Changing Perceptions of Conflict

Changing Perceptions of Conflict

I really hate conflict. Heated discussions drain me.

Knowing that I have hurt others is overwhelming, even when I feel I may be right about the topic. So, my defense, I try my best to avoid it. I even have a saying for those in my life that tend to be easily provoked, that I strive to “not poke the bear.”

But, this avoidance is not healthy. And, in business situations, it is just unavoidable. We often work in diverse settings that bring in people from different walks of life. To develop the work product at hand, this requires each of us to work together to see things in a similar light. Even within the home environment, our ability to effectively handle conflict while also handling our emotions in positive ways sets a strong foundation for our children. They come to realize that they can voice differing opinions in a safe environment, and be heard. They also then grow up in a situation where they see effective problem solving skills modeled first hand.

And so in an effort to change my perceptions (and overall willingness to engage), I want to walk through this area with you by my side. Here are some things that I plan to consider to continue to change my perceptions.

What drives our approach to conflict should always be considered.

Each of us has a different approach to conflict. And, it’s origin varies as well. My approach is to some extent driven from situations in my past where periods of increased conflict led to the abrupt ending of valued relationships. Others may have developed an approach as a result of the need to protect self and others, or from what has been modeled around them. No one approach is “bad.” And in fact, our ability to be flexible in our approach across situations ensures that we can get more positive results (e.g.,

Perceptions of conflict

  • Am I aware of my approach to conflict?
  • Am I engaging in the conflict or avoiding it?
  • Am I being open to the need to change my approach to increase my level of effectiveness?

Where there is conflict, there is an awareness that a problem exists.

If we are in situations where there is conflict, it means that there is an underlying (or overt) problem. If we are in a situation where we can direct our attention to the problem, and not the emotions that are arising, we place ourselves in a position where resolution can result.

Facing conflict also puts us in situations where we can learn and develop new options. Given that conflict exists in every context, our ability to adapt and develop new skills that can be used when facing problems ensures that we have what we need to think on our toes and under pressure. To some extent this requires us to be flexible in our thinking, and to be able to quickly recall previously learned skills. But, it also requires that we stay calm and focused while in the moment.

Of course, in each of these options it would depend on a number of factors, including whether the person(s) we are in conflict with is willing to redirect energy as well. Although we cannot change someone else’s approach, our ability to stay and/or diffuse a situation, can also set the tone for engagement and resolution.

Reflection: In your experience, what makes staying engaged and focused on the problem the most difficult?

Conflict results can lead to amazing outcomes.

Within business situations, conflict often means that something is not working right within the company. If business leaders can find a way to redirect attention and sort through the problems, it can result in stronger products, customer service, and even a more positive culture ( ). But it requires a willingness to push through, to remain focused on the problem itself, and careful attention to the presence of our emotional state.

A major mistake that I often make in such situations is to ignore my own needs and to focus on the area of compromise that can be obtained. This avoidance often comes at a cost, as it results in situations where I leave the table with my needs going unmet. One other side of the coin we find situations where individuals push in aggressive ways so that only their needs/values are met. This ultimately results in situations where they are unable to see what could result from additional insight and guidance. As a result, undesirable outcomes result from both situations. In business settings this may mean lower pay for a contract, but in personal situations this may mean going with needs being unmet. In both situations, this could lead to resentment and other negative emotions if the relationship continues. If we are instead able to consider our approach, and our ability to be flexible in our stance, we place ourselves in situations where we can maximize the result each time.

There is a great article on examples within the work place by the Small Business Chronicle: In it, they provide examples, but also different approaches that can be used to achieve positive results for both parties.

Reflection: What would help you to take charge in ways that would allow for the needs of both parties to be maximized?

A willingness to be flexible can lead to quicker results.

At times, our unwillingness may be due to the approach that we take in such situations. Not every situation requires a compromising approach. And in contrast, if you are a person that approaches every conflict in an aggressive manner, you will push people away. Consider taking a questionnaire to determine your approach in general ( . For instance, some researchers (Pruitt, 2016) indicate that our level of firmness should vary in relation to topics that are more closely aligned with our values, goals and interests. In situations/topics that are more distant to these areas, we are able to more effectively maintain the relationship if we are more flexible.

