A Practical Guide to Conflict Resolution: Attitude

[As described in the introduction, this post lays the foundation for how to think about and approach conflict, and the attitudes we can take to do that more effectively.]

The tools of conflict resolution bear a striking resemblance to the tools of conflict. In practice, this means that one of the most important parts of successful conflict resolution is your attitude—otherwise, you’re liable to misuse the tools you have available. A good attitude will naturally guide you to the right decisions, smooth out minor miscommunications, and build trust. It’s the foundation on which all the other parts of this sequence are built. But what does “a good attitude” actually look like? While people have many different attitudes toward different parts of their life, there are four specific ones which I think are important for conflict resolution.

The first attitude has to do with what you’re aiming for. Human beings have an unfortunate tendency to try and “win” arguments in a purely social sense (e.g. via ad hominem attacks), but victory of that kind is typically not the goal you’re interested in if you’re reading this essay. Sometimes, the goal we seek is truly as simple as “resolving the conflict”, though usually it’s not. More often, “success” really means uncovering the truth, or finding a solution where everyone gets what they want, or clearing up some underlying miscommunication. Know what it is you’re really aiming for, and set your attitude accordingly. Aim for success, not for victory.

The second attitude is far simpler since it already has name: humility. Accept that sometimes you just don’t have all the information. Accept that sometimes you makes mistakes. Accept that sometimes you honestly just change your mind (or have it changed by someone else). Our ego doesn’t like admitting to these things, but they do happen, and digging in your heels to protect your ego is the fastest way to unnecessarily prolong a conflict.

The third attitude is an attitude toward others. Just like we have an unfortunate tendency to try and “win” arguments, we also have an unfortunate tendency to view other people in a conflict as “enemies”. Instead, it is far better to respect and trust your conversational partners, and always assume they are operating in good faith. That one is so important I’m just going to repeat it: assume good faith.

People often object that this is a naive or dangerous assumption, and in some settings it certainly can be. Past experience with a particular person certainly trumps any possible generalized advice. But I would argue that true bad faith is far, far rarer than most people realize. I see numerous conflicts every year which could have been trivially resolved if everyone involved had assumed good faith instead of jumping to “you’re a terrible person”.

Finally, on a somewhat different tack from the others, I want to talk a bit about emotions. There is often an attitude (especially among programmers and other more analytically-inclined folks) that emotions are somehow irrelevant to a debate and should be ignored. I’m certainly guilty of this myself sometimes. But most of the time in practice I find this to be both false, and quite unhelpful in dealing with conflict. This is probably worth an entire post to itself, but I’ll keep it brief: your emotions carry real, valuable information about what you believe and what you value. You shouldn’t let them rule you, and quite often they’re incorrect or haven’t caught up to the moment yet, but they are still both important and useful. Pay them their due.

This post covered four key attitudes which I find helpful and which are fundamental to how I deal with conflict resolution. In future posts we will tackle Communication, Comprehension, and Resolution with these attitudes in mind. I hope they’re as useful to you as they are to me:

  1. Aim for success, not victory.

  2. Be humble.

  3. Assume good faith.

  4. Pay attention to your emotions (but don’t let them rule you).

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