Managing conflict and assertiveness - January 2016

Conflict is normal. All of us have at times had interactions with other people which have not gone as well as we would have liked.

At one level we may simply feel misunderstood and be able to “shrug it off” without much difficulty.  However, sometimes we can feel personally attacked and our first reaction may be to “lash out” in anger or fear. In these later circumstances the strong feelings we experience may make it difficult to really hear what someone is trying to say to us. In extreme situations, such confrontation can feel threatening to our overall wellbeing and functioning.

We can often prevent minor conflicts becoming serious by changing the way we communicate. Conflict can be an opportunity, not just a threat

It is possible to look at our personal interactions in a different way so that we can turn conflict into an opportunity to achieve clearer communication and bring about change. There are two common reasons why people get into conflict:

  • They do not communicate clearly or listen respectfully
  • They have different needs or interests which, without some negotiating, do not easily coexist.

Here are some guidelines which may help you deal with situations which are causing trouble.

Guidelines for good communication

In the heat of the moment it is easy to forget some common ‘rules of thumb’ which aid successful communication. Good communication is a 3-step process

  1. Send clear messages – verbal communication and body language both count. Think about what you want to say and how it may be understood.
  2. Receive – what is heard is part fact and part feeling so be clear on both levels. When you are listening, pay attention to both facts and feelings.
  3. Acknowledge – you can only be sure you have communicated what you intended when your listener gives you feedback confirming their understanding. As a listener, summarise what you have heard and ask questions to seek clarification if parts of the mess age seem unclear.

Respect the other person’s needs as well as your own. You have valid concerns which need addressing, but so does the person with whom you are in conflict (even if these are not immediately apparent).

Tackle the problem directly and respectfully with the other person. It is much better to work directly with the other person in the conflict- going via others makes an escalation of the conflict or further misunderstandings much more likely. Avoid involving peers in ‘taking sides’ and, as far as possible keep the conflict out of the public eye. Whilst it can be useful to check others’ perceptions of the situation or seek others’ views of your actions or desires, if you are merely seeking confirmation for your own views this is only likely to lead to a more entrenched position.

Separate the problem from the person. Pointing out the distinction between the problem and the person and confirming you wish to treat the other person respectfully may help them do the same. Your issues are more likely to be resolved if you avoid making personal attacks which embarrass or ridicule the other person.

Speak without interrupting each other. You may set up further misunderstanding if you do not give the other person the opportunity to finish what they have to say. You also need to ensure that there is agreement about everything said so far, before going on to the next point at issue.

Negotiate in good faith – dirty deals do not last! Look for mutually satisfying agreements – one-sided offers tend not to work. Though it is common to think there must be a winner and a loser in a conflict, this is not necessarily true. Participating in negotiations where the goal is a ‘win-win‘ solution (i.e. both parties attaining satisfaction on their needs and interests) is both possible and helpful.

Interests’ v ‘Positions‘. Often in our negotiations with others, we think taking a ‘hard position‘ or exaggerating our ‘bottom line‘ will get us a better result. Actually, such positional bargaining frequently backfires because the other person is likely to get upset, feel unfairly treated or just decide to dig their heels in on their position.

A better approach is to think about the interests underlying our initial position on an issue. An underlying interest is usually related to a principle we hold, a moral value, a hope or expectation, or some less tangible need. If the position is what the conflict is about, the interest is the reason why we want a certain response.

Four steps to resolving conflict

These suggested steps incorporate the guidelines above and can help resolve conflicts:

  1. If you are in public and find yourself in a conflict, stop and ask to meet the other person in a neutral, private and safe setting at a mutually convenient time so you can speak confidentially without creating a scene and without being interrupted.
  2. Look at and listen to each other, so each person feels heard and understood, and has their views acknowledged. In this way you begin to undo the damage to your relationship which the conflict has been causing. It is worth taking time hearing the other person’s viewpoint – it is likely to save you time in the long run. Take turns to list the issues you want resolved (Positions) as practical matters to be addressed; and list your interests as principles you would hope any agreement could be based up on, or needs you would like to be met. Go back and forth listening to each other until each person has fully stated their views and you both agree that you have been heard and understood.
  3. Offer options with an open mind, using your creativity to brainstorm possible ways of meeting the expressed concerns, needs and interests of both people. Remember the difference between positions and interests, and strive to satisfy both parties’ interests. Combine and refine the options brainstormed together, remembering that it may very well be possible to work out a win-win solution together which neither of you could have thought of on your own.
  4. Conclude negotiations with agreements in good faith which are specific and satisfy everyone. This minimises the risk of future conflict. Keep your discussions confidential unless you jointly agree to tell any others who may need to know what your resolution involves.
  5. If you don’t reach agreement, don’t be afraid to try again another time. It can sometimes be better to try to resolve a conflict bit by bit, giving everyone concerned time to think – and rest.
  6. Be assertive but no aggressive. Awkward situations are an inevitable part of all our lives. Assertiveness is an alternative to passive, manipulative or aggressive behaviour. It is strongly associated with a sense of self worth. It is a type of communication that expresses needs, feelings and preferences in a way that respects both ourselves and the other person. It involves stating clearly what you would like to happen, but not demanding that it does.

