6 Conflict Resolution Principles

My previous business partner and good friend, John Radford, once developed a module called ‘Valuing Conflict’. This puzzled me as I saw conflict having little value in my life. He explained that conflict has value because it teaches us much about ourselves and those involved in the conflict. So, we need to look inward and outward when it occurs.

If you think about it, conflict is caused by 3 main things: ‘Them’, ‘It’ and ‘Me’

a. ‘Them’ is those people that do things we don’t agree with. Eg. your unreasonable boss, that colleague who talks too loudly and your friend who always knows more than you do

b. ‘It’ is those things that we can’t control but want to. Eg. traffic jams, late trains and technology that doesn’t work when we need it to

c. ‘Me’ refers to those things in our lives that cause us conflict. Eg. the way I don’t stand up for myself when a disagreement occurs, the fact that I look so fat in the mirror and the way I put my foot into my mouth so often

So, how do we deal with these conflicts? There are many skills but let’s look at just 6 today.

1. Let the ball go to the keeper

When a batsman is bowled a lousy ball he would be foolish to play it, so he lets it go through to the wicket keeper. In the same way when people say things which are harmful and wounding we must exercise our right to sidestep the words and deny them entry to our hearts.

I once counseled a lady whose mother would verbally abuse her. I asked her to visualize her mom’s harsh words going past her body as she spoke. It was as if the words were leaving her untouched as they shot by to the wicketkeeper. Take back your power to deny harmful words from wounding your spirit. If you don’t I can guarantee that a conflict will result.

2. Use “I” messages, not “you” messages

When you are in a disagreement and need to speak the truth, be sure to use ‘I’ messages and not ‘you’ messages. If I need to confront someone and start off by saying, ‘You are the problem and you need to sort our your aggressive attitude’, you will probably get an aggressive response as the person either justifies themselves or starts to blame you for your bad attitude. This will lead to a lose/lose or at best a lose/win situation.

If, instead, you use ‘I’ messages and say, ‘I am struggling with the way you speak you me, can you help me to understand what is causing it?’ You will probably open the way for a discussion that could lead to a win/win situation.

3. Come in the opposite spirit

The Bible says that a gentle word turns away anger. When someone has an aggressive or harsh attitude, the worst thing to do is to react in the same spirit. Do not fight fire with fire. Try to identify the opposite spirit to the one coming at you. If you respond in this way you will take the wind out of their sails and the discussion will cool down. So, the opposite of pride is humility, the opposite of anger is a quiet spirit, the opposite of an impatient attitude is a patient one.

4. Play the ball and not the man

This is another sports analogy which comes from soccer. The principle here is to attack the issue, not the person! There is no value in attacking people. It’s like the soccer player kicking the shin of the opponent all the time rather than playing the ball. You wouldn’t last long in the team if this is how you played.

I once heard of a woman who would be so frustrated by the way her husband would throw his clothes on the floor and she would get on his case by saying that he was a slob and couldn’t look after himself if he tried. This resulted in immediate conflict. She was advised to rather say that there were clothes on the floor and could they please be picked up. Her husband was far more obliging when she used the second method where she focused on the issue – the clothes – and refrained from attacking him.

5. Ensure that you have invested well into the other person’s emotional bank account

This is a principle that works well in long term relationships. Imagine that everyone you relate to has an emotional bank account with you. When you say positive things to them, show acts of kindness, forgive and do good to them, you have a healthy balance. When you are unkind, unforgiving etc. you make withdrawals and can go into overdraft. If you maintain a healthy balance you will be able to make withdrawals in times of disagreement and conflict and still keep your relationship intact, but, if you are overdrawn already, the friendship might break down.

6. Identify what the conflict is teaching you

This is part of the inward side of dealing with conflict. Imagine a picture of two barrels; one is filled with acid and the other with honey. If I were to put on my boots and kick the barrel containing the acid, what would come out? Acid of course! And, if I kicked the barrel containing the honey, surely honey would come out too? So here’s the question. Does the kick create what is in the barrel or does it simply reveal it?  Now, when you get kicked in life, observe what comes out, honey or acid. True victory is when you are kicked in life and honey comes forth. Trials and tests are often used to purify and mature us.

So ask yourself three questions when you are in a conflict.

  1. What could I have done differently to avoid this conflict?
  2. What did I learn from it?
  3. How do I move forward?