6 Steps to Resolving Conflict

Conflict is usually uncomfortable and definitely unavoidable. At the same time, it can often lead to learning, creativity, and enhanced trust. Knowing there is such valuable potential, you want to be able to approach conflict directly with confidence and skill when it arises. Regardless of the specifics of a particular conflict, resolving conflict includes six basic steps or points of focus: 

  1. Recognition and management of reactivity

  2. Empathy and curiosity

  3. Identification and expression of universal needs

  4. An ability to offer emotional safety and reassurance

  5. Access to creative strategies to honor all needs

  6. Making specific and doable agreements

These six steps could be completed in a two-minute exchange or they might occur over a few years. The amount of time required depends largely on each person’s ability to recognize and manage reactivity. When resolving conflict takes years this usually means significant healing work is needed before managing reactivity is possible.

Let’s look at the basics of each step in turn.

1. Recognition and management of reactivity

The biggest challenge in resolving conflict is step one: Recognition and management of reactivity. While recognizing reactivity is a complex and subtle relationship competency, it is most easily recognized by an inability to complete step two, Empathy and curiosity. One of the most salient aspects of conflict is ignorance or confusion about another’s experience of a shared event or decision. When you believe your assumptions about another or project various motives onto them, you trigger reactivity in yourself. Seeing that reactivity for what it is and managing it well enough to access curiosity and empathy for another allows you to move toward conflict resolution.

2. Empathy and curiosity

Curiosity and empathy that are helpful are balanced. It won’t move your dialogue toward resolution to only listen to a long list of complaints and judgments from the other person. Useful curiosity and empathy includes the five major aspects of experience. This means equal attention to: observations, thoughts, feelings, universal needs and values, and requests or strategies about how to meet needs.

3. Identification and expression of universal needs and values

Conflict arises out of attachment to particular strategies to meet needs. That attachment can only loosen when the underlying needs are identified and each party can trust that those needs can be honored and met in a variety of ways.

In any given conflict there may be many needs up for each person. To move toward resolution, each person chooses their top two needs to address relative to the situation at hand.

4. An ability to offer emotional safety and reassurance

This brings us to step four. Once needs are identified, it’s necessary to build trust that they are honored. Creating emotional safety and offering reassurance are two basic ways to build trust in the moment. Emotional safety is most effectively provided through a gentle tone of voice, open body posture, eye contact, reflecting back what you hear, and relaxed facial muscles. Reassurance can be provided in a variety of ways: through touch, humor, and words. Here are a few verbal possibilities:                    

  • I care about your needs getting met.

  • I want you to know that my intention is to connect and move forward together.

  • I know you care about this, and I want to understand what matters most to you.

  • I know you are a good person with good intentions.

  • I want it to work better for both of us next time.

  • Your needs matter.

  • I trust we can find our way through this.

  • I am not attached to having it my way.

5. Access to creative strategies to honor all needs

When you are grounded in needs and mutual respect, and in caring for them, you are ready to brainstorm strategies for meeting needs. At this stage it’s helpful to start by suggesting things that are completely outside the box. Outlandish ideas can help release tension and open the door to creative ideas that will work. Brainstorming also means just throwing a few possibilities out there before evaluating any. With this kind of open and relaxed approach to strategies, effective solutions often pop up naturally.

6. Making specific and doable agreements

Effective agreements arise out of the process outlined above and also out of fastidiously following the requirement for specific and doable. Agreements that are specific and doable answer most of these questions:

What?

Where?

When?

Who?

How long?

How often?

By checking your agreements against each of these questions, you not only increase the chance that all those involved will follow through, you also verify that there is a shared understanding about those agreements.

Practice

If you encounter conflict regularly, try carrying the feelings and needs list with you for the remainder of this month. Practice identifying needs for yourself and guessing others’ needs either before, during, or after a conflict.