Sure, it’s good to pick your fights. Life is short, after all. But that doesn’t mean you should avoid the small fights as a matter of course. The small fights are the places you get better managing your own or others’ conflicts, preparing you for more difficult conversations.
The first time my husband ever put on skis, a friend took him to the top of the mountain at a New England ski resort. Then the friend explained how to ski down. Amazingly, they’re still friends decades later. Because it was neither a graceful nor a pain-free trip down that mountain — for my husband or for those around him, including the man he crashed into.
There’s a reason ski resorts have bunny slopes. By practicing new skills on gentle slopes, novice skiers and snowboarders build muscle memory and experience that will help them successfully navigate increasingly more challenging trails later.
The same applies to mediation and conflict resolution skills.
When I’m wrapping up a conflict resolution or mediation training, I advise participants not to walk out of the training and wait to try out their new skills and approaches in the next big argument. Big arguments are the black diamond trails of conflict. If you only wait to practice when you have access to black diamond trails, you are likely to flail. This is true for conflicts of your own and for others’ conflicts you mediate.
Small, regular improvements which accrue over time create big impact. So, I tell training participants, build habits in low-stakes moments. Practice in small fights, the bunny slopes of conflict. When you build muscle memory in low-stakes situations, you’re better prepared for the big fights.
Practicing outside of disagreement is even better because there’s even less pressure to get it right at first. And “conflict resolution” is made up of a series of discrete skills and approaches that individually have power all on their own. No-stakes moments let you capitalize on them.
Using low-stakes and no-stakes moments
Low-stakes moments are those small fights and skirmishes that individually don’t have a huge impact on your day or relationship (collectively, though, they can have a bad impact, even more reason to practice on them).
Bickering about whose turn it is to clean the coffeemaker, a brief skirmish about whose solution is a better option, a tense moment when a team member is interrupted yet again by the same colleague — these are good places to practice, for instance, framing the problem to be solved, recognizing the problem with totalizing, or keeping calm when confronting.
No-stakes moments are those times when there’s no argument. There are a lot of them in an average day (hopefully), providing lots of opportunities.
The dinner table, an easygoing committee meeting, a friendly coffee break with a colleague — these are excellent places to practice, for instance, better listening habits, asking good questions, or increasing comfort with silence.
When I was first studying mediation and conflict resolution, I had a one-hour drive to and from class several times a week each semester. I found that tuning in to public radio gave me dozens of opportunities each drive to practice framing or reframing an issue. I’d pretend I was speaking directly to the person I was listening to, or to two representatives of each side in a political debate. Radio is excellent fodder for practicing paraphrasing, reframing, uncovering interests, and the like.
Here are some examples of other low-stakes or no-stakes moments you can use to make marginal gains that lead to big payoffs in conflict resolution skill development:
- Practice neutralizing language into more hearable messaging whenever you witness others’ squabbles. Up the ante by challenging yourself to improve your own messaging when you’re frustrated.
- Practice resisting the desire to have the last word when there’s a minor kerfuffle with your partner or spouse.
- Practice empathic listening in team meetings.
- Practice giving your full attention by talking on the phone without multitasking.
- If you’re uncomfortable with confronting, practice stating your differing opinion during lunch with friends.
- Practice starting with a small yes when meeting with a direct report for their annual performance review.
- Break the advice-giving habit when employees bring you problems you’d like them to handle on their own.
- Gain experience uncovering unstated interests during conversations with clients.
- Practice being a sportscaster instead of a referee when your children bicker in the living room.
- Practice reframing the problem your two teenagers are arguing about.
- Practice asking curiosity-driven questions at a family gathering.
- If you want to get better at listening by supporting instead of shifting, practice during your volunteer work sorting food donations, filling sandbags, or helping build a wheelchair ramp.
- Work at acknowledging a bid for connection by replying with loving kindness instead of annoyance when your parent says, “Well, it’s about time you called.”
- Ask non-leading questions over snacks with your child.
- Grow your comfort with silence by pausing ever so briefly before responding to a question during meetings. Very gradually, at future meetings, pause a little longer.
Which conflict resolution micro-skills and habits do you want to improve? What low- and no-stakes moments will you choose to practice those micro-skills and habits?