Ignore Or Engage? 5 Strategies To Manage Conflict In Your Life
When you imagine a past or potential conflict, what emotions rise to the surface?
Depending on your experiences, the mere thought of a conflict might bring up feelings of anxiety and fear, as well as physical sensations. Your palms might get clammy, your heart might start to race; and both literally and metaphorically, you may find yourself searching for the nearest exit.
As uncomfortable as conflict can be, it’s not always avoidable. Yet when you develop healthy ways to navigate conflict, you can engage in meaningful, honest conversations about the issues that matter most to you.q
Whether you’re anticipating a disagreement or simply want to feel more prepared for possible hiccups, these five strategies can help you manage conflict in your life, and even reframe it as an opportunity for growth and self-discovery.
What Is Conflict Management?
We’re talking about strategies for managing conflict, but what does this phrase mean in practice?
Depending on your approach and the issue at hand, conflict management varies widely across contexts. In general, conflict management includes a variety of processes, tools, and skills to find creative and respectful ways to manage disagreements.
Of course, there’s rarely one way to manage a conflict. Conflicts themselves come in various shades and sizes, and something that might cause conflict in someone else’s life may not matter as much to you. With this reality in mind, it’s helpful to consider how your personal history and temperament might influence your approach to conflict: before, during, and after the disagreement.
Ultimately, conflict management skills can come in handy at all stages of a dispute. The ability to hear and respond to conflicting perspectives and goals is an invaluable skill, and even an “art” you may continue to develop for the rest of your life.
How Do I Manage Conflict?
When discussing strategies for conflict management with their clients, many therapists refer to the Thomas-Kilmann model: a psychological instrument that assesses a person’s behavior in conflict situations.
The Thomas-Kilmann Model: A Brief Overview
According to the Thomas-Kilmann Model (TKM), you can describe your behavior during conflict using two basic dimensions:
Assertiveness, or the extent to which you attempt to satisfy your own concerns
Cooperativeness, or the extent to which you attempt to satisfy another person’s concerns
You may be more likely to assert your needs and concerns in certain scenarios, and more cooperative and flexible in others. According to the TKM, it all depends on your conflict management style. There are five common styles, always with room for overlap and growth:
Collaborating: A combination of assertiveness and cooperativeness – the opposite of avoiding.
Competing: Higher assertiveness, less cooperativeness.
Avoiding: Low assertiveness and cooperativeness, characterized by withdrawal from a threatening situation.
Accommodating: High cooperativeness, less assertiveness – the opposite of competing.
Compromising: Similar to collaborating, with a combination of assertiveness and cooperativeness; it results in a fast, mutually acceptable solution, but may leave some or all people partially unsatisfied.
The TKM is not the only framework to understand conflict, but it can help you understand which conflict management strategies may work best for you. As you review these strategies, remember that you can always adapt them to your needs and the demands of a specific conflict.
5 Strategies For Conflict Management
Tools like the TKM can help you reflect on your personal approach to conflict, and decide which of these five management strategies may work best for you and other people.
1. Take Time To Reflect – But Don’t Ignore.
If your default tendency is to avoid or ignore conflict, take a moment to reflect on the “why” behind your behavior. It may take some time to unravel, but perhaps you have a personal history of unproductive conflicts, or you’re worried about another person’s reaction to a disagreement.
Ignoring conflict may feel more natural to someone with an avoiding conflict style, as outlined by the TKM. In some situations, it can be healthy to postpone dealing with an issue until you have more time to gather additional information and reflect on what you’d like to say, especially if it’s not a pressing or urgent issue.
But if you continue to ignore a persistent conflict, the situation may only become worse over time. Difficult emotions and tensions tend to fester, and a minor obstacle can quickly transform into a major conflict.
2. Practice Active Listening.
In the heat of a conflict, listening isn’t just a passive state; it’s an active and mutual activity. The process of active listening opens up a healthy dialogue between you and a conflicting person or group. Instead of listening only to respond, an active listener takes time to hear the other speaker and understand their feelings, as well as the available facts.
The goal of active listening is to understand what others are saying, while expressing yourself with clarity and honesty. Some of the core elements of active listening include:
Encouraging the other person to continue talking, so you can understand their emotions and perceptions.
Asking questions to gather more information and check your own perceptions.
Restating what you’ve heard to check your interpretation.
Reflecting the other speakers’ message to show understanding of their emotions.
Summarizing the conversation and conflict to pull together the main themes, emotions, and possible solutions.
Active listening may demand more time and emotional energy, but it’s a mutually beneficial way to ensure all parties feel seen, heard, and understood as you work to resolve a conflict.
3. Seek Clarity.
In the middle of a long-winded conflict, you might ask yourself: “How did we even get here?” In these moments, it’s essential to clarify what the issue is. To find clarity while in conflict, consider taking the following steps:
Sit down with everyone involved and get their perspective. What is each person’s understanding of the conflict?
Informed by these perspectives, assemble the facts of the conflict.
Ask yourself and other people involved in the conflict:
What are its causes and complexities?
What information will you need to identify a solution?
With a combination of active listening, thoughtful questioning, and plenty of patience, it’s possible to find clarity. Over time, you may even create and inspire a “culture” of clarity in your relationships, workplace, home, and other settings where disagreements might pop up.
