Jason R. Waller
The Secret to Conflict Management? Connection
Updated: Dec 14, 2019
We live in a relationship-driven world. More than ever. And a common topic that I come across in my coaching is how to handle strong disagreements. I recently learned about an approach to conflict resolution from a mental health counselor, and I thought it was amazing. I took my own spin and built it into a mnemonic (surprise!) for easy access. I really hope you find something useful in it!
What is conflict management really about?
I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship. –Brené Brown
Here’s the key core idea. Conflict management isn’t about solving the problem or brokering a deal. It’s not about coming up with compromises. Conflict management is about building connection.
When connection is built between two people, it gives them the opportunity to resolve their own conflict. They unlock their unique experiences and bring their individual expertise to the table. To look at it another way, a mediator’s job isn’t to solve a problem, but to build meaningful connection. To bring everyone’s context to the table.
Connection is the goal
I feel like connection can be a loaded word. All it means here is that two people are sharing themselves honestly with one another. Each person is accepting the differences in the other, without giving up what they feel or believe. It’s from that place of acceptance and understanding that we can appreciate the other person as a whole individual with different views, different pains, different desires. When two people do that (in business, in friendship, in partnership), they are connected.
So how do you get from conflict to connection? My counselor friend once shared with me four steps to help get there. A few entry points into that deeper connection. I put it into the mnemonic HEAR, and it stands for:
Hold your ground
Engage with vulnerability
Accept with empathy
Repeat and request
Hold your ground
“Hold your ground” isn’t about being defensive. It’s the opposite. It’s about recognizing and respecting boundaries. To me, this means “staying in your lane” and speaking from your own perspective, not somebody else's. To be honest, I always find this difficult!
In emotionally charged discussions, it can be easy to put judgements and assumptions onto others. These are all defense mechanisms. “You don’t see my point.” “You just want to take this project away from my team.” “If you only stopped doing X or Y.”
It takes practice, but try to hold your own ground. Role model boundaries by staying on your side of them. Often, that’s enough to change the tone for the better. If you find the other person is telling you what to do or putting words in your mouth, gently ask for them to respect the boundaries. “I’d really like to hear this from your perspective and understand what’s impacting you.”
Holding your ground means respecting the boundary between your experience and theirs. And staying on your side of it. Once one person starts putting words in the other’s mouth, it can be a cycle that repeats both ways. This is boundary pollution, and it leads to more conflict, not resolution.
Engage with vulnerability
Once both people are respecting their own boundaries, it’s time to engage. This is not about restating the facts or the data, at least not by themselves. Rather, it’s about being vulnerable (see my other articles on this theme).
So what does vulnerability mean and look like here? For me, it’s always felt most natural to just say how I feel. It doesn’t have to be sentimental or passionate. But just naming the frustration you feel or describing what you want can be powerful. Talking about facts and opinions can easily lead to argument. It’s easier to listen to how someone feels. It’s how they feel, and it’s true for them.
I’d encourage you to role model and take the first step in being vulnerable. Share first. Whatever the problem is, reach deep into how it’s affecting you and share that primary experience. Offer an honest, genuine, and open statement of what you’re experiencing.
I suggested earlier that this isn’t about the facts and data, even though they might be relevant. Try focusing first on connecting at the emotional level to resolve the conflict that is itself emotional. “I just feel frustrated because I want this project to be completed on time. I’m worried that if it’s not, I’ll be letting my team down. I don’t want to let my team down.”
Accept with empathy
When you’re sharing, it’s the other person’s job to accept what’s being said. This can be difficult in emotionally sensitive environments. But the more the focus is on building connection first, the more that emotion can be in service of that connection.
So how do you encourage someone else to listen and accept what you’re saying? Again, it’s back to role modeling. By sharing what you really feel, you’re already changing the tone and making it easier to hear. If necessary, ask deliberately for the other to listen, with a commitment to do the same. Try asking “I really want to listen to you, and I want you to listen to me, too. Can we both commit to hearing each other out right now?”
Role model accepting with empathy. When you’re receiving, make space for the person sharing. Commit to hear what’s being said and work to understand it. Value what they say and actually listening to the meaning. It’s an active listening, focused on real empathizing. This doesn’t mean agreeing with it. But it does mean making space their beliefs to coexist with your own.
Easier said than done, right? If words aren’t doing the trick get physical. Have the person who’s sharing stand up. Take turns. It’s hokey, but you can even have the sharer hold a totem like a set of keys. The person with the totem shares, the person without receives. And both commit to doing the hard work required in each role.
Repeat and request
After you’ve shared, pause. Then invite the other person to share their experience. Offer the request genuinely, and make the space to accept what they say. Try something simple like “I appreciate you listening to me just now. I’d like to hear how you’re feeling about the situation.”
Repeat sharing back and forth as necessary. Hopefully, this type of meaningful dialog will lead to some deeper connection. If it does, then the emotion that once fueled conflict will instead create mutual understanding. It’s from this place that resolution takes shape. Naturally, intuitively.
Once you’re both engaging as peers, try making a request. Be vulnerable in saying what it is you want to resolve the problem. The goal of requesting is cooperation, not compromise. Don’t worry about extending an olive branch or offering something you think the other person wants. Back to the idea of boundaries, it’s up to them to say what they want. After connection is built it should feel like everyone has a voice.
I really believe that fostering connection is the best path to resolution. It’s not always easy or straightforward. But it can be surprising that sometimes it is. If connection isn’t built easily, don’t give up! And once it is, don’t be afraid to make a request and cooperate on a solution.
If your own conflict is getting out of hand, find someone to play the mediator role. Try writing if you know it will be easier for you to collect your thoughts. But avoid emailing back and forth, I suggest still getting into a room together. If helpful, lay out HEAR framework and agree together to give it a shot.
Hold your ground, respect the boundaries and stay with your own perspective.
Engage with vulnerability, be honest and direct about your primary experience
Accept with empathy, make space for the other person’s experience
Repeat and request, take turns engaging and accepting until you build connection
One last thing. HEAR is a helpful acronym, but don’t forget that connection isn’t about hearing, but listening. I hope that you find this helpful.