Conflict confounds us. Inevitably, we come away from tense conversations feeling that we might have done better if only we had been less emotional and steadier. But Dana Caspersen, who has a master's degree in conflict studies and combines coaching with her career as a dancer and performer, says that what we need to do is practise 17 simple principles.
Ms. Caspersen, who divides her time between Germany and Vermont, notes that there are many moments of relatively low-level conflict during the day that allow such practice. After learning the principles, you can apply them in such situations, evaluating your performance and making adjustments for the next instance. You could also set a theme for a day, such as "when listening, avoiding making suggestions."
We usually think that being successful at handling conflict depends heavily, if not entirely, on the other person, which might make personal practice seem irrelevant. But she says we can take the lead, practising certain actions that will change our behaviour and will tend to change the direction of the conversation.
In her book Changing the Conversation, she sets out the 17 principles in three broad sections.
Facilitate learning and speaking
1. Don't hear the attack. Listen for what is behind the words.
2. Resist the urge to attack. Change the conversation from inside the conflict.
3. Talk to the other person's best self.
4. Differentiate needs, interests, and strategies.
5. Acknowledge emotions. See them as signals.
6. Differentiate between acknowledgment and agreement.
7. When listening, avoid making suggestions.
8. Differentiate between evaluation and observation.
9. Test your assumptions. Relinquish them if they prove to be false.
Change the conversation
10. Develop curiosity in difficult situations.
11. Assume useful dialogue is possible, even when it seems unlikely.
12. If you are making things worse, stop.
13. Figure out what is happening, not whose fault it is.
Look for ways forward
14. Acknowledge conflict. Talk to the right people about the real problem.
15. Assume undiscovered options exist. Seek solutions people willingly support.
16. Be explicit about agreements. Be explicit when they change.
17. Expect and plan for future conflict.
Each principle breaks conflict down into a series of decisions. You don't have to change your personality or emotional deftness. You can just follow these steps.
Asked to highlight the most important or difficult ones, she starts with the very first.
It isn't urging you to become a martyr or allow the other individual to get away with wildly unacceptable behaviour. But you must listen for what is being said, even if it is hurtful, so you can steer the conversation back to the issue at hand.
"Don't become emotional. Take a step back and refocus on the important point. The other person will probably respond in kind – at least, they are more likely to," she said in the interview. It's not likely you will be emotionless but the idea is to dampen such feelings while staying locked on the informational content. State what you are hearing – what seems to be important to the other person. We all want to be heard in a conflict, and these informational statements will help keep things on track.
The second principle builds upon that and is where we often go wrong. No matter how bad it gets – no matter how frustrated or angry you are – don't attack.
It's fine to state your feelings, such as, "I feel frustrated because it's important to me [that] we patch up this situation," but stay focused on the informational aspects, what you have seen and what you would like to achieve. "It seems really tricky to do this at first. But the more we practise, the better we can be," she said.
Often in conflict, we assume the worst of the other person, fearing they will overreact to anything we say. Instead, approach the other individual with respect and goodwill, according to the third principle. "Somewhere inside, the person is someone capable of having a useful dialogue," she insisted.
Often, emotions get heightened in conflict and we want to suppress them completely. But she says emotions are part of the way we think – they aren't optional. At the same time, they are signals, indicating how we and the other person think.
"Emotions are frowned upon in the Western world. But it can be useful to say, 'I see you're furious about this.' It's a signal that helps both of you get down to what's really important," she said.
She reminds us that we can acknowledge what the other person is saying – indeed, should do so – without necessarily agreeing. If you start disagreeing immediately, that shifts the focus to you. Acknowledging keeps the focus on the other individual, indicates he or she is being heard, and then you can move on to your own thoughts and feelings.
Over all, her message is you don't need to change yourself to be good at conflict – you just need to learn these principles, and change your actions accordingly, with practice.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org