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5 Steps to Defuse Conflict

No one likes conflict. It’s hard, uncomfortable, and stirs negative emotions. Most of us try to avoid it at all costs. You’ve probably even asked yourself at one point or another, Do I really need to have this conversation, or is there another way?

But there’s no escaping it. Conflict is part of life. It doesn’t all have to be bad, though. Conflict can also be an opportunity for growth. That happens when you learn how to engage with others—not just be reactive. Here are five steps to guide that process.

1. Stop

When someone confronts us, it’s natural to react. We might become defensive, shift blame, or even shut down. None of those are productive responses. If anything, they make things worse. The alternative—and better—response is to pause. Stop for a moment, and resist the urge to do or say something. And while you’re pausing, be mindful of your facial expressions. Our nonverbals say a lot.

2. Probe

Try to understand things from the other person’s perspective. The more you understand, the better you can ultimately resolve the situation. Use questions to learn more, like, “Can you tell me more about that?” or, “Why was that so problematic for you?” This communicates you really care and enables you to get further clarity about the issue behind the issue.

3. Acknowledge

Acknowledge the difficulty of sharing hard things, and affirm the other person. There’s huge healing power in this. Treat the other person like they’ve shared a gift with you. Because as hard as it was for them to share it, and as difficult as it was for you to hear it, it’s a good thing you did hear it. So repeat back what you heard. Then reply with an expression of gratitude, acknowledging their courage for coming to you.

4. Confess

Acknowledge and affirm what you’ve done that was wrong. It might sound like this: “I’m so sorry I did [this].” Use the same words you were approached with. This helps the other person feel validated and heard. We have to communicate we understand the impact of our actions, not that we just understand what we did.

5. Explain

The first four steps above have nothing to do with you explaining anything. However, sometimes it is important to clear up misunderstandings, because those misunderstandings can be legitimate. But it has to be done without blaming or sounding defensive. It’s not about making yourself right; it’s about providing clarity. This step also has to be consensual, since the other person initiated the conversation.

So ask first if you may share things from your perspective. Exercise wisdom and be careful in what you say, because they may not be ready to hear it or agree with it. That’s alright. But by sharing your perspective, even if it’s not received, you can add color and context to the situation. It still doesn’t excuse your behavior, but it offers the other person a different angle, which can help in the forgiveness and healing process.

The five steps above are necessary to help in the process of forgiveness and healing. After moving from one step to the next, you and the other person can begin the work of finding a solution to prevent further offenses. But start by implementing these five steps. No need to approach conflict in fear anymore. See how a hard conversation can become a win for you and someone else.

Looking back on a problem someone brought to your attention, how might you have responded better using these steps?

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