Interpersonal Conflict

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Conflict is unavoidable and occurs in every relationship as well as internally, with ourselves. In general, conflict signals an opportunity for change and growth, improved understanding and better communication, whether it be with yourself or others. Though managing conflict may not be easy, it is important to facilitate discussion and come to a resolution since conflict is part of our daily lives.

Identify the issue.

Analyze the conflict to help clarify the key issue or issues. Some conflicts can seem very complicated and can be visualized as a web of different issues with lots of twists and turns. However, if you reflect carefully on the situation, you’ll likely find one or two central issues at the heart of the conflict that can help you focus your position and better articulate your concerns.

Some useful questions you could reflect on include: What event or moment triggered the conflict? What are you not getting that you want? What are you afraid of losing? Is your frustration/anger accurate and appropriate to the situation or over-exaggerated?

Make a list of the issues as you they make themselves known to you through your period of reflection and then make note of the ones that overlap and are connected. If you are unable to immediately spot the main theme, the overlap should help you identify it fairly quickly.

Identify the key players.

It’s also important to make sure you know who main individuals involved in the conflict are. Ask yourself who you are angry and/or frustrated with and whether you are directing your emotions at that person or elsewhere? Knowing who to address is as important, if not more so, than knowing what to address in order to effectively manage conflict.

Separate the person from the problem. View the problem as a specific behavior or set of circumstances instead of attributing it to that person’s essential character or personality. This approach will make the problem more manageable and can salvage your relationship with that person, as opposed to you just deciding that you don’t like them any longer.

Articulate your concerns.

Let the other person know how you feel, what the specific problem is and what impact it is having on you. This will help keep the conversation on your needs and emotions, rather than an attack on the other person and his or her behavior.

Use I-based statements to help do this, such as I feel3 Full stop, I think3 Full stop, When you (objective description of the problem), I feel3 Full stop, I would like (what you want the person to do in the future to prevent the problem)3 Full stop For example, I feel like we haven’t been spending enough time together is more effective than You are always neglecting me.

Use neutral language. Often when people engage in conflict with others, they use inflammatory language, including profanity, name calling, and put-downs. Such language only escalates conflict and often pushes the conversation away from the key issues at hand. Try to use neutral or more objective language that states your position to help make the conversation less emotionally laden.

Be specific. Give to two or three concrete scenarios that illustrate what you mean to help the person understand your perspective. For example, if you have been feeling ignored by a friend, give a specific instance of this, such as I was really hurt when you left my birthday party early to hang out with your other friends instead of spending more time with me.

Be an active listener.

Active listening is one of the most powerful tools you can master. It is appropriate for everyday life, and it promotes positive, open and non-threatening communication with others. The only goal of active listening is to ensure your understanding. Here are some tips on how to be a good active listener:

Focus on the other person. Put aside any mental distractions and set an intention to make what the other person is saying important you. Through listening, you are gaining important, information to help bring the conflict to resolution.

Maintain steady (but non-aggressive eye contact).

Avoid body language that suggests judgement or anger, such as eye-rolling, tightly crossed arms or legs or smirking. You are here to collect information, not to judge, and you want the other person to feel like he can trust you.

Give the other person adequate space and time to speak. Try not to interrupt to state your case and instead save your comments or follow-up questions for after he has finished outlining his position.

Encourage the person with simple affirming comments or gestures. For example, give a little head nod or say, “I can understand how that would be upsetting. A simple “mmhmm” can also let the person know you are in the moment with him. Such comments and gestures demonstrate understanding and encourage the continuation of dialogue.

Demonstrate empathy. Show understanding for the other person’s position; this also conveys attentiveness as well as a general understanding that you are both two human beings, not automaton robots.

Pay attention to nonverbal cues. Learn how to read body language and interpret other people’s physical cues, including how they sit, their tone of voice and their facial expressions. The things people do with their bodies can be as telling, if not more so, than words.


Oftentimes conflict stems from one party feeling as though he is not being heard or understood. That means some conflicts can be managed by simply demonstrating that you have heard what the other person has said. Take some time throughout your conversation to reflect back to the other person what he has said. This will help you clarify your own understanding and convey to the other person that he has indeed been heard and understood.

