The Counselling Centre

Conflict Resolution

Conflict resolution is a skill or set of skills absolutely essential for navigating life, yet very few of us experience healthy, effective skills modeled within our own families.

The very first step in resolving conflict is good communication. If you are having a problem with someone over a particular issue, or if you are experiencing a bewildering feeling of tension between you and another person, the first step in fixing it is to get information about what's going on. This requires you to ask for this information in a respectful, non-antagonistic way, to be a good active listener, and to state your own needs in a clear non-threatening manner.

Positions versus Interests

When people have conflicting needs or issues they feel the most important thing is to state their position - i.e., where they stand on the issue. They want you to see their point of view and agree with them or to give in. "Positions" can get us into big trouble because they "hijack" the chance for resolving the conflict. Positions back us into a corner! We have no way out. We cannot change our mind or be open to new information or compromise. "Positions" are major blocks to conflict resolution. They signal the "my way or the highway" mentality which seriously constrains the chance for talking things through successfully.

In contrast, the most helpful "liberator" in conflicts is shared interests. The more we have in common in our needs and interests, the greater the chance that we can reach a mutually rewarding resolution. Very often people want the same thing but may be using different language to describe it so it sounds more "different" than it really is. The more you can talk about the situation and look for similarities- shared interests and values- the closer you can come to a mutually agreeable solution. Aim for a win-win outcome.

Conflict Resolution Scenario

Let's look at an imagined example of a conflict between two people and see how they resolved it in a constructive manner that satisfied both their needs.

Pam and Jill are university students in Halifax who had been friends in high school. Pam got a one-bedroom apartment in the south end of the city near the university and near her part-time job but found expenses pretty steep to handle alone. She learned that friend Jill was looking for a place and suggested they share the apartment. The location was ideal for Jill so she accepted. They agreed the one bedroom was too small to share and, each wanting her own "space", decided that Jill would partition the living room with a curtain to make herself a "room".

Things seemed fine for the first few weeks. It was fun to talk about how things were going in classes and to sometimes share a meal or watch a video together. But after a while Jill began to find that Pam's timetable and lifestyle were very different from hers and that Pam's was taking its toll on Jill's well-being.

Pam's class schedule required her to get up early in the morning to get to school on time. Pam's showering, hair-drying and breakfast-making noises disrupted Jill's sleep. Pam was taking two courses and working whereas Jill was taking five courses and had a heavier workload of reading, writing and studying. Pam also came in late at night from her witnessing job and would make a snack and turn on the TV (in the living room) in order to "wind down" a bit before going to bed. Even with the sound down low, the noise woke Jill up and she would lie behind her curtain fuming. She realized it was Pam's home too but felt her own needs were being violated. Jill began thinking she would have to move out but she didn't say anything to Pam. Pam noticed that Jill seemed curt with her now and they didn't chat like they used to. The atmosphere in the apartment was tense when they were both at home.

The last straw for Jill was when she had been studying late for an important Economics exam that made up 30% of her grade. Exhausted, she finally called it a night and went to bed. Pam arrived home at 2am with two friends. Their whispering and giggling, along with the TV and kitchen noises on the other side of the curtain prevented Jill from falling asleep and, even when the friends left and Pam went to her room, Jill could not sleep and lay in bed angry, and anxious about the exam the next morning. The next day she was foggy-headed and did not do well on the exam. Jill was angry at Pam's insensitivity to her needs and resolved to tell Pam she intended to move out.

Pam was surprised because she had not had any forewarning from Jill. Jill spoke angrily but Pam stayed calm and asked Jill for clarification about what exactly it was that was not working for Jill in their apartment-sharing. Pam asked for information. Jill described how Pam's early morning and late night hours disturb Jill's sleep, making her irritable and less able to concentrate on her schoolwork. Jill resented paying for half the rent when she did not feel she was getting her needs met or her share of privacy. She wanted a refund. Pam listened respectfully and did not dispute Jill's concerns. Jill was also disappointed in their friendship which she felt had gone sour and she started to cry at this point and was too upset to speak. Pam suggested they take a "time out" and continue the discussion when she returned from her afternoon class. Pam suggested taking a break in the discussion and made a commitment to resume it.

