Student Self-help Library

Conflict with Others

Conflict is normal

All of us have interactions with other people which do not go as well as we would like. At one level, we may simply feel misunderstood and are often able to shrug this off without much difficulty. But sometimes we can feel personally attacked and our first thought may be to lash out in anger or fear. In these circumstances, the strong feelings we experience may make it difficult to hear what someone is trying to say to us. In extreme situations, such confrontation can feel threatening to our overall well-being and functioning.

Some common situations where students find themselves at risk of conflict with others are:

  • differences with roommates over house rules
  • disagreements with parents' wishes or advice
  • miscommunications with boyfriends/ girlfriends/ partners
  • challenges from tutors, directors of studies, supervisors or department heads
  • clashes of opinion in discussions with peers or academics which get 'personal'.

We can often prevent minor conflicts from becoming serious by changing the way we communicate.

Conflict can be an opportunity, not just a threat

It is possible to look at our personal interactions in a different way so that we can turn conflict into an opportunity to achieve clearer communication and bring about change. There are two common reasons why people get into conflict:

  • they do not communicate clearly or respectfully
  • they have different needs or interests which, without some negotiating, do not easily coexist.

Here are some guidelines which may help you deal with situations which are causing trouble.

Guidelines for Good Communication

In the heat of the moment it is easy to forget some common 'rules of thumb' which aid successful communication.

Good communication is a 3-step process

  1. Send clear messages--verbal communication and body language both count. Think about what you want to say and how it may be understood.
  2. Receive--what is heard is part fact and part feeling so be clear on both levels. When you are listening, pay attention to both facts and feelings.
  3. Acknowledge--you can only be sure you have communicated what you intended when your listener gives you feedback confirming their understanding. As a listener, summarize what you have heard and ask questions to seek clarification if parts of the message seem unclear.

Respect the other person's needs as well as your own

You have valid concerns which need addressing; and so does the person with whom you are in conflict (even if these are not immediately apparent!).

Tackle the problem directly with the other person

It is much better to work directly with the other person in the conflict; going via others makes an escalation of the conflict or further misunderstandings much more likely.

Avoid involving peers or friends in 'taking sides' and, as far as possible, keep the conflict out of the public eye. While it can be useful to check others' perceptions of the situation or seek others' views of your actions or desires, if you are merely seeking confirmation for your own views, this is likely to lead to a more entrenched position.

Separate the problem from the person

Pointing out the distinction between the problem and the person and confirming your wish to treat the other person respectfully may help them do the same. Your issues are more likely to be resolved if you avoid making personal attacks which embarrass or ridicule the other person.

Speak without interrupting each other

You may set up further misunderstanding if you do not give the other person the opportunity to finish what they have to say. You also need to ensure that there is agreement about everything said so far before going on to the next point at issue.

Negotiate in good faith—dirty deals do not last!

Look for mutually satisfying agreements -- one-sided offers tend not to work. Though it is common to think there must be a winner and a loser in a conflict, this is not necessarily true. Participating in negotiations where the goal is a 'win-win' solution (i.e., both parties attaining satisfaction for their needs and interests) is both possible and helpful.

'Interests' v 'Positions'

Often in our negotiations with others, we think taking a 'hard position' or exaggerating our 'bottom line' will get us a better result. Actually, such positional bargaining frequently backfires because the other person is likely to get upset, feel unfairly treated or just decide to dig in their heels on their position.

A better approach is to think about the interests underlying our initial position on an issue. An underlying interest is usually related to a principle we hold, a moral value, a hope or expectation, or some less tangible need. If the position is what the conflict is about, the interest is the reason why we want a certain response.

For example, you might get into a conflict with your partner because he/she didn't call you until much later than he/she said they would. The conflict could become an argument concerning how late is 'acceptable' (your position might be that 'calling late is not acceptable'). Whereas the underlying interest might be that you want to be reassured of their feelings for you. In this scenario, it will be much easier to sort out what to do about phone calls once you are both reassured about your care for each other.

Four Steps to Resolving Conflict

These suggested steps incorporate the guidelines above and can help resolve conflicts:

  1. If you are in public and find yourself in a conflict, stop and ask to meet the other person in a neutral, private and safe setting at a mutually convenient time so you can speak confidentially without creating a scene and without being interrupted.

  2. Look at and listen to each other, so each person feels heard and understood, and has their views acknowledged. In this way you begin to undo the damage to your relationship the conflict has been causing. It is worth taking time to hear the other person's viewpoint--it is likely to save you time in the long run.

    Take turns listing the issues you want resolved (positions) as practical matters to be addressed. Also list your values that you would hope could be considered and needs you would like to be met. Go back and forth listening to each other until each person has fully stated their views and you both agree that you have been heard and understood.

  3. Offer options with an open mind, using your creativity to brainstorm possible ways of meeting the expressed concerns, needs and interests of both people. Remember the difference between positions and interests, and strive to satisfy both party's interests. Combine and refine the options brainstormed together, remembering that it may very well be possible to work out a win-win solution together which neither of you could have thought of on your own.

  4. Finally, conclude negotiations with agreements in good faith which are specific and satisfy everyone. This minimizes the risk of future conflict. Keep your discussions confidential unless you jointly agree to tell any others who may need to know what your resolution involves.

More Resources

  • Building a Healthy Relationship from the Start http://cmhc.utexas.edu/healthyrelationships.html
  • Assert Yourself! http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/resources/infopax.cfm?Info_ID=51
  • Assertiveness http://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/docs/Assertiveness.pdf
  • The National Network to End Domestic Violence:  http://www.nnedy.org
  • The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner, Ph.D. (Nonfiction). This bestseller is excellent for helping one to constructively deal with anger and develop assertiveness skills. Many practical examples are helpful.
  • The Dance of Intimacy by Harriet Lerner, Ph.D. (Nonfiction). This book addresses the factors that help to have a healthy emotionally intimate relationship with a significant other. Dr. Lerner's various books are very easy to read yet filled with valuable insight and practical advice.
  • The Woman Who Walked into Doors by Roddy Doyle (Fiction) A moving, horrific but sometimes very funny book about a woman trapped in an abusive relationship, and her attempts to extricate herself from it.
  • Pulling Your Own Strings by Wayne Dwyer (Nonfiction) A therapist's discussion of such issues as assertiveness, refusing to be victimized, and establishing appropriate boundaries with others.
  • The Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff (Nonfiction) A renowned essayist and novelist gives a candid, moving and often very funny account of growing up and having to deal with a stepfather who tries to dominate and stifle him in every way.