Conflict is inevitable. When two or more people come together the potential for disagreement is heightened. Any moving machine will experience friction. The only way to eliminate friction is to stop the machine. Likewise, any living, growing, moving relationship will experience some degree of conflict. The only way to stop all the conflict is to kill the relationship. The goal in operating a machine is to reduce the friction as much as possible. This makes the machine operate more efficiently and prolongs its life. The goal of any relationship is to reduce the conflict as much as possible for the efficiency and longevity of the relationship.
The question is how? The following principles will help diffuse conflict in relationships.
- Walk in another’s shoes.
In other words, be sympathetic—understand and validate or affirm someone’s feelings. It does not mean that we validate their ideas, but their feelings. Sympathy meets two basic needs in our lives: the need to be understood and the need to feel like our feelings are okay.
When we are sympathetic we seek to understand where people are coming from. Understand their background. Understand their temperament. Understand the circumstances that have shaped them. Understand their attitudes toward the issue.
A wise Indian used to say, “I will not criticize my brother until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.” Steven Covey wrote, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” St. Francis of Assisi prayed, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. . . . O Divine Master, grant that I may . . . not so much seek to be understood as to understand.” We may not know all the reasons why conflict has arisen, but trying to understand the roots of it is the first step in diffusing it.
2. Remember you are on the same team.
Often, we forget that we in a mutual relationship, we are in this thing together. We work together. We live together. We play together. In those relationship, we don’t compete with each other, but rather we complement each other. We minimize conflict with each other by maximizing cooperation with each other.
Teammates display three important actions that diffuse conflict: Love, compassion, and humility. Love says I will look out for the other’s best interests. It says let’s stop attacking each other and let’s attack the problem. Compassion says let’s not just talk about loving each other, let’s demonstrate that love by what we say to each other and how we act toward each other. Humility says that love is not proud. It is admitting a mistake. It is being honest about our weaknesses, our needs, our failures. Humble people use the following phrases often: I need your help, I was wrong, Forgive me.
Speaking of major conflicts, a wise man once said, “There are many opinions . . . I am not (always) sure whether they are right or wrong, but there is one thing I am sure of: courtesy and kindness and tolerance and humility and fairness are right. Opinions may be mistaken; love never is.”
3. Smother conflict before it escalates.
Being in conflict with another person is like a small fire. We are standing over it with two buckets, one in each hand. One bucket is filled with gasoline; one is filled with water. Now, we are faced with a choice: Which bucket do we throw on the fire? In real life our buckets are filled with words. The gasoline bucket is filled with the words of hostility, anger, and abuse—words that tear apart a relationship. The water bucket is filled with the words of acceptance, value, and kindness—words that build up a relationship. Instead of throwing a bucket of gasoline on the fire throw a bucket of water it to put it out.
4. Control your tongue.
The mark of emotional maturity is the ability to master one’s mouth, to watch our words, to tame our tongue. The quickest way to diffuse conflict is to muzzle our mouth, to control our reactions.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin of the Synagogue of the Performing Arts in Los Angeles and author of Words That Hurt, Words That Heal:How to Choose Words Wisely and Well has lectured throughout this country on the powerful, and often negative, impact of words. He has asked audiences if they can go twenty-four hours without saying any unkind words about, or to, anybody. Invariably, a minority of listeners raise their hands signifying “yes,” some laugh, and quite a large number call out, “no!” He responds, “Those who can’t answer ‘yes’ must recognize that you have a serious problem. If you cannot go for twenty-four hours without drinking liquor, you are addicted to alcohol. If you cannot go twenty-four hours without smoking, you are addicted to nicotine. Similarly, if you cannot go for twenty-four hours without saying unkind words about others, then you have lost control over your tongue.”
5. Pursue peace.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that firefighters in Genoa, Texas, were accused of deliberately sitting more than forty destructive fires. When caught, they stated, “We had nothing to do. We just wanted to get the red lights flashing and the bells clanging.” The job of firefighters is to put out fires, not start them. Likewise, our job is to resolve and diffuse conflict, not start them.
We must pursue peace with a passion in our relationships.
In the end, why should we diffuse conflict? It makes for happier people, healthier relationships, and more productive teams.