Shifting from confrontation to conversation – reviving the art of working through conflict

As communities get more enraged, and the problems we face get more complex, we desperately need to learn how to work through conflict and work together. Online bullying, protests, clashes, and social trolling have sadly become our go-to strategy when faced with a difference of opinion. But confrontation causes a chasm of hate and fear. Instead, we must teach our children, our leaders and our communities how to shift from confrontation to conversation.

Sadly – the art of conversation, rather than confrontation, is dying. Far too often, people feel backed into a corner, feel offended or ignored, and feel the only way forward is to take a conflict position. 

For the past 20 years, I’ve worked in conflict. As a young journalist I reported on conflict. As a communications and engagement professional I’ve leaned into conflict, trying to find a way through. And as an executive coach and trainer, I’ve focused on upskilling professionals to move through conflict.

Here are the top 8 things I’ve learned that make real difference in bringing people together and overcoming conflict.

1. Shift from debate to conversation 

Create a process, a space, or a time to converse. That means stepping back and listening to the other person, or the community, or the business or government agency. Listen and listen again. Then ask good questions – questions that are designed to understand and explore rather than catch someone out.

2. Start with the 95% of commonality, rather than the 5% of difference 

Too often, opposing sides in a conflict both feel like the other side isn’t listening. They feel that the two sides, or the many sides, stand miles apart. In reality, people overestimate how different their opinions are. Instead of focusing on the 5% difference, they forget to start from the 95% of commonality. It’s a great starting point – and a reminder that you are more alike than you think.

3. Make an agreement to find a way forward 

Most people hate conflict. So making a commitment to find an agreement is a great first step. Don’t worry about what the final outcome will be, but agree that you’ll work together to find one.

4. Pinpoint the exact reason for the conflict 

This can be hard. Are you in conflict because you feel aggrieved? Or are you in conflict over a fact or logical argument? And is the nature of the conflict the same for you and the other person or community?

This takes time, so don’t rush it. Then write it, or verbalise it, and work from there. For instance, the root of the conflict might be – “how can I trust you pass on my community’s concerns to the decision maker, when last time nothing changed?” 

5. Admit that to win, you’ll both need to compromise 

Once you reach a point of conflict, it can be hard to shift position. Depending on what you’ve said, or how heated the argument, changing your stance can feel like a huge shift. But it’s a must. Consider what you’re willing to shift or change.

6. Show emotion – but be careful to make sure it doesn’t inflame matters 

Humans are emotional. Sometimes we’re in conflict because of how we feel, and not about a fact or an opinion or even a position. So it’s natural that you’ll be a bit emotional. It’s ok to be sad, or hurt, or angry. That’s a normal part of conversation. But once you shift to hurling accusations, or swearing, threatening or being aggressive is where you’ve shifted to conflict. 

7. Say sorry 

It can be really hard, but say sorry if the other person feels hurt by what you’ve said or done in the past. But please be specific.

Don’t just say sorry. Say “I’m sorry that my words caused you to feel upset,” or “I’m sorry that I didn’t express myself well enough.” Be specific, and be genuine. It goes a long way in rebuilding the trust bridge.

8. Actions speak louder than words 

Show you’re willing to shift from conflict to conversation. Simple things help like smiling, sending an invitation with a gift, meeting in a neutral space, or sending a note about something you know the other person is interested in or likes.

Sometime’s it’s really that simple.

To learn more about coping with conflict as a community practitioner, why not attend our expertly delivered 1-day training course Facilitating the Tough Stuff on Wednesday May 15?

Written by Amanda Newbery
Articulous is led by founder and managing director Amanda Newbery, an award-winning communications and engagement professional. She has made a career of tackling difficult projects across Australia. A passionate and experienced communicator, she has worked with some of the country’s largest organisations and government organisations nationally. She is a sought-after issues and crisis advisor, especially for major corporations.