How To Avoid Potential Conflict: 8 Steps To Maintain Peace

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Conflicts often evoke negative connotations, from altercations to avoidance, but reframing our perceptions can transform conflicts into opportunities for growth and resolution. In this guide, we’ll explore strategies to avoid a potential conflict and maintain peace in various situations.

Rethinking potential conflict

Your thoughts about conflict may conflict with the truth! When I ask people to think of conflict, they often conjure up negative images and sounds;

  • Altercations and shouting
  • Sulking
  • Crying
  • Avoidance
  • Abusive language
  • Even physical fighting and war!

Thinking about conflict in any of those ways can make you feel at least a little uneasy — but more likely — terrified. It’s no wonder we avoid potential conflict when the way we think about conflict is often detrimental to its resolution! (Read case studies about how the concept of conflict affects us.)

An important key to resolving conflict is to change your thinking

How would you behave differently if you didn’t perceive conflict as distressing or frightening? If you can think about conflict in a more positive way, it will impact how you deal with it.

Conflict, far from being a negative force, can actually offer a multitude of opportunities.

Solution-oriented thinking

Puzzle piece to resolve potential conflict

Solution thinking is about seeing potential conflict as a way to resolve a problem. Your mind will generate more acceptable images and sounds, thus settling the nerves and helping you feel more calm and creative. Stopping potential conflicts from escalating can make relationships stronger and increase understanding. There might be new learning involved too.

Enhancing Communication Skills

Learning how to resolve potential conflicts helps you improve your communication skills and become more adaptable. You build resourcefulness and resilience, which helps you relax more about potential future conflicts.

Recognising the positives of conflict

New technologies, solutions, and innovations often emerge from successful brainstorming to solve conflicts. So, although conflict is inevitable — it’s not all bad! Resolving conflict early prevents it from escalating and destroying relationships beyond repair.

Early intervention can prevent escalation

Nipping an issue or potential conflict in the bud is far better than having to clean up the mess from a full-blown conflict that was ignored. Noticing small but problematic changes in behaviour and doing something about them is easy — when you know how.

Notice and respond to behavioural changes

If you pay attention to those around you, such as family, team, or your social network, changes in behaviour become obvious very quickly.

Let me use a work example here:

female customer service rep on phone

Let’s say you’ve listened to a colleague or one of your team be rather abrupt with 3 different customers on the phone this morning. She’s always charming and friendly, so being abrupt is out of character for her.

This is the time to tackle anything that seems untoward, rather than leaving it and hoping it will go away for good. (It won’t!)

Approaching difficult conversations

It may not be a potential conflict; it may be a cry for help from someone who doesn’t know how to say what’s upsetting them. So how do you broach the subject when you notice any untoward changes in behaviour?

Here’s how to prevent a potential conflict

1. Get yourself into a calm emotional state

Don’t try and resolve problems when you’re upset, angry, frustrated, or any other less-than-resourceful emotional state. Walk away, take some slow, deep breaths. Give people the benefit of the doubt and go back with an open mind. You could use an anchoring technique to get yourself calm, or click and listen to, The CALM Spot.

2. Remind yourself that conflict can be an opportunity!

Be curious to discover what that opportunity might be.

3. Establish rapport

Our natural tendency, when faced with a potential conflict, is to disengage from rapport. Unfortunately, this makes the situation worse and may cause escalation. So get into physical rapport by mirroring body language.

2 women sitting on a couch, mirroring each other

Why does mirroring work?

We like people who are like us. Mirroring — moving our body to reflect a mirror image of the other persons — is a natural and unconscious behaviour when we like someone or are getting along. When we dislike someone, or there’s a problem, our unconscious response is to get out of rapport physically — to stop mirroring. This just creates a communication hurdle.

Rather than sitting or standing straight in front of someone, which can become confrontational, stand alongside or at a slight angle to each other. Avoid creating a blockade with a large piece of furniture between the two of you — a table — for example.

4. Describe the person’s behaviour clearly, factually and unemotionally

It’s useful when you’re not familiar with dealing with potential conflict to note down what you saw and heard. By making some notes, you can check that what you’ve written is factual and unemotional. Talking factually will help prevent you from inflaming the situation by appearing to accuse the other person. This can help you feel more comfortable addressing the issue.

You do this by:

  • Describing the behaviour in a factual and objective way: What you saw and/or heard
  • Being unemotional and non-judgemental

An example of a factual description

In the earlier example; you’ve listened to a colleague or one of your team be rather abrupt with 3 customers on the phone this morning. She’s always charming and friendly, so being abrupt is out of character for her. To address this, you can say something like:

“You’re always very pleasant and friendly with our customers. However, I noticed you used a different, clipped and sharper tone with that last customer, as well as the previous two clients that you spoke with. Is there something wrong?”

Important note: What you write is to ensure that when you speak to the person, what you say meets the criteria mentioned above (i.e is factual, unemotional and objective.) Unless you intentionally want to worsen the situation, avoid emailing, texting, or sending what you’ve written to the other person.

An inappropriate, non factual, and emotional response to the earlier example might be:

“Geez, you’re grumpy today. We’ll have no customers left if you talk to them all like that. What the hell is the matter with you?”

In this example, you’ve judged the person’s behaviour based on your own perception. You might imagine the response.

