Life Never Gets Easier – But You Can Get Better

“Life is never so bad at its worst that it is impossible to live; it is never so good at its best that it is easy to live.”
Gabriel Heatter, American radio commentator (1890-1972)

If you watch television, go to movies, or attend the theatre, you’ll soon learn that all comedy and all drama is based on conflict. And the way in which that conflict is handled will either make you laugh or tense you up.

The same goes for most jokes. At the center of each one is some form of conflict. Take this question, for example: “Your dog is barking at the back door. Your husband is barking at the front door. Who do you let in? Answer: It’s your decision, but just remember that the dog will stop barking when you let him in.”

Again, the same truth applies to most “one liners.” They’re all about conflict. As one person said, “Marriage is a relationship in which one person is always right, and the other is a husband.”

Now, those aren’t “nice” things to say, but they do illustrate a key point. Relationships are never conflict free. Indeed, I would say that HEALTHY relationships are never conflict free BUT they are conflict resolving.

The problem is … we fight for victories instead of fighting for solutions. The result is one wins, one loses, and the relationship suffers. Here are some practical insights for your conflicts so your relationship wins.

1. Understand the nature of conflict.

Conflicts are inevitable. They’re inevitable because work relationships and even family relationships bring different people together who see things differently. As marriage counselor Gary Smalley puts it, “During those first years of marriage, what one partner finds an absolute necessity, the other views as an unnecessary luxury.”

Conflicts are normal. They’re normal because all relationships, even great ones, experience them.

Conflicts are potentially beneficial. They’re potentially beneficial … because when they’re handled effectively … better solutions are found and relationships are strengthened.

2. Choose the right style of conflict resolution.

You’ve got three choices: avoid, attack, or approach. Choose the “correct” approach style.

In the “avoid” style, you “don’t want to rock the boat.” You want to “let sleeping dogs lie.” You fear confrontation, so you bury your feelings, not realizing your feelings will eventually come out somewhere … somehow. You clam up, letting your negative feelings build up, until you blow up, hurting yourself or the other person physically or emotionally. Meanwhile, the offenses accumulate, unaddressed issues multiply, and the unfinished business erodes your relationship.

In the “attack” style, you do your best to “get them before they get you.” You are a ruthless fighter who refuses to give in. You attack the other person, which more often than not invites counterattack. Both sides dig in and nothing gets resolved.

In the “approach” style, you are assertive. You confront the issue without blaming the other person. Indeed, you’re sensitive to the other person’s feelings, and you invite him/her to join you in solving the problem and saving the relationship. In almost all cases, I recommend the “approach” style.

And with that style in hand, you need to match up your particular “type” of conflict with the “strategy” that works best with that “type.” Let’s look at the various “types” of conflict you’re going to experience.

3. With “simple” conflict, use fact finding.

The first of four types is called “simple” conflict — because two or more people want different things. That’s pretty basic when you think about it. In a marriage relationship, it may be that the husband wants to spend the tax refund while the wife wants to save it. At work, it may be that the boss wants to implement a new procedure, but the staff thinks the old way is good enough.

In simple conflict, focus on fact finding. Propose a straightforward statement of the problem that quickly, clearly, and concisely summarizes the issue. A straightforward statement might sound like this: “So you want a compensation system that recognizes merit, and I want the system to be based on seniority? Is that the issue?” Once you agree on the definition of the problem, get all the relevant facts and all the pros and cons out on the table. And then keep on talking until you find a solution that both of you can feel pretty good about.

4. With “false” conflict, eliminate your assumptions.

In “false” conflict, two or more people “think” they have a disagreement when they really don’t. They just misunderstand each other. For example, I remember a manager who said she would “get right back to” her colleague, but the colleague became rather angry when the manager got back to her the next day.

Well, what does “get right back to you” mean? An hour? A day? Or a week?

False conflict should be the easiest kind of conflict to resolve because there really isn’t anything to resolve. It’s just a matter of clarifying a situation, and everything is okay. The problem lies in the fact that people assume they understand each other.

