4 Ways To Free Yourself From Conflict Even When You’re Horribly Stuck

This post originally appeared on Forbes.

Sometimes you just can’t resolve a conflict completely, even if it’s a righteous one. Maybe your boss refuses to cough up the resources you need for your people. Or your colleague won’t agree to shift outdated procedures, even though customer satisfaction is at stake. And you’ve gotten tired of complaining to your friends about the situation. If you’ve reached that point, it’s time to stop banging your head against the conference table and take steps to free yourself rather than trying to work through the conflict for the umpteenth time.

That’s the recommendation of Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, author of Optimal Outcomes: Free Yourself from Conflict at Work, at Home, and in Life. In a recent conversation, she explains that although society encourages us to believe that good people and good leaders will consistently resolve conflicts, that’s not always realistic, so it’s easy to become frustrated and dissatisfied and feel like a failure. But according to Goldman-Wetzler, there’s another way: “When you are at the end of your rope, you cannot take it anymore, you can’t figure out what’s wrong that’s preventing you from resolving conflict—your goal is now to shift out of trying to resolve conflict and to free yourself instead.” Here are four of the techniques she offers to help move yourself away from the pain and frustration of the conflict as it currently exists.

Acknowledge The Reality Of The Conflict

When you focus only on your desired outcome or on the other person’s flaws, you may not be able to change the conflict pattern at all. “That’s the saddest thing to me,” Goldman-Wetzler notes, “when I see how many emotional and financial resources people put up against a problem that could be taken away by someone just acknowledging the truth of the situation.” The first step in shifting the pattern of conflict is to notice it—and to identify your own go-to conflict habit. You might be more likely to blame others, blame yourself, shut down to avoid the conflict or try to collaborate relentlessly with the other party, even when they refuse to cooperate.

When your conflict habit and the other party’s conflict habit engage, this can lock the conflict into place. For Goldman-Wetzler, pausing to observe the conflict rather than participating in it creates an opportunity to “acknowledge to myself what the reality is that I’m facing and who they are with all their strengths and limitations, and also my strengths and limitations. It’s in acknowledging that reality that we can actually start to get somewhere.” She encourages leaders not to worry so much about being conflict-avoidant as about being truth-avoidant. “Avoiding looking at what the truth of a situation is can have much longer-lasting, deeper negative consequences than I think most leaders realize,” she notes.

Try To See The Other Person’s Point Of View

You can’t always determine what a given conflict means to the other person, and what they’re trying to accomplish or protect may not be fully obvious from the position they’re taking. But even if it’s not comfortable or appropriate to inquire directly, making your best guess is better than not trying to figure it out at all, says Goldman-Wetzler. She suggests asking yourself everything you know about the person and what might be motivating them. “That allows you to garner some empathy for them,” she explains, “and gaining empathy for them can give you an ability to step back from the situation and look at it from a different perspective that can almost magically allow you to see levers for change in the situation that you just weren’t aware of before.”

Plus, Goldman-Wetzler notes, by “finding a way to be more empathetic you free yourself from being locked in that pattern and cycle of conflict with them. And once you unlock yourself, well, they can keep going around on the cycle by themselves, but they’re by themselves, there’s nothing for them to lock into.” Identifying the other person’s perspective gives you more information to work with as well as a better sense of their humanity and their concerns—both of which are useful to escape the cycle of conflict.

Do Something That Shifts Your Pattern

One of the most effective ways to modify a conflict pattern is to do something unusual enough to surprise the other person. “When we surprise somebody by backing down for the first time in ages, for example, they’re likely to respond in kind,” Goldman-Wetzler explains. “The minute we surprise somebody by doing something different, they are likely to get jolted out of the way they’ve been operating as well. On the opposite end of that spectrum is an apology, so in a pattern where people have been extremely bitter and unkind to each other, someone coming in and apologizing is a great example of a surprising move.” Once the pattern is broken, you may perceive new options, either for actual resolution or for freeing yourself from the cycle.

Map Out Your Options

It can feel very unfair to have to give in or change when you’re convinced that you’re in the right. But if you have no hierarchical power or your influence is insufficient, Goldman-Wetzler recommends mapping out the options in front of you, even if you think you already know them fully. Without doing this, she says, you’re likely to overestimate the cost you might pay by walking away from the conflict altogether.

When people think the cost is much greater than it is, she explains, “We convince ourselves that we must stay in the conflict and suck it up. And then our energy gets drained and our optimism gets drained and our ability to be healthy and live life gets drained.” But if you’re honest with yourself and you carefully examine the costs and benefits of each option, including continuing the conflict and abandoning it, you may find that the actual choices provide more flexibility than you expected.

Being human means finding yourself in conflict from time to time. Freeing yourself from conflict requires more self-awareness, humility and vulnerability than you can often muster when you’re taking stands and convincing yourself that you’re right to do so. And the sooner you can escape the cycle of any conflict, the more time and mental energy you’ll have for other challenging aspects of work.

Onward and upward—
LK

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