Better conflict resolution habits don’t start with learning a new approach and then trying it in your next difficult conversation. Just as you wouldn’t start running and try a marathon the following week, better conflict resolution habits begin with a slow, steady build. Here are some ways to start strong and build from there.
In 2010 I headed out for my morning run with my two dogs. It was 5:30 a.m. on an April morning and barely light. I jogged down a quiet side street, headed for the park.
Enjoying the scenery around me instead of keeping my eyes on the pavement, I didn’t see the sunken manhole cover in my path. But I couldn’t miss the terrible cracking and popping sounds from my foot and ankle as I caught the edge of it with my running shoe and crashed to the pavement, tangled in the leashes of dogs trying desperately to clear the way.
Two years of misdiagnoses, physical therapy aimed at fixing the wrong problem, virtually no running, and finally one lucky New York Times article later, I found myself in the office of a soft tissue expert who seemed to have performed a miracle on my foot.
“When can I start running again?” I asked. “Now,” he said and I wanted to hug him. Come to think of it, I did hug him. “Go out tomorrow and jog for 30 seconds. Then walk for 30 seconds. Then jog for 30 seconds and walk for 30 seconds. Stop after 5 minutes. No more.”
Wait a minute. Let me take back that hug.
Thirty seconds? That’s not a run. That’s a…well, there’s not even a word for a 30-second slow jog. It doesn’t have a word because it’s not worth inventing a word for something as pathetic as that. But I promised to be dutiful. Skeptical, but dutiful.
Slowly, I built up to running one minute at a time, then 5 minutes. In a month, I could run 3 miles. It’s not that I couldn’t have gone out the first day and run a mile or more. But my wayward foot and ankle would surely have paid the price for my impatience and I’d have had yet another setback.
American novelist E.L. Doctorow had it right when he said,
Conflict resolution is the same. Writer Anne Lamott, commenting on Doctorow’s observation, put it this way: “You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”
Here are some ways to take the incrementalist approach to better conflict resolution:
- A lot of people claim they want to be better listeners. Practice empathic listening for one minute at a time — at your next meeting or at the dinner table tonight — and over time you’ll become one of the few who actually achieves that goal.
- Does confrontation make you quake in your boots? Then don’t have a confrontation. Ask a single question. Questions like this one and these are good ones to practice with.
- Use the psychology of agreement to find a small yes. Then look for the next small yes. One yes at a time.
- Teach yourself how to stay curious even when you don’t feel like it: Get into their movie for just one minute. Build to two, and so on. Practice doing this outside of conflict situations and you’ll develop muscle memory for when you need it most.
- Free yourself from the tyranny of the conference table. Go for a walk together, no particular destination — wander physically while you wander verbally. It’ll change the way you have a conversation.
Conflict resolution is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.