Feb 1999 Table of Contents

Balancing Act

Conflict 101



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While you can't eliminate conflict altogether, you can improve your reaction to it.

Fam Pract Manag. 1999 Feb;6(2):64.

One of the best ways to reduce stress in your life is to learn to manage conflict rather than try to avoid it. Conflict is unavoidable. It occurs anytime you encounter opposition to your ideas, feelings or actions.

Conflict management often focuses on the mechanics of leading individuals in a discussion of the issues that separate them and the formulation of a possible plan of action. While that's certainly important, it's only half the solution. You cannot effectively engage in problem solving without first understanding how conflict makes you feel.

Conduct a self-assessment

Your reaction to conflict can either escalate or de-escalate a situation. Next time you encounter conflict, pay close attention to how you process your own feelings, and take note of your actions. Is your reaction to conflict automatic, or do you take time to reflect on the situation? Do you find yourself looking for hidden meanings in messages (e.g., “What did she mean by that?” or “Why did he do that?”)? When conflict escalates, do you have a tendency to place the blame elsewhere? Do you repress your true feelings? Do you withhold information? Do you direct your anger at people rather than issues?

Consider these questions thoughtfully. If you find yourself answering “yes” to many of them, understand that you're likely part of the problem rather than part of the solution to the conflict you're experiencing. Giving in to those automatic feelings can lead to reactions that only make a bad situation worse.

Identify your basic reaction

When we're faced with conflict, we tend to take a “fight or flight” approach. A “fight” approach is to behave aggressively. The individual overreacts, lashes out with judgmental and evaluative statements, blames and labels other people, puts others down and uses sarcasm. The “flight” approach is to behave passively. The individual under-reacts, responds with indirect and vague comments, apologizes, has trouble coming to the point and tries to shift responsibility to others. Passive and aggressive behaviors are generally defensive and do little to resolve conflict. They may seem to relieve stress temporarily, but in the long term, they create more distress. What truly resolves conflict is assertive behavior. Individuals need to address the situation in an honest and direct manner, express their feelings, let others know what they need and want, and accept responsibility for their actions.

Where the passive and aggressive approaches view conflict as a threat to be defeated or escaped, the assertive approach fosters collaboration toward a real solution. Conflict becomes a mutual problem, and solving it becomes a win-win proposition, not a win-lose struggle.

Once you are aware of whether you tend to react to conflict more aggressively or more passively, you can work toward turning your reaction in a more assertive direction. How? The key is effective communication.

Become a better communicator

When you find yourself involved in a conflict, a good way to overcome your fight-or-flight impulse is to turn away from your own agenda and instead focus on what the other person is communicating. In other words, be a good listener. A good listener pays close attention, is emotionally controlled, shows concern for other people's feelings, asks questions for clarification, and does not rush or interrupt the person speaking. By channeling your energy into listening, you avoid reacting emotionally to the person, the issue or the words being said. You avoid hearing what you want to hear. And you avoid jumping to conclusions. In a nutshell, you avoid escalating the conflict.

When it is your turn to speak, following these guidelines suggested by assertiveness trainers ensures the most effective communication:

  • Consider carefully your motives for giving and receiving feedback,

  • Be honest and direct,

  • Be descriptive rather than judgmental,

  • Be specific rather than general,

  • Use personal pronouns when expressing feelings or opinions (so-called “I” messages),

  • Make sure your nonverbal signals are congruent with your verbal message,

  • Focus attention on things that can be changed.

Lyndia Flanagan is the Academy's manager for resident and student affairs and a former senior editor of Family Practice Management.

Copyright © 1999 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
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