Other areas are also important, such as our willingness to actively listen to the other person(s) and utilize effective emotional intelligence skills also play a role in whether conflict is beneficial. The listening factor often goes out of the window when conflict arises. As emotions increase, it is hard for us to focus on the problem or the other person, as we move into a place of protection of our own needs and interests. Being able to actively think about what is being stated (verbally or in written form) helps us to remain focused on the problem itself. This often means staying away from communication errors that happen when emotions rise, such as personal shots, name calling, assigning blame, etc. Staying in the moment takes practice. There are a number of resources that can help with this, below I list some additional resources you can try out.

In regards to emotional intelligence, this has to do with our ability to be in tune with and effectively control how our emotions are displayed. This area can really be a deal breaker. The key is not to ignore what you are feeling, but try to use this information to inform the process. There are times when to do this step effectively, you may have to take a break from the situation. This is not always possible, but if you are in a situation when you can take a moment to reflect and gain an understanding of what you are feeling and how it connects to the problem at hand, it could help to solve it more quickly and in a way that does not leave a lot of abandoned debris after the dust has settled.

Knowing the boundaries that exist helps us to move forward in the process.

Of course, there may be situations where healthy conflict cannot occur. In these situations, we have to realize when it is best to walk away from the table or to seek outside resources (i.e., formal or informal). If this is in the work environment, this may mean consulting with a colleague that you trust about how to effectively resolve the problem, or a superior. Most employers have a conflict resolution policy in place, although this becomes more difficult in small business settings. In the latter, it may require you to go outside of the office or to seek mediation.

Within family settings we have to consider a number of factors, including when the conflict should occur, whether it occurs in front of children, and what indicators we will use to determine the conflict will only be settled with outside help. Family therapy is a great way to work through pervasive conflict that affects many members of a family. There are also usually options within local churches, and local resources for formal mediation.

In sum, we have to find ways to reflect, identify and move forward, even in the face of conflict. How fast you move through this process may vary in relation to the complexity of the conflict you are facing. But, your willingness to engage and be open to attacking the problem in new ways can set the tone for your (our) success!


Reference:  Pruitt, D. (1995) Flexibility in conflict episodes. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 54, 100-115. doi: 10.1177/0002716295542001007

Additional Readings:

13 Tools for Resolving Conflict in the Workplace with Customers and in Life:

Take a Listening Stance into the Interaction:

Emotional Intelligence and Conflict Resolution:

Put Conflict Resolution Skills to Work:

Conflict Resolution Skills: skills.htm

Daniel Goleman & Topics on Emotional Intelligence:

About Tamara Reeves Ph.D.

Tamara Reeves, Ph.D., grew up in Oklahoma City, OK, and graduated from high school from Douglass with hopes of becoming a psychologist. Dr. Reeves went on to complete her Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Central Oklahoma in psychology and graduated Cum Laude. At UCO, Dr. Reeves applied for the Ronald McNair Scholar’s program, and was accepted into the first cohort at this institution. She completed two research projects within this program and began working for a federally funded clinical research trial during her senior year in college. In the fall of 2002, Dr. Reeves began her graduate work at the University of Memphis. She subsequently completed her master’s (May 2005) and doctoral degree (August 2008) within the clinical psychology program. Dr. Reeves initially began her graduate work with an emphasis in child and family studies. While completing her pre-doctoral internship at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, Dr. Reeves began working within two grant funded programs that helped develop clinical services for adults with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Following this year of training, Dr. Reeves moved back to Oklahoma and worked for three years within the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Office at the University of Central Oklahoma. At present, she works as a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and the owner of Keys for Hope, PLLC in Oklahoma City where she provides psychological evaluations, and grant writing and reviewing. She also serves as a full-time faculty member for the University of Phoenix and as a dissertation chair for Grand Canyon University. Outside of these pursuits, Dr. Reeves spends most of her time with her daughters, Kelsey and Kamille, and her son, Isaiah. She also enjoys the work she is able to do at her church, People’s Church, and staying physically active.