How to deal with conflict like a grown up

Tell me if this sounds familiar: someone you know does or says something that really bothers you (maybe it’s a coworker who talks down to you at work, or a friend who always brings their significant other to what you thought was going to be the two of you), and instead of talking about the issue directly with the other person, you talk about it with everybody on the planet except that person—and then get more and more frustrated when their behavior doesn’t change.

If this sounds familiar, then you’re probably the way I was for the majority of my 20s—terrified of interpersonal conflict and completely unsure how to broach interpersonal issues like a grown up. Conflict sucks, right? No wonder we mostly try to avoid it. Then, one day, when I was complaining about the behavior of a coworker yet again to an older and wiser friend, she finally just said, “Well nothing’s going to change by talking to me about it. Don’t complain unless you’ve actually tried to fix it.” It was so simple, and yet so true (even if it’s not exactly what I wanted to hear). The person I had a problem with wasn’t a mindreader—they were likely completely unaware what they were doing was even bothering me, and if I didn’t figure out a way to discuss it with them honestly, nothing would ever get better.

I made a decision to strive to be honest when I have a fixable problem with another person, and I’ve found that the vast majority of the time, people respond well to a candid, courteous conversation and try their best to work with you on the issue at hand. So that being said, here are a few things I’ve learned over the years about the best way to approach interpersonal issues, even if you’re the kind of person who totally dreads it:

Address an issue early on

Letting an interpersonal conflict go on for too long will not only stress you out for longer than it needs to, but it can potentially damage a relationship that would otherwise have been healthy and positive if only the issue had been resolved sooner. Not only that, but the more annoyed you allow yourself to get, the more likely you are to get passive aggressive, or even lose your temper and end up broaching the issue in a way that you didn’t intend.

Don’t bring up the subject when you’re upset or angry

This is super important. Broaching a subject when you’re angry will likely just put the other person on the defensive and will make it very difficult for them to actually be receptive to what you’re trying to say. You also want to be sure that you’re communicating what you mean respectfully—especially if you’re saying something that could be interpreted as a criticism (for example, a roommate who talks on the phone at maximum volume when you’re trying to sleep, or a friend who is perpetually late for everything, even when it’s important). Think about how you’re going to say what’s on your mind ahead of time, and imagine how you would like it said to you if the situation was reversed.

Do it privately

Wait to discuss the issue when you know you and the other person will have some alone time and won’t be constantly interrupted. It will not only show them that you want to have a meaningful discussion, but it will ensure that you have the time and space to really get to the bottom of the issue at hand. Plus, no one wants to be called out on something in front of other people, and doing so might get the discussion off on the wrong foot right away.

Keep it friendly

Again, people are rarely receptive if they are on the defense, and will often argue for the sake of arguing if they feel another person is coming at them with aggression (at the end of the day we’re all just human). If you really want someone to hear what you’re saying, try your best to keep it friendly and conversational. There’s that phrase “10 percent of conflict is due to difference of opinion, 90 percent is the tone of voice you use,” and I have found this to be so incredibly true in both my personal and professional life. I have seen so many interactions that could have potentially been positive end on a negative note, and it all had to do with the way a subject was broached and the tone of the person initiating the conversation.

Thank that person for hearing you out

This sounds kind of cheesy, but after someone hears you out and seems receptive to what you had to say, don’t be shy about thanking them. Maybe send them a quick e-mail with a link to something you know they’ll find funny, or an article about something you’ve both been talking about. It might not seem like a big deal, but a quick inside joke or friendly message goes a long way in reestablishing a sense of normalcy and easing any potential lingering tension.

So hopefully these tips will be helpful to those of you trying to work up the courage to deal with conflict. Sometimes it can be really hard to swallow your pride or annoyance and keep it friendly, but if your purpose is to truly have a dialogue and be heard, and not just get in a fight or “give them a piece of your mind,” then I promise this will help.  And it’s a true step towards being a grown up—no matter what your age.


How to make up with someone you love after a fight
How to handle conflict (for those of us who would rather avoid it)

[Image courtesy FOX]