It’s inevitable. Sooner or later there will be conflict. People will have differences. Disagreements will erupt. Mistakes will be made. Stuff happens.
But we can sharpen our skills to be ready when unhealthy conflict begins to rise. And we can use our tools to keep dialogue open and productive. Disagreements don’t have to turn destructive.
A difference of opinion doesn’t haven’t to escalate into a damaged relationship. The phrases I share below have worked well for me, for the most part. Tone of voice and body language are critically important too.
It doesn’t matter if the conflict is with a student, a colleague, or a parent, it’s so important to listen carefully and let the other person know you are listening carefully.
Listen carefully and practice empathy. Try to fully understand where the other person is coming from.
Here are 11 phrases that might be helpful…
1. “Let’s work together to solve this.”
All of the problem-solving to address an issue shouldn’t come from one side or the other. It’s not me vs. you. It’s us vs. the problem.
2. “I may be wrong. I frequently am. Let’s look at the facts.”
Our natural tendency is to become defensive when someone challenges us. Take a tentative stance at the start. That shows you’re open to listening.
3. “If I’m wrong I want to correct it and make it right. I may be in error.”
If you start to defend your position right away you set yourself in opposition to the other side. When we set ourselves in opposition to another, it’s their instinct to cling to their ideas and defend them whether there is truly any merit to them or not.
4. “Let me see if I got that.”
Or “Let me see if I understand you correctly?” Listen actively. Acknowledge what the other person is saying. Instead of defending or explaining, start by paraphrasing. Repeat what they’ve said to ensure that you’re getting the right meaning. Ask clarifying questions. It makes the other person feel heard. It shows you are listening.
5. “What’s your biggest concern?”
Sometimes when people get upset they vent about all sorts of things that may be related and may not be related. This question helps focus on what the real issue is.
6. “How are you feeling about that?”
Again this question is acknowledging that there are strong feelings as a result of the situation. It’s good to validate the feelings someone is having. It doesn’t mean you agree with what needs to happen, but you are trying to understand how they feel.
7. “What would you like to see happen? What would make you happy?”
Sometimes when I ask this question after I’ve listened carefully for a time, the person will say they don’t really want anything to happen. They just wanted to express their frustration. And sometimes there are specific requests. This question get possible next steps out on the table.
8. “Is it possible that we could…?”
Or “What if…” Help introduce new possibilities to the situation. In emotionally charged situations, people often get locked into seeing things from only one perspective. We’re looking for a creative solution that is win/win.
9. “I’m willing to discuss this as long as needed until we’re both satisfied how it’s resolved.”
I love to say this when I can tell things are really heated. It immediately says to the other person that I’m not going to be your opponent in this discussion. I’m not going to allow this to be an argument. It almost always diffuses the situation.
10. “Let me think about this some more. Let’s try again later.”
Sometimes, even when I’ve tried to maintain dialogue and approach the problem with as much diplomacy as possible, we still can’t seem to either deescalate or find acceptable solutions. Then it’s time to say let’s both think about it some more and try again later.
11. “Do you feel like the situation’s been handled fairly?”
It’s very rewarding when a conversation that could be angry and awful ends up being successful. It actually builds a stronger relationship. Conflict can make us stronger. Sometimes I will even ask if the other person feels it’s been handled fairly. If they can’t say yes, then maybe we need to talk some more.
Don’t allow yourself to become an opponent in the conversation. If people sense that you are defensive, they will set themselves in opposition to you. They will cling to their ideas and defend them no matter what. Even if there isn’t merit to the concern, they will fight for their point of view. They won’t care about what’s right. They’ll only care about being right. They’ll defend the most ridiculous claims and blunders simply because they view you as an opponent.
And conversely, if you truly listen and avoid becoming an opponent, people are far more likely to admit errors of their own. If they are handled gently and respectfully, they will be more open to listening to your perspective too. But make sure they’ve had plenty of opportunities to be heard before you expect them to hear your point of view.
Do you have other ideas for disarming conflict? What’s been your experience with handling conflict successfully? I’d like to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Twitter or Facebook.
- 5 Tips for Building Great Relationships with Students
- Is Positivity an Excuse for Silencing Opposing Viewpoints?
- When Student Behavior Is Like Looking in the Mirror