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The Truth About Conflict Everyone Needs to Know

There is one thing you need to know about conflict that will probably forever change the way you relate to others. You can be the most patient, caring, disciplined, or restrained person in the world, but if you objectify the people you are in conflict with as the problem itself, if you communicate to others that the problem is them, you will not do well in this area of life.

When I was growing up my siblings and I did many of the stereotypical things that siblings do to annoy and aggravate one another. One time one of my siblings opened a brand new package of oreo cookies, and separating all of the cookies, ate all of the delicious white cookie cream out of each and every cookie. Then my sibling licked the inside of the cookies, put them back together, and stuffed them back into their original packaging. Diabolical! And a little brilliant too…

My reaction to eating several of these cookies before realizing what had happened was quite normal: I responded by confronting my sibling with the self-righteous proclamation that this wasn’t just an extremely frustrating (and inappropriate) behavior, but that this behavior proved my sibling was a frustrating person.

You see, I couldn’t leave my complaint at a complaint. For the record, I do believe I had a legitimate complaint. But I felt compelled to take my frustration one step further than it needed to be and make my complaint say something about the person my sibling is.

There are lots of ideas out there about how to do interpersonal conflict. Authors and “experts” have made good money helping people navigate conflict. But it all starts to sound the same: doing conflict “well” usually has something to do with speaking for yourself, using feeling statements (“I feel ______ when you _______”), or using active listening skills.

Implementing those “expert” ideas certainly isn’t going to hurt your ability to handle conflict, but there is actually one truth that may override all these. It’s a conflict game-changer, if you will.

To effectively resolve conflict, you must know how to separate the person from the problem.

Based on years of solid empirical research, it appears that the most effective behavior in people who consistently and effectively resolve conflict is that they separate people from problems. These people are careful not to objectify the person they are in conflict with as the problem her or himself.

Sadly, this “problem objectification” is one of the most normal behaviors I see. It seems we human beings are inclined to draw connections between the behavior of others and the identity of others. If a person gossips, she or he is “such a gossip.” If a person makes a public mistake at work, that person is a “screw-up.” We support our claims by…

  • Using “always” and “never” statements

  • Building stories around these claims, forgetting about the exceptions or times that the person acted in a way counter to the story we are creating

  • Building into those stories statements of intention and values that usually are contrary to the good intentions and values we hold for ourselves (For example, “He forgets to take out the trash because he doesn’t want to remember to take out the trash- hard work just wasn’t a value for him growing up like it is for me”)

What is really incredible is that when a person is able to separate problems or complaints from the people they are in conflict with, there are actually a number of approaches to conflict that work, contrary to popular opinion. For example, in his work on intercultural conflict, Mitchell Hammer has identified four conflict styles around the globe that are completely different yet all equally effective! Individuals can be highly emotional in conflict or voice their complaints in direct or indirect ways. You might be conflict-avoidant or conflict-seeking. Whatever the case, the research seems to show that it doesn’t necessarily matter what approach you take as long as you have the ability to separate the person from the problem.

So the next time you find yourself aggravated by something, try telling the person that she or he is doing something aggravating instead of being something aggravating.

This article is based on the research and writings of John Gottman, Mitchell Hammer (and associates), Michael White and David Epston (and the growing body of literature on narrative therapy), and The Arbinger Institute. To learn more, see John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Mitchell Hammer (and associates), The Intercultural Conflict Style Inventory, Michael White and David Epston, Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, and The Arbinger Institute, Anatomy of Peace.

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