I have always enjoyed observing people. As a teenager, I would sit with my grandmother in a coffee shop and wonder about the stories of the people around us. I have spent the last decade as a leadership and communication coach and yet I am still surprised by how wonderful and complicated human relationships are.
What does the word conflict mean to you?
Does it make you think of disagreement, tension, anger, fear, lack of trust, lack of productivity or resentment? When I ask this question in training sessions very few people answer that conflict can be an opportunity for growth, learning, trust and more engagement. Why is this?
It is uncomfortable to have difficult and emotional discussions.
Why do disagreements happen? How can we break the cycle of conflict we might find ourselves in?
As human beings, we are imperfect and therefore our relationships are imperfect.
Even the best relationships experience conflict and disagreement.
Cinnie Noble, a pioneer in the field of conflict coaching, writes about the concept of the (not-so) merry-go-round of conflict in her book Conflict Management Coaching: The CINERGY Model. The idea is that we get caught up in cycles of conflict and miscommunication. When our values and needs are not being met we are triggered and react with feelings and assumptions. We then have external reactions that cause us to communicate and behave in a certain way. This results in the other person having feelings and reactions, which then trigger us again, creating a cycle.
When discussing conflict, I like to use the idea of a circle, where one half is internal (our personal triggers, actions, behaviour and reactions) and the other half is the triggers, actions, and reactions of the other person. We have full control over one half and no control over the other.
Although we only have control of ourselves, we can break the cycle of miscommunication and have more open, positive and fulfilling relationships. My clients often tell me that their relationships improved exponentially once they understood themselves better and changed the way that they communicate with others.
What can you do to stop the merry-go-round of conflict?
1. Know yourself.
- Get to truly know and accept yourself. This includes your strengths, your needs, your values, and your triggers. Change starts from within us.
2. Change the things that you control.
- Understand your triggers. What are the needs that are not being met? What assumptions might you be making?
- Learn how to improve your communication skills.
- Pay attention to how you are affecting others. We are often unaware of small things that we are doing that are impacting our relationships. Are you being understood? Are you listening to others? Having difficult conversations is not about shouting our position, it is about listening to the other side and finding different ways to explain our perspective. You can communicate differently.
- When you are triggered, stop before reacting. When we are triggered we are not able to think rationally. We are unable to listen or to explain ourselves without blaming the other side. Go for a walk, ask for a bio break, or pause before responding to a triggering email or text. Permit yourself to breathe before you react. Simple techniques like this have saved my clients from losing their jobs or fighting with former partners.
The important thing is not to avoid having difficult conversations but rather learning how to have them in a productive and positive way. Communication is a tool we can all learn. It is a muscle that can grow with practice.
Small changes can have a huge impact.
We are imperfect human beings that create imperfect relationships at work and at home. There are, however, many small changes we can make to improve how we communicate and the impact that we have on others.
As social animals, we need connection with others to feel fulfilled and happy. I invite you to pay more attention to the things you can control and learn how to create necessary changes.
This article was originally published on Charity Village in June 2023.