3 Ideas for Handling Conflict in a Positive Way

We all deal with conflict on a regular basis – whether that’s at work (challenging employee or coworker, difficult customer or vendor) or at home (spouse, kids, neighbors, that one parent on the soccer team you coach…). Conflict doesn’t have to mean a knock-down drag out brawl, often it’s just a difference of opinion, a misunderstanding or an attempt to influence someone else. But in all of those cases, wouldn’t it be great to have some tools for handling the conflict more effectively?

Most of us are very reactive when it comes to any sort of conflict. Superior logic generally doesn’t work as well as we think it should and a mandate is almost always going to cause problems. Think back to a time when you told your kids (or maybe someone else) that they needed to do what you wanted ‘because you said so…’. You may have gotten short term compliance, but it’s not a stretch to assume there ended up being some issues from that approach.

The good news is that there are great ways to handle conflict and to engage and influence others in a positive way – here are 3 techniques that are worth checking out:

3 Techniques for Handling Conflict effectively

The essence for all of these ideas is to find a way to engage the other person in a meaningful dialogue and (as much as possible) take the emotion out of things.

Empathetic Paraphrasing

The first technique comes from the book Verbal Judo by George Thompson and Jerry B. Jenkins. Verbal Judo is the approach that Thompson created and refined in Law Enforcement as a more effective way for cops on the street to interact with their constituents. One of the core ideas is how to interrupt an angry person and get them to engage.

In this scenario, someone is upset… maybe with you, maybe just in general, but they are actively telling you how upset they are. As the recipient in this situation your gut instinct might be to tell them to ‘shut up!’ or the slightly nicer ‘Calm down’. Your goal is to turn this diatribe into a discussion – but ‘shut up’, ‘calm down’ isn’t going to help.

Instead, Thompson’s recommendation is to interrupt them effectively and then use an empathetic paraphrasing to get them to listen. He calls the interruption a ‘Sword of Insertion’ – a wedge into their talking that will give you a chance to talk. It could be something like ‘Whoa’, or ‘Listen!’ or ‘Wait a second!’ – something neutral that will get their attention but not put them on the defensive.

Once you’ve done that, you immediately follow up with a simple sentence:

“Let me be sure I heard what you just said…”

And then give your best shot at paraphrasing what you think they’re upset about. This does a few things:

  • It interrupts their momentum in a neutral way (allowing you to talk)
  • It positions you as someone who’s interested in what they’re saying. Everyone wants to be heard.
  • It allows you to take control of the discussion
  • It helps drive clarity so that you can both be on the same page

Even if what you paraphrase back to them isn’t what they meant, it will allow them to correct you in a much less hostile way. They’ll appreciate your effort to understand them and hopefully that will be enough to enable a productive conversation.

Be a Mirror

This technique comes from Chris Voss in his excellent book ‘Never Split the Difference’. It’s a book on negotiation techniques, but the heart of the approach that he uses is the idea of ‘tactical empathy’ as a way to manage conflict.

One of the goals of negotiation, and communications in general, is to get more information from the other side.  If you want to influence their behavior, if you want to pursue the outcome you want, it starts with truly understanding what’s going on with the other side.  Negotiation isn’t a battle, it’s a process of discovery – that means your mindset isn’t about destroying the other side, it’s about partnering with them to mutually find a solution. And in order to do that, you need to find a way to get them to engage.

Use a Mirror  – this technique is sometimes described as a jedi mind trick… the way it works is that you simply repeat the last 3 words (or the critical 1 to 3 words) back to the other person. This can be done with an upwards inflection to make it a question (a question?). Or with a downwards inflection to show that you understand (downwards inflection…).  Either way, this will subconsciously make the other person more comfortable, make them feel as if you’re listening and encourage them to open up and share.  One of the keys to a successful mirror is to wait after you mirror (up to 4 or 5 seconds if necessary) – let that silence work for you.

The author shares a great story of an employee who’s boss tended to ask for unreasonable things (like creating multiple paper copies as ‘back-up’ when the documents were already stored online).  Rather than confront the boss when he asks for this, the employee instead uses mirroring in a non-confrontational tone – “I’m sorry – 2 copies?”… and then waits.  The boss, upon reflection and some more discussion suggests just using digital copies… and is happy because it’s his idea.

If you’re looking for a great example of this technique, watch Oprah Winfrey when she’s interviewing her guests. She’s a master at using the right tone of voice and mirroring to get her guests to open up.

STATE your path

Finally, here’s an idea from the book Crucial Conversations (authors Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler).

You have an issue that you need to address with someone else. How can you persuade, get their side of the story and come out with the best outcome for everyone?  That’s when you need to use the model (STATE) to push things forward. STATE is an acronym that outlines what you need to do and how to do them.

S: Share your facts – It’s critical that you start with facts. They’re not controversial and it’s the most persuasive way to help someone understand where you’re coming from.

T: Tell your story – Once you’ve laid out the facts, you need to explain your conclusion – this answers the question ‘so what?’.  This can be difficult to do, especially if it’s an unflattering story but it’s critical.

A: Ask for other’s path – If your intention is to truly reach the best outcome (and not just win) then you must include their perspective, which includes their facts, stories and emotions.

T: Talk Tentatively – It’s critical that you lay out your story in a way that makes it clear you’re open to other ideas and input (and if you’re not, then be prepared to not reach a great outcome).

E: Encourage Testing – Make it safe for others to share opposing views and express differing opinions.  You may even need to play devil’s advocate to get the ball rolling. “What am I missing here?”.

Here’s a quick example to a valued employee who’s been disappointing lately:

“Andy – I really appreciate the work that you do, but you’ve missed or been really late to the last 3 team meetings and that’s caused some problems with the rest of the team – they feel like you don’t care about what’s going on. I don’t think that’s the case but can you tell me what’s been going on with you?”

Often when we feel really strongly about something, we’re likely to force our views, convinced that we’re right and others are wrong.  You recognize it when others do it (they’re pushing too hard) but it can be very difficult to see in yourself.  If you do notice it, a much better approach is to use STATE to make your point.

3 Techniques – one for when you’re getting yelled at, one for getting people to open up more and one for when you need to confront someone else. There are a lot of other great ideas in these 3 books (and elsewhere), but if you can start using these 3 you’ll be well on your way to being more productive with others.

What do you think? Have you tried any of these? We’d love to hear your thoughts or feedback.

Shawn Kinkade Kansas City Business Coach

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