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Preparing for Difficult Conversations

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How do we handle them?What types of organizations suffer the most damaging internal conflict? According to a recent study, the answer is religious organizations like church groups, synagogues, and Madressa boards. It's not that religious people seek conflict; in fact, most of them avoid conflict as much as possible. And that's part of the problem. Conflict is inevitable in religious contexts because people tend to deeply hold religious views and can see any challenge as a threat to their identity and religious ideals. But when people avoid and ignore a minor conflict, problems fester until they explode in dysfunction. Organizations that are totally free of conflict tend to be ineffective, because no problem-solving or growing is taking place. But if an organization is overwhelmed with conflict, people become so concerned with protecting themselves, winning, or saving face that they lose the ability to have concern for the organization or for relationships.

The ways we naturally handle conflict tend to come from our families. Some families give the silent treatment to one another, some seem to be loudly fighting all the time and yet still get along at the end of the day. We tell ourselves stories about conflict. A person relates a story of a victim who tells himself, "It is not my fault," instead of facing what his role might be in the problem.  A person tells a villain's story by saying, "It's all his fault," instead of trying to understand why a decent person might have done such a thing. A person tells a story of a helpless person who says to himself, "There is nothing I can do!" But, this prevents him from figuring out how to move toward what he really wants. Yes, at times there are true victims and villains in this world – but more often than not, those are labels that prevent problem-solving.

Five problematic and very common ways of approaching conflict that we may have learned to use include conquest, avoidance, bargaining, band-aid strategies, and role-playing. Most people use a variety of these strategies. Some of them can be interchanged, depending on the intention or motivation that is driving the behavior. While sometimes people who use these strategies do often get what they want at least on the surface, they fail to truly solve the conflict. True conflict-resolution requires a problem-solving approach, not a win-lose approach.

People who conquest in conflicts tries to dominate, manipulate and bully their way through the situation. Examples of this include trying to punish the other party, giving the silent treatment, or guilt-tripping. If you ever say things like, "How dare you do that to me?" or "If you had any consideration for me, you would have known not to do that," then you are using the conquest method. Labeling is one of the most common and destructive forms of conquest. By labeling someone things such as a conservative, liberal, zealot, or terrorist in a conflict, the person is trying to invalidate the other viewpoint as unworthy of understanding or consideration.

Avoiders try to pretend the conflict doesn't exist and hope it will just resolve itself, and they often use sarcasm, among other strategies, to disguise their true feelings. Examples of this include telling your spouse to handle a problem with the children because you're tired of being the responsible one, asking to be moved to a different office away from a co-worker with whom you have a conflict, dropping indirect hints about your unhappiness rather than coming out and saying it, or resigning from the board quietly rather than trying to resolve a dispute.

Bargainers try to turn a conflict into a game of trades and concessions and try to win by getting the other party to concede more. Examples of this could include telling your daughter that you'll buy her an iPad if she stops being friends with a girl you don't trust, or doing something to annoy someone else so that when they complain about it you can say, "I'll stop doing this if you stop doing that."

Band-aiders try to find quick fixes instead of addressing the real issues. They might change the way they walk home from school to avoid someone they don't want to see, or enable a person to become an addict to appease him/her in times of difficulty.

Role-players use status or power to try to create inequality in a conflict so that they can get the upper hand. They might simply demand that a child stop seeing a friend because they're the parent and they said so, or they might complain to a boss against a co-worker rather than managing a conflict directly.

The Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston movie The Breakup could be considered a case study in the above dysfunctional conflict management strategies. In many scenes they are fighting about things such as buying lemons and going to the ballet, when the real issue is that neither party feels appreciated. They are not clear to each other about what they want, so when they get what they ask for, they're still not happy. They engage in fight-or-flight behaviors and use labels, sarcasm and exaggeration to attack one another, raising each others' defenses rather than achieving resolution. If you can train yourself to observe conflict with a critical eye to recognize the above pitfall strategies, you can train yourself to avoid making the same mistakes.

In addition to flawed strategies, another reason people fail at resolving a conflict is that they fail to address the real problem. People can nit-pick at each other all day and never talk about what the real issues are, because in many cases they have failed to identify them or they have made faulty assumptions about what the other party thinks and knows. To help figure out the type of conflict that needs to be addressed, consider whether this is a new, first-time problem which can be handled directly (such as someone skipping your meeting), or a recurring pattern of behavior (such as someone always being late to your meeting), or something that is harming the overall relationship (such as you beginning to feel that you cannot count on the other person). Make sure the conversation is about the real problem and not other stuff that really do not matter.

