If I could snap my fingers and impart one skill to people, it would be the ability to address and resolve conflict.
When someone is upset with someone else, their first move is to go and talk trash about them to someone else. There is a tendency to gossip, complain, and malign them. That, of course, is an ungodly response and though it might be gratifying to our flesh, it does nothing to restore the relationship.
We tend to avoid going to the other person we’re upset with because we don’t know what to say. I’d like to show you a five-step guide to follow when you need to have a hard conversation with someone. Who knows, if you and they follow these rules, you could start an epidemic of healthy conflict resolution.
Typically when someone’s mad at someone else, the anger builds until it reaches a personal boiling point. Then the person unloads: “You always do that. I can’t believe you’re such a jerk. It’s no wonder nobody likes you. How could you be so stupid?”
Well, that was nice. The good news is you finally decided to address what’s bothering you, sort of. But all the other person caught was this garbled mass of accusations and emotion. Unfortunately, he has no idea what you’re talking about, and is totally on the defensive. Good work. Here’s a better idea.
Start by letting him know what the heck you are talking about. But do so dispassionately. Pop quiz: Is the following a statement of fact? “When I called you last night, you were so incredibly rude. I stayed up late waiting for you to call, but did you care? No! I swear you are the most inconsiderate person who ever lived. I hope you choke to death on your own blood.”
Uh, no. That’s a bit of fact loaded with interpretation, opinion, accusation, and lunatic ranting. Try this instead:
“Hey Oscar, do you have a few minutes? There’s something I need to talk to you about. Last night I was expecting to hear from you. By 11 o’clock I hadn’t received a call from you, so I decided to try your cell. When you answered, the conversation was brief, and you hung up before I got to ask you my question.”
Catch all that? No interpretation, just the cold hard facts with no attempt to spin them or read into them. We’re off to a much better start.
Having established the facts that all should be able to agree on, you are free to move to step two, in which you state clearly your interpretation of the facts. Avoid saying things such as, “And on the basis of the aforementioned facts, I think you rot.” Instead, try something like this:
“Oscar, I thought we agreed to connect at 9 p.m. since I had to finish the paper and you were the only one in the group who had that citation that you agreed to look up. Since the paper is 40 percent of our grade, I thought it was irresponsible for you to not give me the information I needed when I finally called you.”
See, you’re being honest, the facts are out there, and now so is your basic interpretation and complaint. Keep going.
This is where you should let the other person know how you feel. Be careful though. If you begin your sentence by saying, “I feel that ... ” you are almost never describing a feeling. I know that sounds screwy, but it’s true. “I feel like you are a jerk.” “I feel like choking you with my own hands.” “I feel that the world would be a better place if you were eaten by a pack of wild dogs.” None of those describe feelings. They may reveal feelings indirectly, but they are really statements of thought. Try again.
“I need to tell you I was really angry when you hung up. I had been growing more frustrated as the night went on because I knew it meant I’d be up late finishing this paper. And I was disappointed that you didn’t own up to your obligation when I called.”
In this step, make it clear what you wish were true. Or in the language of the Middle East peace process, “Lay a roadmap for the future.” Since we are trying to be civil and win hearts, not inflame rage, try not to say, “I swear if we get stuck in the same group again I’m going to chain you to the desk in the library and superglue your eyes open.”
“It’s really important to me to get a good grade in this class so I can get into my major. I’d also like our group to stay together for the next project. You’ve got some good ideas and I think we really benefit having you take part.”
The final step is when you offer specific actions for the future. What are you asking the person to do? What are you pledging to do? Avoid statements such as:
“So in the future, why don’t you grow up and do your stinkin’ homework? I’m sick and tired of you sucking the life out of me and leeching off my work.”
“I’d really appreciate it if you could get the bibliography done by Friday like we decided. If you can’t, let me know so the group can reassign that job and give you a different assignment.”
Remember: Facts. Thoughts. Feelings. Desires. Actions.
Now go resolve some conflict.
Tim Henderson is the Campus Director at Penn State University and has authored or co-authored many of the Campus Ministry resources like The Compass and Cru.comm.
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