Communication Skills 101: Handling Conflict
The other day I received an email from a friend. I read the email and I had a strong, negative reaction to her message. I started crafting an email to send back, while I was still fuming. I felt better after writing my 3 page missive, but I realized that I didn’t really want to send it. A few days later, I sat down with her for a cup of coffee and we talked. By the end of the conversation I understood her a lot better, and I think she understood me too. I think we both felt differently.
In modern life, we bump into conflict in many areas of life. Certainly family life is filled with the potential for disputes! I want to go out for Chinese food and my wife wants to eat at home. Mom wants to talk, Dad wants to surf the net. Dad wants Joey to bring out the garbage, and Joey wants to finish “one more level” on his Play Station. The opportunities for small (and big) skirmishes are everywhere!
Work, friends, neighbors and relatives create more fodder for disagreements. A friend’s son-in-law collided with a neighbor who complained about his children making noise in their backyard. He was angry and fashioned a letter with veiled legal consequences.
A teenage girl sat in my office the other day avoiding talking to her mom about some important questions that have been on her mind for a long time. She’s dodged bringing up these concerns, fearful of her mom’s response.
Frequently, adults avoid conflict. They hope that the discord will disappear with benign neglect. Maybe the neighbor will change his mind? Perhaps her mother will bring up these charged topics on her own? Maybe the dispute or tension will just fade away and everyone will be happy.
Conflict is uncomfortable. The results of a minor or major battle are uncertain. Maybe I will get angry and lose my cool. Or perhaps the other person will say hurtful things and I will feel bad. If we broach the subject, perhaps it will bring an uncomfortable tension in our relationship that won’t go away. We imagine many negative consequences, and so we avoid the difficult conversation.
Today, email and texting have created a new way of delivering hit and run dispatches. Joe texts Mary—“Sorry, I think we should stop seeing each other”. Sarah texts Sonia—“Why don’t you ever call me?” Recently at my clinic, some individuals have been sending out broadcast emails about their concerns. These letters take on a life of their own. Readers don’t see the non-verbal communication of the author, the furrowed brow, or the warm smile. They read words, in black and white, devoid of human expression.
So what can we do? What should we do?
Connect in person.There is no substitute for person-to-person communication. We look at each other in the eye, state our case, listen, argue, cajole, question—and if we stick it out, and don’t give up, we may come to a new understanding of each other. We may come to know why the other person feels and thinks the way they do. And they may come to know our perspective too. At the end of the day, we may still disagree with their point of view. But, if we search, we may find common ground or a compromise. If we try to connect with each other, there is the possibility of reconciliation.
Don’t use email or texts for important communication! Have I learned this the hard way! I sent out an angry email some time ago and I lived to regret it. These emails can and will be forwarded to every Tom, Dick, and Harry under the sun. Pretty soon it’s been read by an army of irritated folks.
Respond, don’t react. We “react” from our lower selves. We “respond” from our higher self. Wait a few days after reading that email. Think about how you want to respond. What do you really want to accomplish? How will the other person hear your message?
Don’t sweep conflict under the rug. Avoiding disagreements, disputes, and concerns just make them grow bigger. Take a deep breath, and reach out, in person. That is often your best bet.