If you see someone immediately becoming defensive, chances are you said or did something to challenge his/her self-identity. Most people think they are good people. If you try to assert that someone is a bad person or if he/she interprets your behavior as asserting that, then you're never going to get anywhere in resolving the conflict. If someone's reactions seem blown out of proportion, ask yourself what identity is being threatened.

Another reason people fail to resolve conflict is that they only see a situation as either/or, with all options being losing ones. Someone may think, "If I tell my co-worker what I really think of his work on our project, I'll make an enemy. But if I don't tell him, our project will not be as good as it can be." Instead, that person should try to change his thinking by asking the question, "How can I let my co-worker know my concerns about the project so it can be improved without making him an enemy?"

Conversations that will be most effective in resolving a conflict require that you adopt a learning stance. The focus needs to be away from blame, which is backward-looking, and should instead be forward-looking. How can the problem be avoided in the future? People should try to figure out what they each contributed to the problem rather than trying to put all blame on one side or the other. Be curious about what happened to create the conflict and avoid assuming that you know the whole story. The way someone else perceived events could be quite different from your interpretation. You should ask yourself how the other person might have perceived his/her actions as rational behavior, and you should not assume what the others intentions were. You only know your own intentions and if you judge or assume the others intentions, the conversation will stall. Instead, you should speak about the impact of the situation on you. Don't say, "You always try to make me look stupid in front of my friends," but instead say, "When that happened, I felt embarrassed in front of my friends."

In order to have an effective conversation, you should ask yourself the following things:

  • What do you know for sure?
  • What might their intentions have been? How can you find out what they really were?
  • What has each party contributed to the problem?
  • What emotions are you experiencing? What is the other party feeling?
  • What is at stake for or about you?
  • What do you need to accept and what needs to change?
  • How much time will this take to truly talk through and resolve?
  • Is there a real or perceived difference in power between the parties? Does this need to be addressed?
  • Where should the conversation take place to be best for both parties?

You may need ask the other party some of the following questions:

  • What information might you have that I don't?
  • How do you see it differently?
  • What impact have my actions had on you?
  • Were you reacting to something I did?
  • Can you say more about why this is important to you?

One blueprint for a conflict-resolution conversation is called SPICE: Situation, Particular Behavior, Impact, Contribution and Hope, and Engaging the other side in problem-solving.

Situation: First, start by conveying respect for the other person and describe the situation in one to two sentences. You may need to state what your intent is as well as what it is not, to clarify the direction of the conversation up front. You may also need to offer an apology, if appropriate. A full apology not only says sorry, but also attempts to repair the damage and provide a guarantee of steps to avoid similar problems in the future.

Particular Behavior: Tell the other person of a specific example to illustrate the behavior or situation that is causing conflict, using descriptive language and avoiding judgments, labels, and absolutes like always or never.

Impact: Describe the impact that the situation is having on whoever is affected, and explain why that impact is important.

Contribution & Hope: Explain your own contribution to the situation and explain what you want for yourself, for the other party, and for your relationship.

Engaging in Problem Solving: Figure out how to invite the other party to respond and to share perspectives on moving forward and finding solutions. Create a specific plan to follow up or check in later to help ensure the resolution is followed through.

In order to successfully carry out any difficult conversation, it may be necessary for you to think it through and even script your side of it first, or perhaps even to discuss it with a neutral party for feedback before moving forward with the real conversation. You are much more likely to say what you really intend and need to say if you plan ahead. This procedure can also help reduce anxiety about the conversation.

The tone of a conversation may vary depending on whether it is a conversation with a person of perceived equal power or of different power. In any case, you need to help create safety in the conversation. Do not offer feedback to a superior without obtaining permission to do so first. If the other party is a peer, remember to speak from a position of influence, not from one of authority.

Always try to create a sense of common purpose and mutual respect. Body language and actions can sometimes matter even more than the words you say.  A tall person may need to sit at the same level as the other party to equal the playing field. On the other hand, a woman confronted by a man with arms crossed over the chest may need to stand and move toward him to put herself back in balance and to obtain her share of the mutual respect.  You will move to resolution much more quickly if you can help create the sense that you and the other party are on the same side, working together to solve a problem and achieve a common goal.

Sometimes a conflict has escalated too high for a simple conversation or series of conversations to resolve it, but the above strategies can help prevent minor- to mid-level conflicts from escalating too far, even if they are consciously employed by only one side.

The above information is summarized from training materials for public school employees. Some sources cited in the materials include books titled "Difficult Conversations", "Crucial Conversations", "Fierce Conversations", "The Third Side", and "Leading Through Conflict".

Author of this article: Masooma Beatty
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