How to Engage in Healthy Conflict

Disagreement, confrontation, discussion, and reconciliation.

What is Conflict?

Conflict is when two or more people are in disagreement with one another. Whether it’s how someone is handling a project at work or a friend that unintentionally offends them, they aren’t on the same page.

When people disagree, there are two reactions they can have:

  • Ignore it

  • Address it

How people handle the disagreement determines whether or not the conflict can be healthy. If the disagreement is small, then ignoring the conflict could work. But if resentment lingers and builds Emotional Debt, it’s time for confrontation. Below are the four stages of healthy conflict and how you can navigate them.

What is Healthy Conflict?

The four stages of having healthy conflict are:

  1. Disagreement - When two people are in conflict

  2. Confrontation - When the conflict is communicated

  3. Discussion - When the conflict is discussed from both perspectives

  4. Reconciliation - When a compromise is made

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Disagreement

In this first stage, it’s important to acknowledge and clarify the issue. Take some time to figure out what specifically is bugging you. It’s difficult to resolve conflict when you don’t know what the issue is. Be specific.

Confrontation

This stage occurs when you approach and communicate the problem to the other person. The manner in which you confront someone is important. I’ve often found that confrontation works best when emotional levels are low. It’s also helpful to use “me” instead of “you” language.

For example:

“I was hurt when you said this.”

vs.

“You hurt me when you said this.”

Using “me” language frames the conversation in a way that isn’t looking to blame but instead focuses on expressing how an event affected you. This helps not to put the other person in a defensive position.

Also, be specific. This helps the other person understand what specific behavior offended you. Once you are both on the same page, you can figure out what the next steps are. In this way, specificity helps the conversation be productive because it’s easier to establish goals.

Here’s an example:

I feel like you don’t care about me.

vs.

I felt like you weren’t paying attention when I told you about my day during dinner. It made me feel like you didn’t care about me.

Discussion

After you confront the person, it’s time to talk it out. The purpose of this stage isn’t to assign blame. It isn’t even to get an apology. The purpose of this stage is to hear each other out.

Here are some tips to help make the discussion productive:

  • Listen - Give the other person a chance to talk. It can help prevent assumptions and any misunderstandings that may have occurred. It also helps you both get on the same page.

  • Speak - Make sure your voice is heard. Take time to clearly communicate your feelings and your perspective of the situation.

  • Be calm - Try to stay in control of your emotions and don’t act impulsively. This will help prevent the discussion from going out of control.

Reconciliation

The keys to this final stage are establishing realistic goals, compromise, and letting go.

Goals

By now, you’ve discussed the event(s) that triggered the conflict and both sides of the story. You’ve also been specific in the confrontation stage. Use that as a starting point to establish goals and to figure out what needs to change. Sometimes the goal can be as simple as an apology. Other times, it may require something more specific. Whatever it is, decide on it together.

For example, let’s say your partner never does the dishes. In the confrontation stage, you express to your partner that you are annoyed by this. However in the discussion stage you realize it’s not about the dishes, it’s about feeling unappreciated. You and your partner then brainstorm specific ways that would help you feel more recognized such as verbal affirmations and committing to do the dishes three times a week.

Compromise

It is important for both parties to be open to meeting somewhere in the middle. Sometimes you may compromise a lot. Other times nothing at all. But always make sure you won’t resent what you decide afterwards. Having and communicating your non-negotiables in the discussion phase can help.

Observing whether someone is willing to compromise can also reveal a lot about the other person. If your partner never compromises, then that could be a sign they may not be the best partner. If they are hesitant, you may be touching on a deeper issue (such as a non-negotiable) that may require a deeper discussion.

Letting Go

Once you reach a compromise and establish goals, it’s time to forgive and let go. Harboring resent will only build more Emotional Debt. Treat the end of the reconciliation stage as a new start and don’t hold onto bitterness or anger.

More Helpful Tips

Here are some other helpful tips when attempting to engage in healthy conflict:

  • Set realistic expectations. Make sure the goals you set and the expected outcome of the situation is reasonable. If it isn’t, you are simply setting the relationship up for failure.

  • Understand that people have limitations. There are things they can and can’t do. Don’t set goals that you know the other person can’t achieve.

  • Be willing to walk away. If what you need doesn’t match what they can give, it may be time to either put some distance or end the relationship.

  • Not all conflict ends well. Despite the best of intentions, conflict may not always end in a healthy and reasonable way. Don’t let this discourage you. Instead, use it as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Discussion Questions

  • Did you have a recent conflict? How did it go?

  • Apply the framework above. What could you have done differently?

  • What were some of the non-negotiables you had?

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