How to Untangle Any Conflict

How do you settle a disagreement, personal or professional, when you’re feeling angry, frustrated, and emotional? Five simple steps will help you work―calmly―through a dispute.

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Photo by Laurie Frankel

Step 1: Determine what you really want.

Say you’re arguing with your sister about caring for your elderly parents. You feel as though you’re shouldering more than your fair share. In the heat of the moment, you can easily become angry and flustered, and that’s not the time to negotiate. Instead, stop, acknowledge that you want to work things out, and “suggest an alternate time for discussion,” says Rick Brinkman, a communication expert and a naturopathic physician in Portland, Oregon, and a coauthor of Dealing With People You Can't Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst ($17, amazon.com).



What’s most important is thinking about your ideal outcome―in this case, a more equitable distribution of responsibility. Writing down your feelings or talking through them with a friend may help give clarity to your thoughts, says Elinor Robin, Ph.D., a mediator certified by the Florida Supreme Court, a mental-health counselor, and a mediation trainer.

What could trip you up: Letting your emotions get the best of you. “When people get emotional, they become accusatory and start blaming,” says G. Richard Shell, a professor of legal studies and business ethics and management at the Wharton School of Business of the University of Pennsylvania and a coauthor of The Art of Woo: Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas ($16, amazon.com). Resist this by taking a deep breath and reminding yourself of your real goal. (Yelling at your sister, as satisfying as that may be, is―guaranteed―not it.)

Step 2: Gather information.

Once you’ve worked out your thoughts, get a handle on the other person’s. “Don’t assume you know the cause of a problem or what the other person is feeling,” says Robin. “Arm yourself with as much information as you can before starting your discussion.”

Suppose you didn’t get a promotion you thought you deserved. Don’t confront your boss in outrage; ask why she felt you weren’t right for the position, then use that information as the basis for a subsequent career discussion. Or maybe your husband blew up at you because of high clothing bills. Instead of shouting back, ask what’s bothering him about your budget. Is money tight? Does he think you spend a lot more than he does? You might also research how much, on average, American women spend on clothing, then discuss with him how your expenditures compare.

What could trip you up: Tuning out the other party. You need to understand his or her position as well as you can if you hope to reach an agreement.


Step 3: Determine your negotiation process.

Start by deciding whom you want to be present for the discussion and when and where it will take place. Choose a setting that will make both parties comfortable―the den rather than the kitchen, a conference room rather than the boss’s office. “Using a neutral spot to resolve a conflict can make all the difference in the world,” says Brinkman.

Next, “set ground rules for how you’ll talk to each other,” says Eileen Borris, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in diplomacy and the author of Finding Forgiveness: A 7-Step Program in Letting Go of Anger and Bitterness ($22, amazon.com). That is, vow to keep name-calling and accusations out of the process. Decide ahead of time who will speak first.


What could trip you up: Not scheduling adequate time to deal with the problem. More resentment is sure to build if either party feels that he or she doesn’t have the opportunity to make a case fully.



Step 4: Send the right message.

Go into the discussion with several ideas of how to resolve the conflict. Make it clear that you’re there to work things out, saying something like “OK, we both want to come to an agreement” to establish common ground. “It’s hard to fight with someone who says, ‘I want to find a solution that works for both of us,’” says Robin. That message has to be physical as well as verbal, so avoid movements that indicate irritation or frustration, like tapping your fingers, crossing your arms, and rolling your eyes.

What could trip you up: Setting a tone that implies anything but mutual respect, which is sure to increase the tension level.


Step 5: Negotiate.

Take turns airing your grievances―speaking only when it’s your turn―and keep things as amicable as possible as you try to find solutions together. “It can go right down the tubes here if you start arguing with the other person,” says Shell. If you start to lose your cool, negotiation expert William Ury suggests what he calls “going to the balcony” in your mind. “Take a deep breath or two, wait a few seconds before responding, and slow down the communication with a rote phrase, like ‘Let me understand what it is you’re saying,’” says Ury, the cofounder of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School and the author of The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No & Still Get to Yes ($15, amazon.com).

What could trip you up: In a word, anger. Keep it out of the equation by focusing on your goals for the meeting, avoiding personal attacks, and taking a break if you feel the steam building.


If All Else Fails…

When a resolution eludes you no matter how hard you try, bring in a mediator, the experts suggest. This neutral third party gathers information from both sides, then brings them together to find an equitable solution. A friend, a family member, or a colleague with no stake in the conflict could fill the role, but a professional will know techniques to keep the negotiation process on track.

The important thing to remember is that avoiding or ignoring a conflict won’t make it go away. Taking positive steps toward a resolution will leave you feeling better in the end.