It’s a fact: you can’t avoid conflict, even if you try. And however it ends up finding you, you can’t always resolve it effectively. Recently, I ran into some conflict in my professional life that I couldn’t resolve. As I reflect on what happened, I’d like to share some thoughts with you about handling a tough conflict successfully, even if you don’t reach your ultimate goal of resolving it.
Create space to share your emotional experience
So much of what makes conflict difficult to manage has to do with emotional reactions. We might feel hurt, disrespected, or angered by what another person said or did. Or we might react defensively because we feel attacked by what we hear someone saying or think they’re implying.
So are emotions the enemy? No. We’re human, after all, and we’re going to have feelings and emotional reactions to situations. Conflict resolution isn’t about ignoring emotions or taking emotions out of the equation completely. Good conflict resolution creates the space where we can acknowledge emotions and talk about them. Of course, resolving conflict takes a willingness to talk about emotions—something not everyone is comfortable doing.
The person I had the conflict with had done a couple of minor things that, I felt, treated me with less respect than I deserve. I debated whether I should say something (and potentially create conflict) or just kind of “live with it.” In the end, because I was foreseeing having a continued professional relationship with this person, I decided to speak my mind and try to improve our relationship.
You need the other side to engage in resolving conflict
It did not go well, and we didn’t resolve the conflict. In fact, I didn’t have much of an opportunity to express how I felt because, pretty much as soon as I stated my intention to talk about what had happened, the person interrupted me to say that I was making a big deal about nothing and that they were shocked that I even wanted to talk about it. They went into immediate defensive mode, raising their voice and providing explanations that I wasn’t asking for. In essence, they were refusing to enter the space that I was trying to create where we could share our experience about the events—including how the events made us feel.
So what can you do when the other person doesn’t accept your invitation to enter the emotional sharing space that you’re trying to create? It’s a good question. In this video clip from bigthink.com, leadership experts Angie McArthur and Jennifer Brown talk about some things we can do when the person on the other side of a conflict seems unwilling or unable to understand your experience.
Remain open and respectful
McArthur discusses shifting our mindset “from certainty to discovery.” As we experience someone else as close-minded or unwilling to engage, we might feel “certain” that they’ll never understand—that they’re simply incapable. At that point, we may want to ask ourselves (yes, we who are experiencing the other person as closed-minded) what we might do to be more open-minded. In my own situation, I came into the conversation with the intention of sharing my experience, and when the other person wasn’t receptive, maybe I wasn’t as curious or as open to “discovery” as would’ve been helpful.
But McArthur talks about respect as well. You can insist on respect—for yourself and for others—even when it becomes clear the other person isn’t going to understand what you experienced. If you’re not going to reach resolution, you can still leave the situation having expressed to the other person that you respect them, that you understand their experience, and that maybe they could come to understand and respect yours at some point in the future.
You can’t always resolve conflict when you encounter it; you can’t even count on people being willing to engage you in resolving it every time you want to. Sometimes the best you can do is try to create the space to share your emotions and your experience, remain open, and treat yourself and others with respect.
Guillermo Villar is principal coach with Cambio Coaching. He helps high-achieving individuals and teams communicate with intention to get the business results they want. If you’re interested in working with Guillermo, sign up for a free meeting to explore how he can help.