How to Avoid Escalating Conflict

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Sometimes conversations we have that start as a discussion end up as an argument.  Often this happens unintentionally by either party.  I have noticed that arguments are more likely to occur when people use the wrong language about the topic at hand.

We can divide the topic of most any conversation as being about things that are objective (facts) or things that are subjective (opinions).  An objective statement might be something like:  “Today is Tuesday.”   There is no reason to argue if you happen to believe it is Wednesday because, if the topic is about a fact, we should be able to go look it up somewhere.  “I think you’re mistaken.  Today is Wednesday.  Let’s go look at the calendar.”

An example of a subjective statement or an opinion is “Today is a nice day.”  There is one problem with this sentence.  Notice how it sounds a lot like “Today is Tuesday.”  When I voice an opinion I should try and be careful to avoid voicing it as though it is a fact.  If I fail to do so the statement will tend to beg for an argument.  If the conversation starts to take the form of “Yes it is….No, it’s not….Yes, it is….No, it’s not” then it is likely that someone in the conversation has made this error.

This problem can be avoided by adding a parenthetical comment to the statement.  “Today is a nice day, (to me).” “Today is a nice day, (in my opinion).”  “(It seems to me that) today is really nice” etc.   By adding the modifier that makes it clear you are speaking subjectively, it is much harder to argue with the statement.  If someone says, “no, it’s not” you can reply “well, it is to me, I just have a different view that you do.”  Different views do not make for an argument.  If I try to control the other person’s view then we have an argument instead of discussion.  If I state my views as though they were facts, than I will often treat others as they are “wrong”when they express a different view.  Remember, right or wrong applies to facts, not opinions.

Once I get the idea that the topic is often subjective, I can try to understand the other person’s view in more detail.  Often someone will have a different view because they are emphasizing a different part of the problem.  Sometimes it helps to say:  “That’s an interesting view.  Can you help me understand how you came to that view?”   You then are in a position to better understand what assumptions the person is working under or what parts of the problem they are emphasizing.  Often you may find that if you started with those assumptions or emphasized that aspect you might have the same view as the other person.

It is very hard to argue if you firmly realize the topic is subjective and you have no interest in trying to control the other person’s view.

An underlying dynamic I’ve noticed that tends to fuel conflict is an effort of both parties to try and “win” the conversation.  The dialogue becomes a point-counterpoint series in an effort to debate the merits.  The trouble with this strategy when the topic at hand is subjective is that we never really “win” the conversation and even if we do, we “lose” by generating ill-will.

It is hard for a conversation to escalate if one is not trying to “win” the conversation.  Instead of “my need vs your need” or “my view vs your view” think of blending needs or views together.  Harmony is when we blend these forces together instead of having one side overpower the other.  If I am able to blend my view with the other person’s view we both wind up having a more complete picture of the topic at hand.  If I can blend my needs together with the other person’s we both walk away from the conversation being happier.