Strengthening your conflict resolution chops isn’t about learning a new skill and then trying to use it in your most difficult conversations. Just as you wouldn’t start running and try a marathon the following week, acquiring more successful conflict resolution habits is about a slow, steady build. Start with 30-second chunks.
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 and ankle.
“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. It’s that it wasn’t smart to treat my wayward peroneal tendon that way. I needed to cut it some slack and be a little patient. My mother always said I had all the patience in the world for others and then none left over for myself. I had to change that.
Strengthening your conflict resolution chops is exactly like that. Master your reaction for 30 seconds and increase from there. Practice a skill for one minute or five and build your capacity over time.
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 30 seconds at a time and you’ll be one of the few who actually achieves the goal.
- Does confrontation make you quake in your boots? Then don’t have a confrontation. Ask a single question to get the conversation started and stop worrying about the rest of the confrontation for now.
- You’ll resolve conflict better if you can learn something new about the other person’s perspective. Learning takes curiosity. Here’s how to practice staying curious in conflict, even when you don’t feel like it.
- Feeling overwhelmed in the middle of a difficult conversation? Use this quick mini-meditation to calm yourself without them even knowing.
- Stop trying to convince by telling and teach yourself how to persuade by asking the right questions. Don’t worry about doing it for 20 minutes; two will do to start.