When in Conflict, Talk

a photo of a lockHumans can be pretty dumb animals. My parents’ cat Amos was recently in a scuffle. My mom has spent the last few days nursing him back to health with Hydrogen Peroxide, Neosporin, and some babying (of course), while my dad contributes to his recovery by caring about it slightly.

My best guess is that Amos started the fight. He’s like that. He was probably upset another cat was hanging around his house. So, he got in a fight and that was that.

While I am not advocating aggression at all (see below), Amos is smarter than a lot of people I know. We humans can be quite slow actually. Of all animals, we have the most advanced form of communication, yet often we hold our concerns and feelings inside, preferring to let them fester. Amos got his feelings out. Granted he got his butt handed to him because of it, but he wasn’t allowing his “feelings” about this other cat to stay “locked” inside and manifest as stress and depression, slowly killing him from the inside. His anger and hatred for the neighbor’s cat didn’t last and control him for ten years either. Ahh, what we can learn from animals.

Many people have been taught to deal with conflict issues in three unhelpful ways and this plays out in our personal and work relationships.

First, some people get emotionally and physically aggressive. They yell, scream, and even get physically violent. This accomplishes little, except to make everyone involved more defensive. It may get the cops involved, or result in your colleagues hating you, and even losing your job.

Second, some people dance around issues, by being passive and waiting for somebody else to address the conflict. This often involves expecting other people to be mind readers and figure out that we are upset, bothered, angry, etc. Unfortunately, most people have too many other things to worry about than try to keep up on how every person in their life is feeling at any given moment. Thus, the issues never get resolved, and get “pushed down” and the negative emotions grow and grow until they express themselves as anxiety, depression, etc.

Third, others have gotten in the habit of being passive and indirect, but in a manipulative way. This is “passive-aggressive” behavior, which is expressed as appearing to be passive (“Oh, I’m not bothered by you!”) while being aggressive behind the scenes (thinking to self: “but I will slash your tires later, hehe”). Often, sarcasm (not the obviously humorous kind) and “jabs” are passive-aggressive in nature.

These ways are ineffective, and have led to lots of communication problems at home and at work.

What does work is very simple: calmly, firmly, and accurately addressing any concerns. This is called assertive communication. Let me briefly explain each component:

Calm – Don’t be aggressive and deliver the message in a way that is friendly. Remember you are dealing with another human being!
Firm – You stick to your point. Don’t get passive and retreat from the issue if you have a need to be heard, or an issue needs addressed. Just because you are calm doesn’t mean you don’t have a point that needs to be gotten across.
Accurate – Be honest with people. There is no need to share every feeling you have, but if something is bothering you, and you have a need to “get it out” be sure to express it accurately.

A few years ago I got a passive-aggressive email from a colleague. I knew it was a subtle (actually, it wasn’t that subtle) jab at a fellow teacher and me, for some sort of perceived exclusion on our part. We didn’t intend to exclude our colleague and were a bit taken aback by this letter. So, rather than ignoring it or firing back in kind, I simply talked to her. She was shocked I approached her about it, rather than ignoring it or writing her back (clearly she was hoping to keep it on a passive level).

I wanted to deal with it calmly then and there, and we did. Sure enough, she realized it was miscommunication (most problems are) and things were fine from that point on. She felt great and so did I. Amazingly, had I ignored it or responded aggressively or passive-aggressively, the problem could still be festering two years later!

So, when in doubt, talk!

About David Bennett

David Bennett is a teacher, author, and speaker. His articles receive over a million hits per year and have appeared in a variety of publications. He is co-owner of a communication company, and he also writes for The Popular Teen and other sites. Follow him on LinkedIn or Twitter.