Conflict 101


by By Jeanne Faulkner /

Posted on March 26, 2009 at 9:55 AM

Updated Thursday, Nov 12 at 1:53 PM

About the Author

Jeanne Faulkner is a freelance writer and registered nurse in Portland, Ore. Her work appears regularly in Pregnancy and Fit Pregnancy, and she has contributed articles to the Oregonian, Better Homes & Gardens, Shape and other publications.

Torre knew it would be tough. His 4-year-old daughter Isabella had it in for him and the stakes were high. She'd already laid it on the line in no uncertain terms: "Find my dinosaur shirt or I'm throwing out your shoes. And I want a soda, not dumb grape juice, or I'm giving my baby brother to another family!"

Whew! Strong words from a tot! With years of conflict management under his belt (a skilled carpenter, Torre is used to household negotiations) he guided his daughter through the morning with the grace of a prize-fighter and the patience of a freaking saint. Torre could teach the course on conflict management 101.

There's no escaping conflict in our day-to-day lives, but learning to deal with it effectively can make or break relationships. Experts have nailed down basic styles of conflict management. Finding yours may lend insight into why your conflicts resolve easily or pile up like so much garbage.

  • Avoiders pretend conflict doesn't exist, withdraw from uncomfortable situations, stonewall and divert. This works if they aren't invested in the conflict's outcome, like a petty squabble at work. It doesn't if the outcome is important, such as, say, their spouse's feelings or their child's development.
  • Accomodaters give in when it's fight-time, sacrificing their own needs instead of confronting conflict. Even if the outcome doesn't really matter, continually caving in builds resentment.
  • Compromisers meet halfway. This give-a-little/get-a-little style is great if the outcome won't suffer with bargaining and each party has something positive to add. It's bad, however, when the outcome is diluted or injurious.
  • Collaborators put everything on the table, airing feelings and issues while considering multiple solutions. Success depends on clear communication, open-mindedness, courage and respect.
  • Bullies make sure that it's their way or the highway. Those who are bullied frequently choose the highway or end up feeling run over.

Following some basic tips when sparks fly keeps conflicts from flaming out of control. Keep it simple. Keep it clean. Keep it clear. Let it go.

Keep it simple by staying focused on one problem at a time and dealing with conflicts as they arise. Don't stockpile issues as ammunition. Don't use words like "always and never."

John and Julie were frustrated with household dynamics like the never-ending pile of dishes. Both worked full-time but at the end of the day, Julie liked to relax and ignore the mess while John wanted things neat.

Conflict: John's pissed off that Julie doesn't help tidy up when they get home from work.

Bad example: "Thanks Julie. I get to come home to a pigsty and my wife doesn't care. You never help with anything around here." John, dude, you're stepping in it and tracking it all over the place. Conflicts are piling up like laundry. Julie says, "Forget it. I'm not doing another thing. If you don't like it--stick it." Julie, dude, you're mean.

Good Example, "Julie, It's important to me that the house gets tidied up before we settle in for the evening. Will you please help me?" "John, I'm exhausted. I need to chill out for ten minutes then I'll clean up the living room while you do the kitchen." Cool!

Keep it clean means fight fair. No, name-calling, bullying, threatening or physical force. Take responsibility for your own feelings but recognize the other person's issues and feelings are as strong as yours. Use "I" statements, not "You" statements.

Conflict: Isabella's NEEDS her dinosaur shirt. Nothing else will do. Torre, however, has to get her to pre-school and dino-shirt is nowhere. Isabella has also recently sipped her first soda and figures she'll lobby for it for breakfast.

Bad example: Isabella bosses, "If you don't find dino-shirt, I'm throwing out your shoes. Plus, I want soda, or I'm selling my baby brother." Like many 4-year-olds, Bella chooses bullying as her conflict management style. Torre says, "I'm not looking for it. Get dressed now or I'm leaving without you. Missy. And you can forget about ever having soda again." Torre, dude, you just bought a tantrum.

Good Example: Torre says, "Whoa, pretty strong threats there, Bella. That doesn't feel good. It doesn't make me want to help you. Let's try something else. I understand wearing that shirt's pretty important. Let's look everywhere for five minutes. If we find it, great! If we don't, you'll wear something else." Unfortunately, the dino-shirt stays missing and Bella's close to meltdown. "Well, Bella, we tried. I know you're frustrated but sometimes we have to compromise. Do you want to pick a different shirt or should I?" Bella chooses a Thomas the Train tank-top even though it's freezing outside. Torre compliments her fine fashion sense and shoves a sweatshirt in her backpack.

Keep it clear: Honest communication is key. Don't make your opponent guess what you're feeling. No one reads minds. If you don't understand the conflict, ask. Just because an issue's not on your radar doesn't mean it's not important. Couples are famous for thinking that "if he/she loved me, he'd know how important xyz is." Nope, not true. If you haven't told him/her that xyz is important, he/she probably doesn't know. Play fair.

Let it go: Some battles aren't worth fighting. Most battles aren't worth hording. When it's over, let it go. Since Isabella didn't mention "Give me-a-soda-or-baby's-a-goner" again, Torre ignored it. Torre, dude, you're smart.