we see eye-to-eye, we might resolve some with letting go and choosing not to worry about it anymore. If conflict like this keeps occurring, don’t let it drain you completely, learn to let go and agree to disagree without holding a grudge.
Reality reminder: Even with the healthiest of conflict resolution skills, we’ll reach points where an argument occurs, a heated disagreement or even the end of a relationship in any form. Hold compassion for yourself and others during these times. Try not to judge yourself or them for hurtful words or actions in a time where emotion is in control, we’re all human - maybe make time for an apology too.