Stop assuming! If the other person says something that sounds a little vague, that could be misconstrued, that sounds “off” or confusing, check it out. Say “I’m not sure I understand” or “I’d like to know more about that.” Ask for clarification. Use active listening. Play back what you think the other person is saying, and you’ll find these kinds of conflicts magically disappearing.

5. With “ego” conflict, show empathy.

An “ego” conflict exists when someone feels attacked, slighted, or put down. Somehow his self-esteem has been diminished by another person’s words or actions, and now he feels the need to defend himself or counterattack. For example, a team member might label another team member’s idea as “just plain ridiculous,” to which he is told, “You never respect anybody’s ideas except your own.”

In ego conflict, you need to diminish the defensiveness. After all, when a person feels disrespected, he’s going to get somewhat defensive until he is once again reassured of his value. And you do that by showing empathy. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Try to see the world from his or her perspective. Try to understand his or her pressures, responsibilities, expectations, and demands. The more empathy you show, the less defensive the other person will be.

Structure some conflict resolution time. Structure it where one person speaks … sharing what he thinks, feels, and wants … without any interruption … while the other person just listens respectfully. And then repeat the same structure with the second person.

If that seems too difficult, if there’s too much “heat” in the room, take a cooling-off period. Put your discussion “on hold” for an hour, a day, or a week… whatever you need so you can calm down, gain some perspective, and prevent yourself from saying anything else that might enrage the other person or damage your relationship.

6. With “value” conflict, look for common ground.

A “value” conflict exists when there are sharp disagreements over what is considered to be good or bad. That’s why the whole country is torn on the values surrounding the abortion issue. One side fights for the “right to life” while the other side fights for the “freedom of choice.” At work, there may be a value conflict between what you think is “financially right” and what the company is doing to “cut corners.”

I remember the value conflict between a particular judge and the defendant in court. The situation involved a hiker in California who ate a condor, a protected species of bird. The judge sentenced him to life at hard labor. Before leaving the courtroom however, the defendant asked the judge to listen to his side of the story because he felt there were exonerating circumstances.

The hiker explained that he had been lost in the wilderness for three days without food or water, and just by chance he had spotted the bird sitting on a mountain ledge. He threw a rock at it, killed it and ate it, and then walked for three more days before getting to civilization. The hiker said, “If I hadn’t eaten that bird, I wouldn’t be alive to be here today.”

The judge responded by saying those certainly were unusual circumstances and in view of the fact the hiker’s life had been in danger, he would suspend the sentence. The defendant thanked him and began to leave the courtroom, but as he did the judge asked, “Oh, by the way, what did that condor taste like?”

The hiker paused for a moment and then responded, “Well, it was kind of between a bald eagle and a spotted owl.”

Obviously, the hiker was in trouble because he and the judge had very different values. So value conflicts are very difficult to resolve. After all, compromise is somewhat ridiculous. On the abortion issue, you can’t “half-abort,” and on the corporate finance issue you can’t “afford everything.”

Your best choice, in the beginning stages of value conflict resolution, is to stop trying to convince the other person that you’re right and he’s wrong. Instead, spend your energy on trying to understand how the other person came to his value conclusions. Explore his reasoning. Behind every value is a set of thoughts and feelings that are the underpinnings of that value.

In so doing, you reduce the emotional acid in your communication and in your relationship. You open the door to finding some common ground. You may find in the abortion issue that both sides are concerned about the welfare of the mother, and you may find in the corporate finance issue that both sides want to be profitable. When you re-frame your conflict in those ways, your disagreement becomes one of methodology rather than morality.

Bottom Line: There are only two ways you can go in conflict. If you’re going in the direction of “who’s right and who’s wrong,” your outcome will probably be destructive. If you’re focused on “what are we going to do about it,” you’ll be on your way to constructive conflict resolution.

Action:  Make this week the week you decide to give up the “avoid” and the “attack” styles of conflict resolution. Decide to use the “approach” style.