Does it seem sometimes that your unwillingness to talk with someone about a problem defies logic?
There’s actually a logical, scientific explanation for that, according to conflict specialist Amy E. Gallo. The brain’s response to conflict is similar to how it perceives a threat.
“It doesn’t know the difference,” she told Culver Girls Academy students, counselors, and some faculty members. “You lose contact with your pre-frontal cortex, which controls rational thought.”
That short circuit in the brain causes disagreements to become conflicts. And avoiding conflict is what the majority of people try to do, she explained. The irony is the only real way to resolve a conflict is to work through it.
Gallo is the author of the Harvard Business Review Guide to Dealing with Conflict. She is also a contributing editor and writer for HBR, where she writes about workplace dynamics. After talking with the students as a whole, Gallo spent the rest of the day working with smaller groups on working through differences and conflicts.
During her Wednesday morning session, Gallo explained there are two kinds of people when it comes to conflict: Avoiders, who make up the majority, and Seekers, who often look for turmoil. And, depending on the circumstances or relationship, a person may be an avoider or a seeker based on the role they are in. With a teacher, you may be an avoider. With your mom, a seeker. Your sister, an avoider. A friend, a seeker. Each individual should be able to know “what your style is” at that time and “what the other person’s style is.”
In times of conflict, it is natural to think of yourself first, she explained, but understanding the other person’s style and where they are coming from can help resolve the situation. “Think of it as a strategic move,” she said.
There are four types of conflicts: Relationship, Task (goals), Process (how to get there), and Status (who’s in charge), she said. The biggest obstacle is to not allow the task, process, or status conflicts to dissolve into a relationship conflict.
When dealing with a conflict, “being right is not a productive goal.” Finding a shared goal allows you to select options in handling the conflict, which may include doing nothing. However, “doing nothing must be a rational choice,” Gallo added, “you must truly let it go.”
And, sometimes, letting go may also mean walking away from the relationship.
After some practice, Gallo said people can make the necessary assessments in approximately 30 seconds. If more time is needed, it’s better to simply say “I need a break.” Don’t assign feelings to the matter but simply ask for time to think things through.
Also, don’t address a conflict with a text or an email. The words themselves don’t express the intentions. Plus, there is a natural empathy when looking at someone’s face. Part of the reason why there are so many “obnoxious comments” on Twitter is because everyone is faceless, she added.
Mentally preparing for a conflict is possible. There are several things to consider before holding the conversation. Making sure you are in the right mindset; taking your counterpart’s perspective, thinking, or feelings into account; writing your points down; and even thinking about the right time and place to have the discussion.
“Frame your message,” Gallo said. “Have the first three sentences ready that you want to say.” Stay centered, remain mindful, and listen to the other person’s perspective.
With any conflict, a person has to weigh their options. “What are my risks of speaking out? What are the risks if I don’t speak up?” Also, you cannot control the other person but you can “model the other person to change their mind.”
And, you can tell the person you are having the conflict with that this particular situation and your relationship with them matters to you. “That is why I want to have this conversation.”