Addressing conflict successfully

Rupinder Mahil is a psychotherapist and accredited mediator, working at the University of Derby. She specialises in helping people work with and resolve conflict.

Having a conversation about a conflict can be easier for everyone if you bear these key ideas in mind.

Techniques to communicate clearly and fairly

1. Focus on the behaviour, not the person

If you criticise a person for something, it can make it sound like a permanent failing in them.

Instead, if you focus on what a person does, bring it to their attention, describe how it affects you, or ask for it to be changed, you allow that person a chance to make constructive change without feeling criticised.

2. Use ‘I’ statements

‘I’ statements can help communicate more clearly what you feel without blaming or criticising others, and are thereby more assertive. For example:

‘I feel angry when you do that’ vs. ‘You make me angry’

‘I feel frustrated when you shout’ vs. ‘You’re always shouting’

Be aware that ‘always’ and ‘never’ are also generally heard as criticisms against the person, rather than requests to change a particular behaviour.

3. The 4-step assertion sequence

When you want to confront a particular behaviour, try the following steps:

Describe the behaviour: ‘When you…... (e.g. ‘walk away’)’

Express your response: ‘I feel or think… (‘disappointed/that we’re missing an opportunity’)’

Specify what you want ‘I would like… (‘us to stay in the room’)’

State why (the consequence): ‘So that…. (‘we can sort things out’)’

Staying calm and constructive

1. Maintain calm, as much as possible

Use the techniques you’ve identified are helpful to you prior to and during the conversation. Agree at the beginning of the conversation permission to pause the discussion if either of you need it. Set some agreements about how the conversation will take place.

2. Offer non-verbal reassurance

Consider how you are approaching the negotiation in terms of words and mannerisms to ensure what’s important is openly and fairly talked about. Allow enough time for the conversation accounting for the different pace people use to communicate.

3. Encourage talking

Don’t interrupt and do remain attentive. Give each other as complete a picture as possible.

This moves you from a position of judging and evaluating one another to seeking to empathise and understand where each of you is coming from. You may learn unexpected things about each other that can help you reach agreements you’re all comfortable with.

4. Show understanding

Show the person that you have heard what they said and recognise what they are feeling. Avoid blame, reassure the person, and focus on the possibility of improving things going forward.

Agreeing to move forward

1. Commit to working out a solution

Emphasise your willingness to address the issues and acknowledge the importance of the issues the person is raising. Draw attention to the benefits of working things out and also consider what would happen if you don’t.

2. Be realistic

Consider each suggestion to improve things and review whether this is really suitable and possible. If the other person is resisting your suggestions, ask why.

You'll get a better understanding and create new suggestions that addresses their needs a bit better. Avoid forcing others to agree to do something and avoid agreeing to something you are unwilling or unhappy to commit to.

3. Be clear

When agreeing a way forward be clear, specific and realistic to avoid any confusion. Specify who will do what. Include timescales for each action to ensure people are aware of when changes are starting. Allow yourselves time to think these over if necessary.

4. Give yourselves a trial period.

Putting your agreements into practice may reveal that some work really well and some may need adjustments or completely changing. This is perfectly normal and not a failure of the initial conversation. Agreeing when and how you can approach each other, to discuss how things are working out, can help to keep things moving forward.

If you need more support

Most universities will have support available should you need help to either prepare yourself for conversations or if you’ve attempted to resolve differences but have been unable to reach an agreement.

Talking to somebody who is not involved in the conflict, can treat each of you in a fair and equal way, keep your information confidential and can help you to resolve the situation may benefit all parties involved.

Page last reviewed: October 2022