Conflict Management

It is an an age of acute political polarization. Understanding how we got to this place of hyper partisanship is exceedingly helpful for peace of mind, but the question still remains: how do we get out of it? How do we collectively evolve, to see the commonalities we share as being more important than the differences we cling to? One potential place to start is learning the art of better conflict management.

Humans aren’t natively wired for healthy conflict management — in fact, we’ve evolved with a primary skillset geared towards pretty much the opposite approach: group combat, physical violence, and social dominance for maintaining strict social hierarchies. Much of the story of the civilized world is about collectively learning how to curb those base instincts, and the ways in which we’ve utterly failed to do so — leading to wars, genocides, and unspeakable acts of horror from the micro all the way to the macro scale, again and again, from generation to generation for thousands of years of recorded human history.

The psychology of conflict

The work of many philosophers and academics leaves us with the popular impression that humans are essentially rational beings, making logical choices between alternatives based on the careful weighing of evidence, pros, and cons. Not so! Our brains are riddled with cognitive biases, mental distortions, and habits of logical fallacy we fall for again and again.

It turns out that we are pretty poor scientists in our personal lives (and often in our professional ones as well). Instead of approaching the world with an open mind and leaving room for the possibility that our ideas and assumptions may be wrong, we frequently do quite the opposite — we filter incoming information against our pre-existing convictions and keep the stuff that matches, while tossing out evidence that doesn’t agree with what we already believe. Instead of being open to what reality tries to show us, we engage with the world from a place of motivated reasoning; we expect reality to conform to what we expect of it, instead of the other way around.

As a result, when we encounter people or ideas that disagree with our own preconceived notions, we have a very hard time conceiving of the idea that their way of thinking might have any merit at all. Moreover, those people are in the same cognitive boat that we are — they’re just as convinced that we are wrong as we are that they’re the ones not thinking straight. It’s a recipe for terrible conflict management, lurking around every corner and every interaction — hundreds or even thousands of times per day for each of us.

How to improve conflict management

So how do we get better at this, given the nature of our brains to get hooked into escalating a situation rather than de-escalating it? Is it hopeless, or can we work towards improving our conflict management skills?

All hope is not lost! A number of disciplines from coaching to leadership to non-violence communication offer various types of approaches to upping our game in reducing the conflicts that seemingly rage all around us.

One such approach comes from a resource that manages to be both classic business canon and yet undersung in the general population: Dale Carnegie’s seminal work, How to Win Friends and Influence People. He suggests essentially turning your brain’s primal instinct on its head: instead of approaching every interaction with the mindframe of “I’m right and you’re wrong — let me tell you why,” Carnegie suggests practicing finding the kernel or essence of something you both actually agree on first.

Even if there’s no obvious space of overlap in your ideas, you can still take pains to truly listen to what the other person has to say and find something of value in it, and communicate your appreciation to that person. Or, simply ask them open-ended questions about their perspective and encourage them to open up further. Here are some examples of phrases you might use to let the other person know you’ve truly heard them and appreciate their thoughts:

  • That’s very interesting! Can you tell me more?
  • I think I see what you’re saying — would you explain that a bit further?
  • You’re right about X. I hadn’t thought about it that way before.
  • It sounds like we have X in common. Could we dig in to that a bit more?
  • I can understand why you’d feel that way.
  • That touches on something similar in my experience — can I tell you about it?

Only after you’ve found some initial common ground and acknowledged the validity of the other person’s perspective — even if you don’t agree with it — do you consider pivoting to bring up points of disagreement. Sometimes the essence of conflict management is simply to avoid wading into conflict in the first place, by heading it off at the pass.

Validating another person’s point of view is an extremely powerful way to open up a space of dialogue. It leverages an age-old human guideline for healthy interaction: the concept of reciprocity. When we treat people with fundamental respect — the way we ourselves hope to be treated — we have already improved our skills in conflict management by defusing potential heated arguments before they get started. And once they do, we can practice falling back to a place of basic listening and validation before attempting to head back into conflict territory.