When they got back together later, Pam began by apologizing to Jill, especially for jeopardizing Jill's chances on the Economics exam. Pam apologized. Pam began to talk about the benefits/interests they both had in sharing the apartment. The location close to the university was ideal. The shared rent was affordable.

It would be difficult for either of them to find alternate roommates now the school year was in progress. She valued their long-time friendship. She felt they both believed that "home" should be a comfortable place to be, free of tension, and they both wanted to do well in their studies. Pam discussed their shared interests and values.

Jill felt relief now that Pam was acknowledging Jill's needs and concerns and also valued their friendship. "It feels so much better when we talk," she said. "I hate the tension between us." Jill acknowledged the progress they were making. She was more open to discussing how they could share the apartment in a way that they could both get what they need. Jill was able to get past calling Pam "inconsiderate" to being able to isolate the issue as "Your timetable - i.e. early mornings and late nights - is disrupting my sleep". Jill focused on the issue instead of a personal attack.

When they talked it through, Pam and Jill came up with the idea that they would swap "bedrooms". They found a creative alternative. Pam was willing to give up her private room. Since she was the early riser and late to bed, she could use the "curtain" room in the living room without disturbing Jill. Pam was willing to compromise. Jill felt she could let go of her previously held position of "I have to leave!" and of wanting a refund. Jill was willing to compromise.

Jill now felt much happier. She felt Pam had really "heard" and respected her concerns. She had evidence that Pam valued her friendship enough to be willing to talk through a problem and make a compromise. Jill felt better about sharing the rent equally now she felt it was more her "home" too. Both she and Pam were more comfortable with each other now that the tension between them was resolved. Both had had a positive experience in resolving a conflict and had more trust that they could work through future differences should they arise. "I'm glad we talked that through," said Jill. "Yeah," said Pam, "Talking always helps."

They gave each other feedback on what worked well for them in resolving their conflict.

You may or may not be able to relate to this particular scenario but you should be able to recognize elements that are common to many conflicts:

  • Each party had made assumptions about what was "normal" or expected.
  • Each had strong feelings and opinions about the situation.
  • Each had certain requirements they wanted to be met.
  • Each had benefits to be gained from a positive resolution.

Conflict Resolution Strategies That Work

Get information
Listen well, express your own needs. Stay focussed on the issue. Avoid personal attack.

Find shared interests/values
Look at what you have in common rather than at differences.

Avoid taking "positions".
Positions become barriers to finding solutions.

Be "big enough" to apologize.
Simply say "I'm sorry."

Take a break from the discussion.
Take time out to re-think the situation or cool down, but return to it later.

Explore creative solutions.
Broaden your mind set; think outside the "box".

Acknowledge progress.
You may still be far from a resolution, but acknowledge what you are doing to get closer to it. It's easy to get discouraged, so look at what is going well.

Be open to compromise.
What are you willing to give up solving this problem?

Give feedback on the process.
Talk about what worked well in your effort to resolve the conflict, and what wasn't helpful.

Remember, even in the most solid of relationships, conflicts will arise as long as individuals have different needs, perceptions and assumptions. If we have learned conflict means tension, raised voices, cold silences or abusive behaviours, we will want to avoid it at all costs. But sometimes the "cost" is too high and unnecessary. Resolving conflict does not have to be nasty and hurtful. If you practice these conflict resolution skills in small, low-key situations, you will gain positive experience and feel more confident about coping with differences that arise. Don't start off with something HUGE and emotion-charged. Start small. Keep focussed. Stay calm.

Counselling Services offers individual and couples counselling to help with these issues. For more information, call Counselling Services at 902-420-5615 or drop by our office on the 4th floor of the Student Centre.

Local Resources

Saint Mary's University

Conflict Resolution Advisor

Bridget Brownlow
Student Centre 416