“You can’t shake hands with a clenched fist.” – Indira Gandhi

When conflict occurs, the first thing to focus on is how to take responsibility for your own role in the situation.  Since the only thing we truly have control over is our own behavior, it is important to first turn inward to focus on being present and overcoming obstacles to listening.  How do we move forward and manage conflict when we believe that we are taking a mindful, deliberate, and responsible role?  What happens when the problem at hand actually is that the other person is not being receptive?

Interpersonal Effectiveness: Conflict Management Skills

The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook (McKay, Wood, & Brantley, 2007) describes how to implement five essential conflict management skills into your communication repertoire.

(1) Mutual Validation

A common reason for people to resist listening to others is due to a feeling of invalidation.  This is the sense of not being truly heard or feeling as if your thoughts/opinions are somehow “wrong” or “bad.”  When people feel invalidated, it is common to push back even harder by continuing to make the same point or escalating the argument.  This pattern can be stopped in its tracks with mutual validation. Remember that validation (like acceptance) does not mean approval or agreement.  It does mean that you “get it” – you are letting the other person know that you understand their needs, motivations, or feelings.  You are letting them know that you can see why they feel as they do – even if you don’t agree.

  • I understand that it feels scary to take this type of financial risk; you have the right to be cautious.  On my end, I would like to make these investments so that we’ll have more when we retire.  We’re both coming from a reasonable place – it’s just different.”
  • I understand that when I said that you didn’t do your part of the project that it hurt you.  That would be hard for anyone to hear.  On my end, I’m feeling concerned that we won’t get our work done on time and that I have twice as much work to do now.”

(2) Broken Record

This is a good technique to use when it seems that your message simply isn’t getting through to the other person.  Formulate a brief, specific, and easy-to-understand statement about what it is that you want.  Ideally, it should be a single sentence.  The key is to offer no further details, explanations, or excuses.  Continue to repeat the same statement as many times as necessary.  Avoid getting sucked into a debate or logistical conversation.  Refrain from answering any “why” questions as this just gives the other person ammunition.  Simply respond with, “I prefer it” or “This is how I feel.”  Under no circumstances should you give in to the temptation to offer additional information or evidence for your point.

(3) Probing

The key phrase involved in this conflict management skill is this: “What is it about (name the situation) that bothers you?”  The idea is to continue to ask this question until useful information surfaces.  This strategy essentially probes the other person for relevant or useful information that can help to resolve the conflict.  When the reason behind a conflict is vague or unclear, this can be a helpful approach to making the implicit more explicit.

(4) Clouding

This conflict management skill allows you to “partially agree” with someone without accepting everything they say as the truth.  This can be helpful in allowing people to calm down and put a stop to the idea of “winners” and “losers” in the argument.  The key point is to find some part of what the other person is saying that you can accept.  Then you can build on this by acknowledging that the other person has made a valid point.  Choose to ignore the rest of the argument for now.  Another way to find common ground is to point out (and avoid using yourself!) words that encourage dichotomous thinking, such as “always” and “never.”

(5) Assertive Delay

This strategy provides you with space to wait, especially when things feel as if they are escalating or getting too intense.  When conflict occurs, people often put pressure on one another to make a decision or agree with a plan right away.  This approach allows you to take a break (e.g., a few minutes or a few hours).  During this break, you can calm down, return to emotional baseline, consider what has been said, and formulate an appropriate response.  This can be as simple as stopping the conflict by saying, “Give me an hour.  This is important to me, and I want to think carefully about all of this before I say anything more.”

How can you use one or more of these conflict management skills the next time interpersonal conflict arises?  As you read through these strategies, which one(s) do you find yourself gravitating towards?  Conflict is difficult for many people, but feeling confident in your abilities to effectively manage conflict when it arises can make it far less threatening.  We cannot control the behaviors of other people, but we can control how we choose to respond to those behaviors.

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McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: Butting Heads by jimbowen0306 / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

1 Comment

  1. charlotte on April 20, 2015 at 5:41 pm

    Thanks for everything you guys have taught me

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