Conflict is inevitable, it's how we manage it that matters

Conflict is part of our everyday lives. We all see the world in different ways. Our individual circumstances, opinions and viewpoints mean we do not always see things the same way, leading to disagreements, difficult conversations and potentially damage to our relationships with others.

Conversations where we see things differently to others can be handled in ways that can lead to a positive, rather than negative, future. We can strengthen our relationships by more fully exploring where we see things the same and where we see them differently. Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing, it can lead to a better future.

What is a difficult conversation?

A difficult conversation is simply one that involves an element of conflict or disagreement. It can be between two people, or involve a group of people. It can be about something that happens in the moment or builds up over time.

The 'seeds of conflict' are sown in our day-to-day interactions

Probably every day we are in situations where we see things differently to another person.

At times this doesn't mean a great deal. We have a good relationship with a person and part of our way of interacting with them is to have a difference of opinion. We get on with the person, we don't have to agree with their views.

At other times we are triggered by an unexpected situation. It could be a minor thing, but it offends us in some way and before we know it we react - often resulting in a difficult situation.

We can be triggered when we don't expect it and react in ways that develop, or even erupt, into conflict. In some situations we are able to walk away, but in others we can't. Conflicts develop in families, organisations and communities where it is much more difficult to walk away. These conflicts can simmer in the background and every so often a trigger causes a flare up, which dies down, but the underlying cause remains and flares up at some point in the future.

A difficult conversation is one that involves an element of conflict or disagreement. If we were to always agree with another person's point of view, it would be comfortable and non threatening. However, that's not the real world. Each of us has unique life experiences which have forged our attitudes, perceptions, values and beliefs. So, it's not surprising that we don't agree with others 100% of the time.

Conflict is inevitable, it's how we handle it that matters

A second factor that can make conversations difficult is that we don't have the skills to handle situations that involve conflict. We are not generally trained to deal with disagreement. But these skills are not complicated and with a bit of practice we can all get better at having difficult conversations.

Peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means. Ronald Reagan - former US President

The key to handling a difficult conversation is being aware of the situation and knowing how to respond.

In a situation that triggers an emotional reaction, we need to first handle the trigger, and then work through the restorative dialogue process.

The restorative dialogue process has four stages;

  1. Preparation
  2. Dialogue
  3. Finding solutions
  4. Follow up

Not all difficult conversations involve a trigger. A trigger is where something happens that is unexpected. It could be that something goes wrong, you are blamed for something or someone expresses an opinion that you disagree with.

In these circumstances, we have been programmed by evolution, by our survival instinct, to react. We all have primitive survival instincts that kick in when we are threatened. While these social situations are not necessarily a threat to our lives, studies have shown that we react to a lesser extent as if they were.

So how can we handle a trigger. The first thing is to be aware of the potential trigger. In this situation you are likely to react because the trigger is a type of threat.  So the second thing is to not react, but to respond. The best way of handling a trigger is to know in advance what you will do. You replace a reaction with a planned behaviour. Some of the approaches you might use are; focus on listening, become curious about what is happening or adopt a long term perspective.

The saying “fail to prepare, prepare to fail” is well known and true. The more effort you put into planning, the better your chances of success. When handling conflict there are some specific things to consider. Some of these can be done during the preparation stage or as part of the dialogue stage.

What is your motivation and intention? If your intention is to prove that you are right, that someone else is wrong, that someone needs to be blamed, that things should be done in a particular way, then you are doomed to failure.

If on the other hand, you want to understand how a situation is perceived by everyone involved, learn why people see the situation the way they do, work out what has contributed to the situation and look for options and ways of working that will help avoid the situation in the future, then you have a much better chance of success.

Restorative dialogue is not like a day to day conversation and, depending on the situation, may need the support and involvement of others. Is it a one to one situation, or one involving more than two people? If it's more than two people, it's likely to need the help of a facilitator to support the restorative dialogue process. The more people involved, the deeper the conflict is likely to be, and the more important the role of a facilitator becomes. It will also require more time to prepare.

If a conflict is between two people, if may be possible to work on it without a facilitator. This depends on how well the individuals know one another and their understanding of the restorative dialogue process.   It is important that those involved in the dialogue feel that they are in a safe place. They need to know what is going to happen, how everyone involved is expected to behave and to have an opportunity to express their concerns.  

There are numerous definitions of 'dialogue' in common use. In general it can refer to any form of interaction. In Latin, dialogue usage means a conversation by two or more people where conflict is involved. Here we use the term 'restorative dialogue' to mean;

“Restorative Dialogue aims to re-build relationships between people where conflict exists and in the process find a way forward.”

Restorative Dialogue is a communication process that aims to re-build relationships between people by sharing experiences, information and ideas about a conflict or issue. It aims to help people take in more information and perspectives about a conflict and build a broader understanding of a situation.

Dialogue focuses participants’ attention on listening for understanding.

In their book, 'A Little Book of Dialogue', Lisa Schirch & David Campt say; “Dialogue works best when participants listen for what might be correct, true, and insightful about what others have stated. The listeners try to find ideas with which they can agree, and potentially combine those with their own ideas to build a larger truth than any side has on its own.”

Dialogue is a process in its own right. It is different to a conversation, discussion or debate. We are not:

  • wanting a conversation that flows smoothly
  • trying to prove who is right
  • arguing different points of view
  • trying to make a decision
  • interrupting
  • judging

We are:

  • following a process
  • listening actively to understand
  • leaving time for pauses and reflection
  • giving individuals time to fully express their points of view
  • honouring each others' viewpoints and perspectives
  • being curious
  • trying to ask better questions

It sounds easy and common sense, but our living and working environments programme us to be critical, make decisions quickly, make rapid judgements, fill silences with speech, talk rather than listen, listen to respond, judge others' opinions, argue that our point of view is correct, and often keep our points of view to ourselves.

In short, most of us have not developed dialogue skills. But we can!

In restorative dialogue we are not necessarily looking to find solutions. We hope that by building understanding, trust and relationships possibilities for action will emerge. Some of these ideas may surface during the dialogue stage and given goodwill among participants further ideas for possible action can be explored.

It is important to carry on the process in the spirit that has been developed during the dialogue:

  • a sense of curiosity
  • wanting to understand all perspectives
  • listening to understand
  • respect for all viewpoints

Arriving at a set of actions to be carried out may take some time. And in some ways it is better that quick solutions are not arrived at, but time is given to consider what to do and allow time for people to become comfortable with the agreed way forward.

It can be all too easy to assume that because something has been agreed that it will be done. However, life and other priorities can get in the way. The final stage of the process is to carry out a follow up to check how things are going and potentially, if things are not going to plan, use dialogue to find a better way forward.