4. Call For A Community Meeting.
While some conflicts may involve just two people, many evolve into larger disagreements with multiple people or parties affected. After you’ve had a chance to speak to everyone individually and understand their perspectives, it’s time for a community meeting to bring all the facts, opinions, and solutions together.
Importantly, you may not be the primary facilitator of this meeting, nor the person who meets one-on-one with individuals to get their perspectives. In larger, more complicated conflicts, this “point of contact” might be someone with more authority or experience in the group: for example, the vice president of a company, or the oldest adult in the family.
Ideally, this person is someone whose conflict management style aligns with the needs of the group. Especially for a large group or conflict, a person with a collaborative or compromising style may be more likely to find a fair, mutually acceptable solution.
Regardless of who calls the meeting, this gathering can provide a neutral space to understand the entire conflict, each person’s role, and brainstorm promising solutions.
5. Get Professional Guidance From A Licensed Therapist
Some conflicts blow over in the course of a day, but others may need more time, energy, and a third-party perspective to resolve. A licensed therapist can offer their expertise, wisdom, and compassion to help you understand your conflict management style, and confront your next obstacle with confidence and self-awareness.
While you might be more familiar with in-person therapy, a growing number of people use online platforms like BetterHelp to invest in their mental health. Online therapy is often more affordable and accessible, especially if you’re balancing work, school, family obligations, and conflicts of your own. After completing a brief online questionnaire, you can match with a board-certified therapist within 48 hours, based on your mental health history and goals. All BetterHelp therapists have at least three years of professional experience and help clients navigate all kinds of conflicts: big, small, and somewhere in-between.
Online therapy can be just as effective as face-to-face therapy, based on a growing body of research. In a 2021 article review published in the World Psychiatry journal, researchers noted that internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (ICBT) can effectively treat a range of anxiety conditions, including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder, as well as depression, stress, and chronic pain. The applications of online therapy are wide-ranging, and present new ways for therapists to support clients with conflict management and other universal challenges.
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"We went into couples counseling not knowing what to expect but hoping for the best. While it took a few sessions to get acclimated to the experience we soon found that Heather made us feel at ease about the process and helped us dive into some of the things we were struggling with. Over several weeks my boyfriend and I have been invested in this process and following Heather's advice as well as reflecting on her insights. We are communicating so much better and have been able to avoid frequent, trivial arguments and spend more time connecting, listening, and working through conflicts. I highly recommend Heather to other couples who may be working through similar issues.”
It takes at least two to start an interpersonal conflict; and oftentimes, you’ll need an outside perspective to find a solution. If you’re feeling stuck, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional for extra encouragement.
Working through a conflict can be productive, clarifying, and even deepen your understanding of yourself and others. With a therapist’s expertise and your own insights, healthy solutions are well within reach.
Commonly Asked Questions About This Topic
Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about this topic.
How do you ignore someone naturally?
There is no one “natural” way to ignore someone. There’s always a chance that it could be awkward or that someone gets hurt. At times, it’s best to ask yourself if dealing with the conflict is actually worse than hurting someone’s feelings by refusing them the chance for communication.
It’s true, sometimes people are “annoying,” or you’re busy, or ignoring someone feels better than bad-mouthing them to their face. However, if you’re able to respond and give someone a message expressing your need and speaking from a place of compassion, you may find that you reduce the chance of hurt and get straight to the point.
If you do need a way to ignore someone and feel it would be wrong to talk about the situation with them, there are ways to naturally take distance. Here’s how to ignore someone kindly:
- Use the tips in the article above
- Avoid running into the friend or person at school, work, or in public
- Walk in the other direction if you see them approaching you
- Have a conversation with someone you trust about how the other person’s behavior makes you feel
- Decide on a course of action. Will you block them? Will you reach out in a few weeks? Will you catch up at school when the conflict has worn off and you’ve gone back to your normal lives?
Is it okay to ignore someone?
It’s always okay to have a personal boundary but know that you cannot control whether or not someone gets hurt. It’s okay to feel bad that you’re ignoring someone, as well. Choosing to ignore someone is not an easy decision, but it sometimes needs to be done. However, consider trying to talk through your needs before shutting someone out if you’re not in danger.
If you feel that someone just has an annoying presence or rubs you the wrong way, it’s okay to set an example for how you want to be treated by friends and acquaintances. However, it’s also not hard to talk for a few moments and let someone know that you aren’t ignoring them but need them to take a step back.
For example, here are a few things you can say to a friend that is pushing your boundaries at school and acting with behavior that you don’t like:
- “I don’t like when you act like this around me, and I need you to treat me better if you want to talk about this.”
- “I don’t like your behavior lately, and I need some time to think about what I want.”
- “I’m not ignoring you; I just need space for a while. I’m really busy with my own life right now.”
- “I’m upset that you don’t seem to value my life goals and want me to drop everything at school to hang out with you. I’m a kind person but I need some space to focus on my own life right now. Let’s talk later.”
If a person still doesn’t leave you alone after you have set a boundary, follow the other tips in this article to distance yourself from them. Remember, if a person doesn’t respect your boundaries, they’re not someone who respects you as a person.
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