Defusing Verbal Conflict

What do you do in a conflict when someone says something unfair or unkind? Do you get aggressive? Defensive? Do you remain silent because you don’t know what to say? Do you speak up but later wish you hadn’t? Do you think of the perfect response later on?

It’s natural to take offense if someone yells at you or blames you for something. You may think “This isn’t fair!” or “What a jerk!” But giving the other a piece of your mind establishes an adversarial atmosphere and usually escalates emotions negatively.

Defusing, disarming or deflecting conflict—or unkind behavior—is about learning a more effective way of communicating. The goal is to think before you speak, so you won’t automatically lash back when verbally attacked. Try these non-combative skills, taken from the book, Tongue Fu! by Sam Horn (St. Martin’s Press, 1996).

  • Ask yourself “How would I feel?” “How would I feel if this was happening to me?” “How would I feel if I were in such a position?” These questions help you to experience the other person’s perspective. Take the time to find out what’s causing someone else’s unpleasant behavior, as the man in the following example did:

My mother has been in a rest home for the last three years. I use to dread driving out to see her every Saturday because all she ever did was complain. She complained about her roommate. She complained that no one ever came to see her. She complained about her aches and pains.

Then I asked myself, how would I feel if I were in bed 18 hours a day? How would I feel if days went by and none of my children had an hour to come and visit me? How would I feel if every morning I hurt, and I couldn’t see a day when I didn’t hurt? When I took the time to consider my what mom’s days were like, I realized it’s the least I can do to spend a couple of hours with her and be more supportive.

If you don’t like the way people are treating you, or don’t like what someone says to you, you have a choice. You can react, or you can take a second to see things from their perspective, and therefore give yourself, and the situation, peace of mind. Empathy is one of the best indicators of maturity.

  • Ask yourself “Why is she/he being difficult?” Why would he/she say something like that? What’s going on in his/her world that compels him/her to act like that? The questions “How would I feel?” and “Why is she/he behaving this way?” can help you respond with sensitivity rather than sarcasm. These phrases will keep you from getting in a bad mood and becoming involved in a no-win conflict. By choosing to respond person a conflict or a difficult person with empathy rather than irritation, you can often transform hostility into harmony, and avoid anger.

“If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow.” Chinese Proverb

“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you can help them become what they are capable of being.” Goethe

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