Conflict Management 3 - The 10 point plan to an effective conflict management session

Psychological tools for wellness / Category / Emile Du Toit / November 10th 2014

If you haven’t yet read Conflict management 1: Conflict management styles or Conflict Management 2: Assertiveness and the timeout then this would be a good time. Conflict management styles provides an overview of conflict management and how they manifest, whilst Assertiveness and the timeout examines how to begin to exercise assertiveness and prepare for a conflict management session in a way that will build the relationship and yield the best results for everyone.

Conflict Management 3: The 10 point plan to an effective conflict management session.

This follows on from the above and will verse you in a pragmatic modus operandi for dealing with the actual conflict management session in an assertive manner. It is broken down into a 10 point plan:

1. Uninterrupted attention

It is vital that you have set up the meeting for a time when you can both focus only on each other. This means that you need to have enough time, have cell phones off and kids out the room and otherwise occupied.

2. Arrive open to learn and understand

You should arrive with your synthesized notes in your pocket, as calm as possible and with the intention to resolve the conflict and gain a deeper understanding of your partner. If you arrive with a win-lose mentality then things are unlikely to go well, and you have missed an opportunity to grow your relationship.

3. Setting the tone

In one respect it is irrelevant which of you speaks first as you will both be getting an uninterrupted time to speak your mind. In another respect though it is vital as the person who kicks off the process sets the tone and as such carries a great responsibility. As we all know a smile begets a smile and a frown begets a frown. So if one person kicks things off in an aggressive and antagonistic fashion then the odds are that this is how the conversation will proceed. So whoever begins has a responsibility to set a tone of conciliation, openness and understanding.

4. 90 seconds

Each person will get 90 uninterrupted seconds to say their piece. Why so little time? Well let’s think about this for a moment. The longer any conflict management progresses, the greater the chance of people becoming worked up and losing it, and the smaller the chance of any resolution. Putting a limit on things is also helpful for the more passive party whose ultimate nightmare is of being spoken at for hours and hours! Let’s face it, nobody likes those excruciating monologues, and we tend to switch off and in some cases shut down, so the whole thing is pointless! I am sure all you passive folk out there or those who have a daily word limit will be feeling a lot happier about now!

As for all talkers out there, who like to express yourself and are just desperately trying to get your partner to say something, anything, this works better for you than perhaps you realize. You partner, who you know tends not to be focused during your monologues anyway, may well now appear more interested, focused and open than they have since you were first courting. Why would this be? Well they can afford to give you their undivided attention as they only have to focus for 90 seconds! For the same reason they will be more likely to engage with a topic in the first place as their idea of purgatory has now been taken off the table.

The other brilliant part of 90 seconds is that you actually have to start off with clear thoughts. You cannot just meander around a point while you slowly wind yourself up, but have to pretty much stick to the plan that you mapped out when you were still calm.

5. The egg timer

To belabour the point above, I recommend getting one of those old egg timers where the sand of time slowly run out. If you cannot find one of these for 90 seconds then a cell phone alarm will do. Why not just time the person? Because then the listener has to break it to the speaker that their time is up, which doesn’t always go down well. The great thing about an alarm is that it is an external regulator. It is a lot harder to be angry with an egg timer!

6. The content

Exactly as in the format of for synthesizing your thoughts on paper, you will cover the following:

The relevant details that you believe transpired; your ‘objective reality’ (i.e. subjective opinion) of the facts: This is pretty much what we normally present anyway – how we see/saw things.

What you understand the other person is feeling and how they see the situation: This involves embracing empathy. We choose to put ourselves in the others situation and attempt to understand how they saw the incident, and what they felt. We choose to consider the incident from their world view. Importantly, by choosing to understand the other we are in no way justifying their behaviour. This allows us to see their viewpoint and understand their actions without this meaning that we agree with them.

How you feel about the event and the conflict: Often in conflict we protect ourselves by not verbalizing (and sometimes avoiding even feeling) the softer feelings such as hurt, anxiety and disappointment.  Often we fall back to that one safe feeling that we use to construct a wall around ourselves. You guessed it – anger! Now expressing our anger is a good thing, but it doesn’t really help our partner to understand us unless we also are able to open up and express the softer feelings that often precede our anger. For example you can see hurt and anger as being flip sides of the same coin. You can see how they are both often present in statements such as ‘he spent the whole night ignoring me’, ‘I cannot believe that she didn’t trust me’ and ‘I can’t believe that he forgot our anniversary’.