Perceptions are as different as people

Simple people drawings all looking at a figure eight

We all process information differently, so people will have different perceptions of the same event. Conflict can only escalate when people can’t, or won’t, see one another’s perspectives. Faced with emotional responses or negative, distorted thinking, it’s easy to criticise or attack. So please take the time to make sure you’re being objective when you confront an issue. Then…

5. Listen to their responses with reflective listening and empathy:

Reflective listening techniques:

Listen to their response without an agenda:

  • Listen to understand. (Don’t just listen for ammunition that you can use to prove your point.)
  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Ask yourself, what is the real issue?
  • What is causing the upset?
  • What would resolve it?

What if the person gets upset?

People are allowed to get upset or experience a whole range of emotions. That’s what happens when you’re human. However, you don’t have to change what you’re doing just because someone’s upset. Just as in the image above, people see things differently. Who is right? The key to resolving a potential conflict is being able to hold more than one perspective. Can you see both points of view?

6. Make eye contact

Give the person who’s speaking eye contact. It’s not enough to just listen with your ears. You need to listen with your whole body, including your eyes. Give your full attention to the speaker. Yes, I know you can still hear while you’re filleting fish and texting. Multi-tasking while someone is talking tells them they’re not a priority.

How Much Eye Contact?

Obviously, cultural differences may determine how much eye contact is appropriate. What is polite in some cultures is considered rude in others. Shy people might not give as much eye contact as confident people. So one way to deal with this dilemma is to give someone about the same amount of eye contact as they give you. That way, you’ll avoid scaring the living daylights out of someone with the intensity of your stare!

Continue to listen to understand

7. Separate their perception from reality while reflecting what you’ve heard

Examples of how to separate their perception from reality:

  • So as far as you’re concerned…
  • So the way you see things is …
  • You’re saying you’re feeling?
  • I can see this is troubling you

Note: I’ve bolded the words ‘you’ and ‘you’re’ in the above examples. The underlying motive for this is to highlight the value of acknowledging the other person’s emotional turmoil, while encouraging them to take ownership of their feelings. Do not emphasise those words when you’re talking. This will make matters worse and distract from the genuine issues.

Reflective listening is reflecting to the person what they’ve said using their keywords. The keywords are the words the speaker puts more emphasis on or that seem important to her.

Why use her keywords?

words have power

Words have power. Some words are more important to individuals than other words. Keywords have certain feelings associated with them and act like hot buttons, triggering a particular state. If you change their words — by paraphrasing — you’ll also change the meaning and feelings attached to those words. Doing so could mean you lose rapport.

Let’s use the previous example again

You said, “You’re always very pleasant and friendly with our customers. However, I noticed you used a different, clipped and sharper tone with that last customer, as well as the previous two clients that you spoke with. Is there something wrong?”
Your team member responds with, “You’re probably right. I’m stressed out by the amount of paperwork I’ve got to get through before the end of the month. I don’t have time for small talk with customers.”
Your reflective response to that could be: “So you’re feeling stressed by the amount of paperwork you have to get through before the end of the month. And you think you don’t have time for small talk with customers?”

(Yes, it is very simple. Please don’t underestimate the power of repeating someone’s words back to them!)

You’ll listen to the reply to your reflective listening, and continue reflective listening, to get further clarification. Don’t be surprised if the person resolves the problem themselves while you continue listening and reflecting!

8. Expressing your perspective and owning your own emotions

Now that you’ve listened, understood and clarified, she will be prepared to hear what you have to say. It’s the law of reciprocation. It’s time to give your point of view. Of course, if you’ve listened well, you might find that your perspective has changed because of what you’ve learnt.

Even if only a little.

Or you may have sensed a simple solution that can work to resolve the issues raised. Consider what the other person has just told you when you let her know what you’re thinking.

Of course, you’ll do this by making sure you own your emotions.

Just as you made sure the person with the problem owned their behaviour and emotions, you’ll do the same when you get your chance to speak. You won’t blame anyone for how you feel.

The importance of addressing issuesReal People Skills - eBook

Proper listening and responding often diffuse potential conflict. The absolute worst action (or non-action) is to ignore any unwanted behaviour in the hope it will go away. It rarely does.

My ebook, REAL People Skills, could be an investment for developing essential tools that will help you prevent potential conflict.

Seeking further support

You may need further support if:

  • Circumstances have become complicated;
  • Several people are involved or
  • Problems have escalated or gotten out of hand
  • The situation is affecting increasing numbers of people.

Recognising when conflicts require additional expertise or mediation and seeking help to prevent further escalation and promote resolution is vital to maintaining peace. You’ll need more skills than those outlined in this post, and some help from experienced people to resolve major disagreements and to prevent the situation from getting worse. Yet another reason to look out for potential conflict, and nip it in the bud.

You might find these posts useful: How To Handle Conflict Like A Hero—But Without The Blood And Guts On The Carpet

Conflict Resolution Crackdown: A Practical Guide To Restoring Harmony

Depending on the context, there are plenty of mediation experts, marriage guidance counsellors etc. Here in New Zealand, Employment NZ offers a mediation service. Or, outside of NZ search the web for professionals in your area.

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Tags: Body language, Communication skills, Conflict, Thinking and mindset, work and career

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