Monday, November 9, 2009

Managing conflict for healthy relationships.

Post 364 - "We are masters of the unsaid words, but slaves of those we let slip out," according to Winston Churchill. This is especially true in situations of disagreement. And there’s no such thing as a relationship without conflict. It's just a normal part of life and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, a relationship with no apparent conflict may be less healthy than one with frequent conflict.

Conflicts don't age gracefully. They can weaken or strengthen a relationship. They can be productive, creating deeper understanding, closeness and respect, or they can be destructive, causing resentment, hostility and separation. How the conflicts get resolved, not how often they occur, is the critical factor in determining whether a relationship will be healthy or unhealthy, mutually satisfying or unsatisfying, friendly or unfriendly, deep or shallow, intimate or cold. Conflicts run all the way from minor unimportant differences to critical fights. There are conflicts of needs, wants, preferences, interests, opinions, beliefs and values.

We usually try to resolve conflicts by:

- Avoiding or denying the existence of the conflict.

- Giving in rather than struggling and working through the conflict.

- Getting mad and blaming the other party.

- Competing and winning, using power and influence to get our way.

- Appearing to compromise, but instead subtly manipulating events in an attempt to win.

However, some people learn to control their angry, competitive, I-give-up, self-serving feelings and to genuinely seek a solution that's fair and optimal for both parties. This is a healthy and integrative approach. Here are three types of healthy solutions:

- Win-win.
Most conflicts are in areas that have more than two alternatives. If you don’t like the choice the other person favors, and they don’t like your choice, with a little more effort you might find another alternative that you both like and want.

- No lose.
When you can’t find an alternative that you both want, look for an option that’s at least acceptable to both parties, or negotiate an agreeable compromise. Neither gets everything they wanted, but each gets enough to be satisfied.

- Win-lose equally.
When the conflict is over an issue that has only two choices, one person will get what they want and the other won't. You'll end up with a winner and a loser. If you’re fair with each other and generally half-the-time each gets their own way, it'll be easier for everyone when they don’t. The loser will trust that next time, or the time after that, they'll end up the winner.

All this is easy to understand intellectually, but not so easy to apply and use consistently. For a start, both parties must view their conflict as a problem they want to solve together. It isn’t about just getting the best deal for 'me,' it’s finding the best solution for 'us.' This requires a joint commitment to being actively involved together in finding a fair and acceptable solution.

If you disregard, minimize or invalidate the other person’s position, or if you must always get your way, you'll invariably damage the relationship. Your lack of sensitivity, consideration and respect will cause hurt and smoldering resentment.

If you use fear and power to win, the relationship usually ends up mortally wounded.

If you’re just a willing giver, constantly trying to keep the other person happy by satisfying their needs and avoiding conflict, you’ll also damage the relationship. You’ll inadvertently teach the other party to be insensitive to your needs and self-serving at your expense. Your self-esteem and self-worth will deteriorate, and resentment will fester, thus poisoning the relationship.

Tomorrow I'll describe the stages and steps in healthy conflict resolution.

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