7. Apologise!

If you messed up – apologise. But equally, there is no point apologizing just to appease someone. Often there is a particular area where you messed up and then it is worth apologizing for this particular area. By apologizing you demonstrate your ability to be open and to compromise. However, please note that apologizing does not give you license to repeat the behaviour again and again ad nauseum.

8. The problem solving dialogue

After both parties have had their say you should both have a much better understanding of where each other were coming from, what to avoid in the future and even difficult areas of your partner (we all have them) that you can perhaps be more sensitive to. Sometimes that is that is the end of things and you can look forward to some great make-up sex. However, sometimes this requires some further effort from both of you. So you are three minutes in and you are now faced with one of these types of scenarios:

a. You have a fundamental disagreement in viewpoint on something important and ongoing, such as children’s discipline.

b. The conflict has exposed problems with your general interpersonal communication, routine, finances, or whatever.

c. The issue involves communication with a third party.

d. Or any other situation that involves problem solving, strategizing or working out a compromise.

In this case it is important that you leave the conflict behind and put on your administrative hats and spend time together creating the solution. Obviously one cannot put a time limit on this it depends on the complexity of the issue. Creating a discipline regime for your kids with star charts and consequences and the like takes substantially longer than, say deciding who is going to pick your son up on a Wednesday. But what I would recommend is that you attempt to put a time limit to the particular task, and if it involves tasks that have to be completed first then a clear date and time needs to be agreed upon for their completion.

9. Things to do and not to do during a conflict management session

a. Stay outwardly calm and reasonable. Challenge yourself to do this! When you are winding up go back to how important the relationship is for you and that you actually care about this person facing you and want to treat them accordingly. Also, once you wind up they will probably do the same and then the opportunity for resolution and growth slips away.

b. Never drag any other conflicts into the session. This will massively underline the chance of a successful resolution. These other issues that are brought up are generally either:

(i) an excuse to embrace in more point scoring by pointing out to the other person what a failed human being they are, or

(ii) a way of deflecting attention from your own misdemeanours.

In both cases the chance of a successful outcome is reduced. My advice if the other party attempts to bring up old or different conflicts is to tell them sympathetically that you can understand that they also want to discuss this other thing, but that doing so as part of this conversation will not be helpful. You can add that if a the resolution of this conflict they still feel that the other issue is important enough for them to allocate time to then you are more than happy to book in a separate conflict resolution session for this. You may have fears of spending the rest of your days in conflict resolution sessions, but let me assure you that this is not the case. Most of those other issues tend to turn out to be petty o unimportant enough that neither party actually wants to waste their time talking about them. If they do it is probably because it is an issue that genuinely needs addressing.

c. Comment on specific actions of the person, not everything they do, and never criticise (judge) the person themselves! Comments like ‘You are just lazy, that is why you never do anything around the house’, are unhelpful in two ways: Firstly, it implies that absolutely nothing the person does around the house contributes to the household. With the possible exception of teenagers this tends to be untrue. Secondly, it is commenting on (and thus judging) the entire person / personality based on their actions. This (quite reasonably) makes people emotional and defensive, tends to be inaccurate, and pretty much implies that they cannot change anyway. Not so helpful…

I would substitute that particular comment with something like ‘The last few times that it was your turn to do the dishes I woke up in the morning to find them clogging up the sink. Please can you either wash them the same night or if you are really busy then pack them in a way that I can still access the sink and please clean them first thing in the morning’.

10. Post-match analysis

Finally, in the spirit of self-growth you might want to have a bit of a post-match analysis after the conflict where you examine how you did in the session. Don’t worry about the other person or even too much about the content of the argument, but rather just focus on what you got right and what you didn’t really excel at that still requires some work.

This concludes the three part series on conflict management. Once again, if you havn’t yet read Conflict management 1: Conflict management styles or Conflict Management 2: Assertiveness and the timeout then this is highly recommended.  I hope this has proved practically useful to you and will aid you in mending and improving the various relationships in your life!

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