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Turn Conflict into a Breeze Instead of a Storm

By Dr. Alan R. Zimmerman

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know what all the books say, that conflict is an opportunity to identify problems and to improve relationships.

While that is true, I still hate conflict ... even though I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the topic of constructive conflict resolution.

The basic fact is ... you're going to have conflict in every relationship you have or ever going to have. After all, people have different wants and needs, and communication at its best breaks down quite frequently.

Dennis Scarrow gave an example of that. He talked about the hardware store where he worked. One day the manager was writing out a bill when he turned to Dennis and asked, "Hey, what are these nuts worth?" A new clerk looked up and said, "I thought we were getting seven dollars an hour."

Tara Cappadonna gave another example. Before she took off on her business trip to Tulsa, she called the hotel where she would be staying to see if they had a gym. The hotel operator responded with an obvious note of irritation in her voice when she said, "We have over 300 guests at this facility. Does this 'Gym' have a last name?"

So the question is not whether or not you like conflict. The question is ... can you deal with conflict appropriately and effectively. Here are a few tips I recommend from my program on Cooperation and Conflict: Working Together Instead Of Coming Apart

1. Never assume that anybody knows anything.

Some people are afraid to admit they don't know or don't understand something. They're afraid of being ridiculed. Or as I've often observed, many people would rather remain stupid than appear stupid.

Other people need more time to process information before they "get it." If you're a fast-moving, fast-talking individual with a short fuse, people won't feel comfortable asking for your help. So, if the job's not getting done right, the problem could be your inability to communicate clearly and consistently, rather than their inability to do the job properly.

2. Provide lots of information.

In other words, communicate, communicate, and communicate some more. And even though your team mates might say they hate all those meetings, memos, and e-mails, they hate it even more not knowing what is happening. You've got to keep them fully informed. It prevents a lot of conflicts as well as resolving other conflicts.

A part of the information you need to be sharing is SPECIFIC BEHAVIOR feedback. If you tell a person he needs to have "a better attitude", he might leave the meeting with the best of intentions, but his definition of "a better attitude" may not match yours. You've got to describe the behavior you want to see ... behavior that communicates "a better attitude" ... such as smiling at customers when they walk in the door and sharing a cheerful greeting.

You'll know specific behavior feedback is needed when someone says, "You don't __________" and you know you do. Reply with a simple, "I would like to do ________. What aren't you seeing that you would like to see?"

Without clear communication, two things happen: 1) the right people get discouraged and quit, and 2) the wrong people become empowered to create chaos. What you don't want to happen in your workplace is what one employee described as: "I feel like I'm part of a mushroom farm; left completely in the dark and fed manure from time to time."

3. Listen and then listen some more.

As one very wise individual put it, when you're in deep water, the best thing to do is shut your mouth. Take time to listen and to explore the other person's "story," even though you may be tempted to talk, explain, and defend your position. Just shut up and listen.

Unfortunately, in our time-crunched business lives, most of us are so busy, it's very difficult to take the time to provide lots of information (point 2 above) and then listen fully to the other person's reaction (point 3 here). Everything seems to be crunched into very short time frames.

It's like the cartoon I saw in "Business Week" magazine. The TV interviewer turned to a political consultant and said, "Political campaigns seem so simplistic and superficial. In the 20 seconds we have left, could you tell us why?"

Take time and make time to listen.

4. Find a professional way to process your anger.

Many times, conflict involves more than a difference of opinion as to what is needed or how things should be done. It often involves some emotional anger. And that anger can make conflict resolution very difficult if it's not handled well by the parties involved.

To get through the anger, everybody needs to ask him/herself this question: "What am I expecting but not getting?" In most cases we get angry when our expectations are not being met. Fair enough. But when we look deeper into our expectations, we may discover they aren't reasonable. And even if they are reasonable, we can often find a more effective way of dealing with the issue than just getting mad about it.

I think Rubel Shelly, the preacher, educator and author, has some good advice for all of us. He says, "If criticism is mistaken or mean-spirited, rise above it. Maintain the high ground when you're under fire. No victory is worth winning at the expense of picking up the mud that has been slung at you and throwing it back."

5. Avoid putdowns.

When you're angry, you can probably think of a lot of things you'd like to say but know you shouldn't. Follow your gut instinct. Don't say them. If you ever say some things you wish you hadn't, they're almost impossible to take back or forget ... and the damage can last a long time.

The problem is ... we've been fed a steady diet of "cute" and "clever" putdowns in almost every sitcom for the last 20 years. For example, in just the last few days, I heard such putdowns as:

Putdowns are destructive ... pure and simple. Avoid them no matter how juicy they might appear.

6. Paraphrase.

Ask clarifying questions. Rephrase what the other person said to make sure you heard it the way he/she intended it. It not only defuses some of the anger, but it also eliminates the possibility of more conflicts popping up due to a simple lack of understanding.

And yes, I know, paraphrasing sounds rather old fashioned and mechanical. But it's still necessary because the same words mean different things to different people. For example, some people define listening as quietly taking in everything another person is saying, while other people define listening as asking questions and sharing their own experiences.

When a person is stating his side of the conflict, look for the key points he is making. And then feed them back to the person by saying something like, "It sounds like you're saying our customers are upset because our return policy is too restrictive" or "What I'm hearing is that you're really upset about the fact you're getting a different set of priorities every other week. Is that right?"

When a person feels truly heard and understood, his/her anger tends to dissipate. You've created some clarity that makes problem solving much more likely to happen.

In short, conflicts are inevitable. But most of them are resolvable ... if you use techniques such as these.


Practice paraphrasing the next time you're in a conflict. Before you automatically respond to the other person's comment, paraphrase what you heard. And if the other person confirms your understanding, then and only then should you make your reply.

As a best-selling author and Hall of Fame professional speaker, Dr. Alan Zimmerman has taught more than one million people in 48 states and 22 countries how to keep a positive attitude on and off the job. In his book, PIVOT: How One Turn In Attitude Can Lead To Success, Dr. Zimmerman outlines the exact steps you must take to get the results you want in any situation. Go to Alan's site
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