For example, if you’re having a conflict with a co-worker at your company and you’ve just let the the person speak, sum up and reflect back his concerns: “So, if I heard you correctly, you feel as though you were overlooked for the new project and you would like to be a part of the planning committee.” Then wait for the other person to confirm or correct.

Work together to resolve.

Cooperation as a means of resolution requires that each person stop placing blame on the other and that both take ownership of the problem. Make a commitment to work together to effectively resolve the conflict at hand. There are a number of tactics that can help you and the person you are in conflict with reach an agreement or resolution:

Move past positions. A position is the desired outcome of a conflict that is usually nonnegotiable and often results an impasse. A position might be I want a new roommate or I refuse to work with this person anymore. To reasonably resolve the conflict, each party needs to move beyond their positions.

Focus on the present and the future. Conflicts tend to focus on past wrongs and past behaviors. However, one of the most important ways for both parties to take ownership of the problem is to recognize that irrespective of what happened in the past, both of you need to focus on how you can alleviate and improve this problem in the present and future.

Be creative. As a general rule, coming to a resolution that satisfies everyone equally is not easy and often requires some flexibility and clever thinking. Oftentimes, agreements reached too early or too quickly in the conflict management process do not last because they have not sufficiently considered all the ramifications of the agreement (e.g., if you and your roommate just decide to start buying all of your own groceries separately, who will pay for shared items like toilet paper?). Generate a bunch of options and alternatives to think outside the box.

Be specific in the resolution of the conflict. When you are solving a conflict with another person, make sure to be precise and specific. For example, perhaps you are having a conflict with your roommate and the two of you have developed a, written roommate agreement. Before signing off, make sure that both of you full understand each stipulation (for example, if the agreement states that you have to clean the toilet biweekly, does that mean twice a week or twice a month?). Consider signing the agreement once you both clarify any questions or ambiguous points that could be interpreted differently.

Agree to disagree.

Each person has a unique point of view and rarely agrees on every detail. It’s important not to try to figure out which one of you is right. Being right doesn’t matter and won’t help resolve the conflict.

Keep in mind that truth is relative; what one persons considers to be true is not necessarily what another person considers the truth. For example, consider the differing testimony of various witnesses who all saw the same car accident but may have seen it from different angles.Truth depends on a person’s point of view.

Know when to concede.

Some issues cannot be solved to the complete satisfaction of both parties, particularly if one party chooses to reject negotiating and hold steadfast to what they want. So, you have to ask yourself, how much the issue at the core of the conflict matters to you and whether you are willing to concede or keep dialoguing to reach a different resolution.

Is the issue of real and material importance? This is what you need to ask yourself, and it may be tough on your ego. If the other party refuses to budge and you realize it is a more important issue to him than to yourself, then it may be time to reach out and put an end to the conflict.

Concession doesn’t have to be dramatic. A simple, “Bill, I heard what you were saying the other day when we discussed the scheduling difference. While I still feel it could be moved up, I think you may feel more strongly on the issue than I do and I am willing to put the disagreement to rest. I’m willing to back you on keeping to the schedule we have set.” You can always own your opinion while supporting theirs.

Take some time.

If you reach an impasse, then ask the other party for time to think over his argument. Don’t leave the other party hanging, though. Specify a day and time when the discussion can be picked up again. You can also ask the other person to spend some time thinking over your position as well.

During this break, put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try his position and why it matters to him. If you were the other person, how would you negotiate with someone like you?

Be sure as well to reanalyze your own point of view. Are there areas of lesser importance where you could bend yet still maintain what matters most to you?

If this is a business, professional or work-related conflict, consider sending a nonthreatening and objective summary to the other party of your last discussion. Not only does this reiterate your understanding, it also serves as a reminder of your own angle and can demonstrate a professional approach should the issue be taken out of context at some point. It also serves as a mode of accountability for both parties.


If you and the other part have both wronged each other, then you both have to find a place that allows you to truly forgive the other person, even if it’s impossible to really forget what happened. This is the mature way to go, and it will be the easiest path towards resolution and cooperation in the future.

If you truly cannot forgive the other person, then you have to find a way to manage your relationship if you still have to see that person or spend time with him.

