The Keys to Handling Interpersonal Conflict

Dr. Mark Aldridge

Dr. Mark Aldridge

(edited by Judy Yong  and Jordan Greene)

One of the major tasks of life is learning how to manage conflict, and for most people, this becomes a difficult task. Part of the problem is that we learn rules about conflict early on from our family, and assume that everyone else is aware of the same rules as well. The conflict comes when people don’t play by our rules and instead expect us to play by theirs. This can be shocking at times because the rules your family taught you worked—in your family! College is a natural place for conflict to arise because so many different people, families, and cultures are represented—each with their own way of seeing things or, should I say, perceiving things. Your task is to figure out how to maneuver within all these different rules and expectations efficiently enough to actually get through life: no small task!

Conflict can be defined as an expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources or interference from others in achieving their goals. So ultimately conflict is communication, either good or bad. Most people will consider conflict as being inherently bad or negative, but you might take a minute to consider that it could be neutral or even good. Consider this: you will likely never have a conflict with somebody who doesn’t care about your opinion or your position. Conflict almost always occurs between two interdependent people as the above definition states. The participants in conflict need each other to be in conflict. If they truly don’t like each other and don’t care about each other they won’t waste the energy on having a conflict, but if they do care about your opinion or need you to change your mind they will invest great amounts of energy to change your opinion.

Some people have learned from their upbringing to always be assertive or aggressive in their conflict style. Others have been taught to avoid it at all costs. The rest of us are caught somewhere in between these two polar opposites. The aggressive person believes that being aggressive gets them what they want, and if they get it that reinforces the aggressive tendency. Conversely, those who avoid it at all costs have learned that avoiding conflict feels safer than being in conflict. Unfortunately, both of these approaches do not solve conflict but merely put off bigger conflict until later. Because each of these parties get what they want in the short term they continue with these patterns well into adulthood. That means the rest of us have to find a way of navigating or dealing with these patterns.

If we look at conflict from a different perspective, we might have a different view on it. What if conflict is a useful approach to solving problems? What if conflict serves a purpose? In 25 years of counseling I have learned that those who can contemplate conflict as being potentially positive are less worried about the future and are more confident with themselves. If in the middle of conflict you can recognize that the other person needs you to listen and that they’re expending energy on you because in some way you are important to them, you can free yourself from all the negativity that people fear in conflict. In reality, the person in conflict with you is giving you an opportunity to see what’s important to them. If you can recognize that they are sharing that with you, there’s a better chance that you won’t become fearful of the conflict. It’s important to remember that all conflict starts from communication, so practicing honest communication skills is an important task to master. Some rules to remember: criticizing doesn’t work because nobody likes to be criticized. Blaming doesn’t work for the same reason. Being defensive or blocking conflict is not helpful either. Try to avoid words like “you never,” “you always,” “you should,” “you must.” Example: “You never listen to me.” This is called all or nothing thinking and isn’t even close to being accurate because nobody never listens ALL the time. This will block conflict resolution.

Consider that the louder and more animated a person is, the more important the issue likely is to them. Addressing the real need is important because they think you can give it to them. So the next time you find yourself in a conflict, consider the opportunity is there for it to be negative or positive and how you respond can determine the outcome or resolution satisfaction level. A great way to do this is to not play by the rules that you were taught by your family all the time because those rules are meant for your family, not life overall. Be open to change and be open to the fact that conflict can work for you!

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