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Conflict is a dynamic and unfolding process which can be rich with opportunities to explore and understand perspectives. Cinnie Noble, a pioneer of conflict management coaching created the CINERGY™ model in 1999. In her own discovery and journey, she coined the term “conflict intelligence” to mean the competence in our self-awareness, insight into others, and the knowledge and skills to manage interpersonal conflict effectively. In her most recent book, Conflict Mastery: Questions to Guide You, she will discuss how questions and the use of metaphors can be skillfully used to explore how one might think or feel differently about the conflict they are experiencing.
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When I was younger and in a conflict with a friend, I would always vent to my mom. I would often, as most of us do, blame the other person and make generalizations and assumptions about why my friend was acting, saying, and doing those things to me (always intentionally in my eyes). Once I would finish venting, my Mom would then take on the role of devil’s advocate. At the time, this drove me nuts because in my dramatic pre-teen/teen years, I just wanted her to take my side. I had no idea this little exercise she continuously did would end up benefiting me not only in my education, but also in my life.
What is empathy and why is it important?
Merriam-Webster defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” In other words, empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. In an article adapted from Bruna Martinuzzi’s book: The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow found on Mindtools.com he explains that empathy, “Allows us to create bonds of trust, it gives us insights into what others may be feeling or thinking; it helps us understand how or why others are reacting to situations, it sharpens our “people acumen” and it informs our decisions.” In a conflict, if you take the time to try and recognize where the other person is coming from, you can gain an alternative perspective.
How can you be more empathetic?
One step towards being more empathetic is to listen to the other person when they are speaking. Mike Robbins contributor to the HuffPost Healthy Living blog explains, “Asking people how they truly feel, what’s really going on in their world, AND listening to how they respond (without judgment) are some of the best things we can do to express our empathy for the people around us.” Often in conflict, we stop listening to one another because we are too absorbed in our thoughts and feelings or because we are preparing a response.
The next step suggested by Bruna Martinuzzi is, “Take a personal interest in people. Show people that you care, and [have a] genuine curiosity about their lives. Ask them questions about their hobbies, their challenges, their families, their aspirations.” By taking the time to ask questions and be inquisitive about the other person’s life, you are getting to know them and showing that you care, which builds trust and rapport and makes it easier to step into their shoes if a conflict should arise.
The final step suggested by Reginald Adkins, a contributor on LifeHack.org, to being more empathetic is to “Assure you’re understanding. Ask clarifying questions and restate what you perceive the speaker to be saying.” In order for you to be empathetic, you must make sure that you comprehend the message the person is trying to convey. Sometimes it can be helpful to regurgitate back to the person what you heard. If what you heard and what they said are not matching up, allow them to clarify further. While doing this may seem tedious, it ensures that no miscommunication occurs and that you have a clear understanding of that person’s perspective, which then allows you to be more empathetic.
It is always in hindsight that we can see the lessons our parents were trying to teach us. I can remember a time in college when I was in a conflict and I automatically stopped and thought, where are they coming from? In that moment, I recognized what my Mom had been doing all those years; she had been teaching me to be empathic.
Graduate Student Intern,
University of Baltimore- Negotiation and Conflict Management Program
Conflicts play a fundamental role in human interactions whether with your closest friends, at home with your family or even in the work environment. We have all experienced conflict in our lives and yet each of us views conflict very differently. Different perspectives and situations actively shape the way we deal with conflict. There are many unique and personal definitions. In order to understand these varying views and perceptions, I decided to interview a few members of the community. I asked them what they thought conflict was and what it meant to them.
“Conflict is something that causes an unprecedented problem and makes for hard decisions. It means that people aren’t on the same page and have different views, beliefs or cultures.”
“Conflict, for me, is a serious argument that has the potential to escalate into something more violent.”
“To me, conflict is when a disagreement or obstacle gets in the way of something you are trying to achieve.”
“Conflict, to me, is when two or more parties have some type of disagreement that needs to be resolved through a type of negotiation. I think the spectrum level could run from something minor to a full out war.”
“Conflict is part of my daily life at work, as well as in my private life. It’s needed to work out problems, but I personally like to avoid it.”
It is quite easy to see the different ways that the interviewees understand and define conflict in their lives. While one individual sees conflict as an issue of views, beliefs or cultures, another interviewee feels that the conflict is a path towards violence. Similar to the diverse ways to comprehend and define conflict, individuals choose to manage their conflicts in different ways. During my freshman year at Salisbury University, I lived in the on-campus dorms. Over the course of the semester, I started to notice that I got ready at the same time as the student who lived next door to me. We exchanged a few words every morning through some groggy mumbling. After some time though, we talked to each other more frequently and started to have real conversations. However, to my surprise, he decided to ignore me one day. He stopped greeting me in the morning and we did not talk to each other at all. Feeling like I had done something wrong, I decided to stay quiet and let him be. A couple of weeks went by with us silently brushing our teeth next to each other. I started getting frustrated and tried not to care. We barely had any communication until the end of that year when he overheard me talking to his roommate about the situation. Upset by the fact that I was blaming the awkward silence on him, he decided to express how he felt. I learned that he was feeling the same way as me and was confused when I stopped talking to him one day. Both of us spent an entire year not talking to each other because we thought some conflict existed between us. In reality, by us avoiding the situation, we created the conflict.