What type of communicator are you?

Aggressive Communication – ‘The Bulldozer

If you feel wary of assertiveness, you may be confusing it with aggression. Aggression is a defensive reaction where we try to overcome feelings of insecurity by puffing ourselves up and expressing our feelings, needs and ideas at the expense of others. The benefit is a temporary sense of power or control, but the downside is that aggressive behaviour distances us from other people and we can end up feeling isolated and bitter.

Passive Communication – ‘The Wet Rag

The flip side of aggression is passive communication. Like aggressive communication it stems from similar feelings of insecurity and low self esteem, but when we behave passively we put ourselves down, rather than the other. We avoid expressing our feelings and needs, we ignore our own rights and allow others to infringe on our rights, perhaps by choosing for us. Passive behaviour is unclear and indirect, it may involve lying or making excuses. The benefit is that we avoid conflict, but at great cost, because we don’t usually get what we want and we can end up feeling even worse about ourselves.

Manipulative Communication – ‘Guilt Tripping

Frequently, passivity and aggression combine and we find ourselves behaving in a passive aggressive or manipulative way. This is most likely to happen when we strongly need or want something, but feel particularly helpless about getting it. We can then behave in ways that are indirectly aggressive, controlling or unclear, which deny our feelings and those of others. We may use our feelings of victimhood or martyrdom to make the other person feel guilty. The benefit is that we avoid rejection and hurt and it can appear as though we care for the other person. The downside is that we are left feeling emotionally low and secretly resented by others who see through the facade of fake care.

Assertive Communication – ‘The Rock

Fight (Aggression) and flight (Passivity) are instinctual responses when encountering a problem. Assertiveness is an alternative response more suited to the solving of the kind of relationship problems that we find ourselves in, in modern community living. It involves the use of more sophisticated brain and verbal skills such as listening, empathy, discussion and negotiation. Assertive behaviour is honest, direct, clear, expressive, self-enhancing, persistent and respectful. The benefit is that we get what we want at least some of the time and when we don’t we still feel good about ourselves because we have expressed ourselves clearly and honestly. Assertiveness builds confidence, self esteem and self respect. But of course we may meet conflict or confrontation, so need to develop new ways of dealing with these.

A useful step to consider is -where you are in relation to these four types of communication and how that has come to be? Of the four types of communication listed, which is most characteristic of you? Are you happy with this? If not, what changes would you like to make?

Remember that non-assertive behaviour:

  • is something you have learned to do
  • may have usefully prevented you from being hurt
  • may have helped you survive a difficult time
  • may have been encouraged in your family of origin
  • is something which you can change

Guidelines for assertive behaviour

If you would like to be more assertive, here are some practical suggestions to help you make changes.

Express feelings

  • Own your feelings – they are yours and you are entitled to them
  • Practice “I statements” such as “I feel concerned”, “I feel happy”
  • State your feelings in a positive manner
  • Reflect back the other’s feelings if this seems appropriate – “it sounds like you feel disappointed about that”

Cultivate ‘two track listening’

  • Focus on feelings – your own and the other person’s
  • Stay with both tracks – the other’s feelings and your own, but try to distinguish whose feelings are whose
  • Empathise with the other person, but not at the expense of losing touch with your own feelings
  • Avoid taking on the other’s feelings without realising it – getting hooked in
  • See these hooks as invitations which you can choose to refuse

Describe behaviour

  • Direct yourself to the specific behaviour not the whole person
  • Give place and time of behaviour that upsets you
  • Avoid labels or always-statements such as “you are always criticising me”
  • Describe the action and not the motive
  • Use concrete terms

Specify the change desired

  • Be clear about what you would like
  • Request a small change
  • Request only one or two small changes at a time
  • Be specific and concrete in your requests
  • Ask yourself whether the other person can meet your request without a large loss
  • Specify what behaviour you will change to make the agreement
  • Make consequences explicit

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