Conflict Is Inevitable; Relationship Destruction Is Not

It is more rewarding to resolve a conflict than dissolve a relationship.

Bottom line. You’re going to have conflict in your life. And you’re going to do one of two things when conflict comes. You’re going to resolve the conflict or dissolve the relationship.

Well, I would urge you to choose the first option … of resolving your conflicts … as quickly as possible … and to choose the second option … of dissolving your relationships … as slowly as possible. It takes some skill, but the rewards are almost always greater when you learn to be an effective conflict resolver.

I recommend the following steps.

=> 1. Analyze your contribution to the problem.

Ask yourself how much of the problem is your fault. Before you start accusing, blaming, and attacking the other person … before you’ve figured out who’s right and who’s wrong … check out your own contributions to the problem.

You may be afflicted with so much pride that you’re absolutely convinced that you’re right and the other person is wrong. But Ezra Taft Benson, a statesman from the 20th century, cautions us. He said, “Pride is concerned with who is right. Humility is concerned with what is right.”

Maybe you’ve come to the relationship with unrealistic expectations. You’re expecting your spouse to meet all your personal needs, and you’re expecting your boss or company to meet all your professional needs. Well, that’s never going to happen. But if you expect that, you’re going to be angry a great deal of the time.

I know it’s easy to point the finger and say, “My husband … wife … boss … or … coworker is the problem. It’s not me.” But again I would urge you to look at your contribution to the problem. There is no such thing as a one-person problem in family or a team.

And then …

=> 2. Schedule a problem-solving session.

Conflict is seldom resolved accidentally. It is done intentionally and deliberately.

So work out a mutually agreeable time to discuss the problem with the other person. Don’t surprise them with an unexpected gripe session. Bad timing is almost always disastrous.

Just as importantly, choose the right place… away from distractions such as the telephones, the kids, TV, or other interruptions. Effective conflict resolution takes real focus.

Once your time and place is established, you need to…

=> 3. Establish ground rules that attack the problem rather than each other.

In other words, the focus has to be on the two of you … working together … to fix the problem … rather than to fix the blame. You need to feel like you’re on the same team rather than opposing teams.

And one of the best ways to do that is to lay down some ground rules prior to your discussion. Agree on a code of conduct that will be followed in this and all future conflict-resolution sessions.

For starters, you might agree on “The 7 C Ground Rules.” You agree to never ever use these anger-provoking, hitting-below-the-belt tactics.


Don’t compare the other person to somebody else. Don’t say such things as “You’re just like your mama … I should have married my old boyfriend … or … Why can’t you be like …?” Those comments are sure to cause resentment.


Condemning comments usually start with the “you” word and lay on the guilt. They come in the form of “You always … you never … you should … or … you ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

And when the other person shares his feelings, don’t respond by saying, “You shouldn’t feel that way.” Whether or not you understand or agree with the other person’s feelings, to him or her, those feelings are real and legitimate. So don’t condemn them or their feelings if you want a decent chance of resolving your conflict.


People don’t like to be ordered around. So if you demand or insist the other person do something, you can expect resistance rather than cooperation.


Whereas commands encourage resistance, challenges encourage rebellion. It’s like telling your kids, “You just try that and see what happens.” The kid will probably try it.


Don’t play psychologist, telling the other person the “real” motives behind his comments or behaviors. When you do that, when you treat the other person as an inferior, you create negative feelings in the other person. And the last thing you want to deal with in the midst of a conflict is more negative feelings.


Disagreement is one thing … and often necessary. But contradicting the other person usually comes in the form of interrupting. You jump into the middle of his comments to share your insights instead of listening to what he is saying. Again, it’s not helpful.

Try some flattery and invitational remarks instead. When a constant naysayer in your office has just given you another litany of negativity, acknowledge her point but keep her on track by inviting a more productive response. Say something like, “Okay, that’s the downside. But as a perceptive analyst, tell us what you see as the positive side.”


Dirty fighters bring up unrelated issues in the midst of problem solving. They feel as though they’re losing the argument, and so they purposely throw a monkey wrench into the discussion. Don’t do it.

With your ground rules in place, you’re ready to have your problem solving discussion.

And then …

=> 4. Switch your focus.

You see … you’re probably quite clear about what you want. It’s natural to be somewhat self-focused and selfish. And the same goes for your opponent. She is quite clear about what she wants, and she may be certain that her way is the only way.

Well let me caution you one more time. When someone tells you to “get real,” there may be no such thing as objective reality. As Shanahan points out, “Reality is the other person’s idea of how things should be.” And you both have your own “reality.”

So I advise you to switch your focus once in a while … if you’re looking for lasting conflict resolution. Instead of focusing on and pushing your “reality,” think about the other person’s feelings and needs. If you do, the results can be extremely positive. Occasionally say, “I’m sorry. I was only thinking of myself.”

=> 5. Ask for advice.

If you do these first four things, and if you’re not making any progress on resolving the conflict, get some help. Get a skilled, unbiased, professional third party involved.

In all other parts of your life, when you have a problem, you get professional help. If you have a health issue, you seek out a doctor. If you have a financial problem, you seek out an accountant. And if you have a leaky sink, you seek out a plumber.

And yet, when it comes to interpersonal issues, many people are embarrassed or ashamed to ask for help. They say, “We can work this out ourselves.” Well, sometimes you can’t. You need to get someone like a coach or counselor involved if you just can’t resolve the issue by yourself.

=> 6. Hang in there.

Don’t give up. Don’t walk out in the middle of a fight. If you’ve come this far, you’re already two-thirds of the way through your conflict.

You see … the first stage of conflict resolution is RECOGNITION. You recognize you have a problem. And there are many people who don’t even get this far. They live in denial.

The second stage is REACTION. You begin to think, “Whoa, it’s worse than I thought.” And lots of emotion starts pouring out. Unfortunately, many teams and families are stuck in this second phase. They recognize the fact that they have a problem; but their tempers flare, and they say, “I’m out of here.”

But it takes courage to stay at the problem-solving table. It takes courage to hang in there and go through the third stage of conflict which is RESOLUTION. That’s why in “A Book of Common Prayer,” Joan Didion writes, “You have to pick the places you don’t walk away from.”

In this third stage, you and your partner begin to focus on “What are WE going to do about it?” You use the strategies outlined above, and you keep using those strategies until you find a solution that you both feel good about.

And if you do that, I can tell you from experience, it’s much more rewarding to resolve a conflict than dissolve a relationship.

Action:  Before you engage in a conflict discussion, talk to the other person about the need for some ground rules. Decide on which of the “7 C’s” you will adopt for your future discussions.