Our views of conflict impact how we engage in perceived conflict. There are many different ways to manage conflicts. Avoidance is a common method and even one of the interviewees stressed the fact that they would rather avoid conflicts than engage in them. In an online resource titled The Five Conflict Styles, the author, Burrell, discusses how avoidance can be both beneficial and detrimental to a conflict. In some cases, such as when tensions are high in a conflict, avoidance can be beneficial to de-escalate the situation. However, avoidance often means that you hold on to all your discomforts, and since this is counter-productive, it allows for problems to linger unmanaged. Many of us who consistently choose to avoid conflict sometimes fear potential outcomes. Maybe you have had negative encounters in the past when addressing conflicts, and, therefore, you would rather avoid conflict entirely. By staying silent and directly ignoring your needs, as well as the other party’s needs, the conflict does not get managed effectively. That being said, additional conflict styles identified by Ralph Kilmann and Ken Thomas, are Accommodating, Collaborating, Competing, and Compromising. Each style when used appropriately can assist you in engaging in conflict productively.
Check out this previous blog post to learn more about the conflict styles!
Also, if you are not sure entirely sure which conflict style you rely most on, check out the Thomas-Kilmann Instrument to help determine your behavior in conflict.
Salisbury University – Conflict Analysis and Dispute Resolution
Burrell, Bonnie. “The Five Conflict Styles.” Conflict Management. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Web. 12 Mar. 2015.
In my first semester at University of Baltimore we were assigned a book to read called Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. The book provides a step-by-step approach to working through difficult conversations. The entire book was fantastic, but one particular section was eye opening for me. The chapter discusses how people need to stop blaming others and instead assess how they have contributed to the conflict. Stone, Patton, and Heen urge readers to ask themselves, “how did I contribute to this problem?” At this time in my life I was involved in a conflict with a friend and I was not taking any responsibility for my actions. It was a huge breakthrough for me because I realized how often we blame others for the conflicts we face; we abandon ownership of our problems, but why? Perhaps because it is easier to throw up our hands and say, “I didn’t do anything wrong”, but this does not resolve conflicts, if anything it prolongs them.
In any conflict you face, whether with a significant other, boss, or friend begin by taking a step back and asking yourself “How did I contribute to this problem?” Dr. Patty Ann Tublin a contributor to Entrepreneurial Woman explains, “Conflict in our relationships cannot be created in a vacuum. At least two people are responsible for it when it enters our lives. Regardless of whether you started the conflict or you are allowing it to perpetuate, you have some personal responsibility for its presence in your relationship.” Maybe your husband forgot to stop and pick up the items you requested for dinner at the store, he gets home and this starts a fight because now you have nothing to make for dinner. Ask yourself what you could have done differently? Maybe you could have sent a reminder to him so he wouldn’t forget. Even small squabbles such as this can build resentment, if both parties do not take ownership.
Why do people avoid taking responsibility?
In an excerpt from Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith’s book, The Art of Waking People Up: Cultivating Awareness and Authenticity at Work found on Mediate.com they explain that, “everyone in conflict tells a story in which they are right and the other person is wrong.” Cloke and Goldsmith suggests that, “These accusatory, self-serving stories are designed to disguise and divert attention from the role they play in keeping the conflict going, and reinforce their defenses, justifications, countermeasures, and irreconcilable positions.” Stone, Patton and Sheen point out “The urge to blame is based, quite literally, on a misunderstanding of what has given rise to the issues between you and the other person, and on the fear of being blamed.” People are not fond of admitting to their shortcomings. But the fact of the matter is, we are all human and we all make mistakes. It is easier to point the finger at someone else when things go wrong. And it takes courage and strength to own up to your part in any given issue and in doing so, it assists you and the person your in conflict with move forward.
Why is taking ownership important?
Jeff Durham a contributor to Life Coach Expert points out, “ taking responsibility for our actions equals success. It also makes us feel good about ourselves and rids us of negative personality traits such as anger, fear, resentment, hostility and doubt.” It is essential to recognize your contribution to the conflict in order to move towards resolution. The other person in the conflict becomes more open to listening allowing both parties to see and understand why the conflict occurred, what improvements you need to make and how to prevent the problem from happening again. So, the next time you find yourself attacking or blaming others, stop, think and ask yourself “What did I do or say, however small, that contributed to the problem?” Refrain from justifications such as “I wouldn’t have done X, if they had not done Y.” And then, own it.
Graduate Student Intern
University of Baltimore