It takes strong character and compassion to forgive someone. If you are able to forgive someone who really hurt you, then be proud of yourself for being able to forgive and to move on from your conflict.

If rumors are already circulating, encourage the other party to come together with you to work out a plan to end the gossip.

Ask a third party for help. If you feel that you’re getting nowhere and are only making, things worse, then consider asking for help in managing this conflict, whether you decide to consult a manager, seek counseling or ask a close mutual friend for help. A third party can often have a better perspective on a situation where two people feel so emotionally invested that they can’t think straight.

Look for disproportionate responses.

A disagreement may not equate to a conflict. However, if someone acts way more upset or angry than the situation calls for, look closer at their behavior. This may indicate that they either have an internal conflict or source of stress. On the other hand, if their anger is directed at another, the two might have a conflict that needs resolving. Either way, you should exercise caution with this conflict so that it doesn’t get out of hand or even violent.

For example, getting very angry that your friend broke a disposable plastic cup is a disproportionate response. Think about your relationship with them to figure out if a behavior or past action has upset you deeply.

Think about tension that exists outside disputes.

If you have a conflict with someone, you will always harbor ill will toward them, whether or not you are currently disputing something. If you find yourself upset upon their entering the room, you may need to resolve a conflict. It is natural to try to hide your conflict with them to avoid uncomfortable exchanges. A simple rivalry may be hard to address, but you should feel comfortable approaching them for reconciliation.

Think about how others color your perceptions.

It is human nature to view comments and actions relative to the person who said or did them. However, if you find yourself consistently diminishing the ideas or work of others without much thought, you may have a conflict with them. Before addressing the conflict, try to compartmentalize your relationship with them so you can view their comments and contributions impartially.

If you see that a coworker, for example, writes a report that another coworker sends back for edits, look closer. If they didn’t sit down and carefully read the report, you might help them address their conflict. Their relationship is coloring their perception of each other’s work.

Remain calm.

Tempers will stand in the way of working through your differences. After all, the goal is making peace with one another, not getting revenge. Respectfully communicate to them, through a mediator if necessary, that you should both take some time to calm down. Then agree on a time and a place to discuss and resolve your conflict.

Try to stay calm by remembering that settling the conflict is the goal here, not proving your point.

Another tactic is asking them to help you come up with ways to solve the problem. This takes some of the pressure off you, which may help you relax.

Trying to settle a conflict with tempers flaring is counterproductive. If either party is upset, call a quick break so you can discuss the issue calmly.

Make a list of your concerns.

Before you meet with the other person, sit down and write out exactly what you think led to the conflict. Try to take personal history and personality out of the equation as much as possible. Think about the root of the problem and what specifically you need to change.

Allow the other person to talk.

You will still be able to make all of your points, but make sure to let the other person state his or her concerns as well. Let them talk, even if you disagree, because interrupting will only add to the conflict. It is most important for each of you to figure out the conflict you disagree on than the ‘correct’ solution. Working toward accepting each other’s differing views is at the center of this process.

Ask questions.

If you don’t understand the other person’s points, then ask him or her a follow-up question. Make a point to wait until there’s a pause in the conversation, so it doesn’t seem like you’re interrupting. Don’t ask sarcastic or hostile questions, as, this may turn your discussion into an argument. If you find their answers or reasoning ridiculous, remember that they are entitled to their opinion as you are yours.

For example, a good follow-up question might be: “when did you first notice I wasn’t returning your phone calls?” This question simply seeks to establish a timeline for your conflict.

An example of a combative follow-up question is: “did you try one of the million other ways to get in touch with me?” This question is intended to make the other person feel stupid and wrong. This will only make them more defensive and offended, taking you farther from a resolution to your conflict.

Be creative.

Try to think of as many different solutions to the problem as you can. Both of you should try to think through the conflict before you meet, and then again when you get together and begin your discussion. Allow your discussion to flow in as many different directions as you can, as long as emotions don’t get too heated, in order to resolve the conflict effectively.

You may have to forgo getting your way. For example, the root of your conflict might be that your friend borrowed your car without asking, and nearly wrecked. They may not understand why you are so upset about it, and this lack of understanding has grown into anger. A solution might be that you don’t mind if they borrow your car, as long as they ask first and drive, safely.

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