The Most Effective Conflict Resolution Strategy: Awareness and Understanding

Conflict causes a lot of people a lot of pain in the workplace. Whether it stems from miscommunication, misunderstanding, or a lack of awareness of other’s needs, it can make or break a team, decreasing performance and eating away at well-being.

And as we’ve seen through hundreds of thousands of years of human conflict, typical conflict resolution approaches often fall flat.  

“Find a private space to talk. Say this. Don’t say that. Here are 10 perfect phrases for conflict resolution.” 

The problem with these surface-level strategies is they don’t address the root cause—Misunderstanding and lack of awareness. 

To truly resolve workplace conflicts, we need to start focusing on cultivating awareness and understanding. 

The Core of Conflict

Our approach to conflict resolution begins with two fundamental beliefs: greater understanding dissolves conflict, and all conflict is inner conflict.

Greater Understanding Dissolves Conflict: Conflict often arises from misunderstandings or lack of awareness about others’ perspectives, needs, and motivations. By fostering greater understanding and empathy, parties can communicate more effectively, build trust, and identify common ground, thereby resolving conflicts more constructively.

All Conflict is Inner Conflict: External conflicts often reflect internal struggles, unresolved emotions, or a misalignment of behavior with values. For example, if someone has behavioral scores that show they deeply value people and relationships, and they have to fire someone or give feedback about how they’re underperforming, they will experience inner conflict. On the other hand, if someone prioritizes performance over people, they will experience a different kind of conflict.  Recognizing and addressing these inner conflicts is essential for cultivating empathy and resilience, leading to less external conflict.

By cultivating awareness and understanding of self and others, leaders and teams can resolve conflicts at the root, leading to more sustainable solutions and healthier workplace relationships.  

Sounds easy enough, right? Not quite.  

The Role of Anxiety and Stress    

Understanding why we behave in certain ways can be challenging. There are a couple of significant hurdles we often face: anxiety and stress. These two familiar friends can significantly impact our ability to empathize and understand others’ perspectives. 

In fact, research suggests that anxiety and stress diminish our capacity to understand others’ motivations and actions. Additionally, neuroscience reveals that anxiety and stress trigger our flight or fight response. This then prevents the production of oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding and empathy. This physiological response further complicates our ability to connect with others and navigate conflicts effectively. When we are stressed or anxious, we tend to retreat inward, focusing on our own perspectives and emotions rather than being open and empathetic towards others. This inward focus can hinder our ability to communicate effectively, making conflict resolution close to impossible. 

A More Effective Conflict Resolution Strategy

Recognizing the impact of anxiety, stress, and inner conflict on our interactions is crucial for developing strategies to manage these emotions and foster greater understanding and empathy in the workplace. Attempting to address conflicts while under the influence of these powerful internal blocks is likely not going to result in a resolution and may instead fuel the fire. Thus, it becomes critical to heighten our awareness as a first step.  

By heightening our awareness, we create space for increased openness, which lays the groundwork for more effective conflict resolution. This proactive approach enables us to navigate conflicts more effectively and develops stronger, more collaborative relationships with our colleagues. By becoming aware and addressing our own internal struggles, we enhance our ability to respond to challenges with clarity, calm, and care. 

Here are a few steps to follow when you are in conflict: 

Step 1: Awareness

Tune into what you’re feeling. Ask yourself: What am I feeling? What do I believe to be true about this issue that may have caused me to act/feel this way?”

Tool to Tune in:

  • Body Scan
    • Body Scan is an effective practice that can help you return to and maintain a relaxed state when you become tense as a result of conflict.
    • A Body Scan can help you become more aware of your body, including the physical sensations and feelings that are caused by stress. By building this awareness, you’ll be better able to respond to conflict with clarity, calm and care instead of reacting when your mind and body is tense.
  • How to do a Body Scan
    • In this video, Rick walks you through a body scan practice to bring awareness to feelings in the mind and body. 

Step 2: Regulation

Recognize that any difficult feelings of anger, frustration, or sadness are temporary and don’t define you. You can have your belief/value and feel neutral. 

  • Vagus Nerve Breathing 
    • The vagus nerve is vital to the parasympathetic nervous system, overseeing functions like mood, immune response, digestion, and heart rate. It plays a significant role in anxiety by transmitting calmness, nervousness, anger, or relaxation signals and triggers the fight or flight response.
    • Deep breathing enhances heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of variation in heartbeats. A paper by Paul M. Lehrer and Richard Gevirtz explored how HRV biofeedback, including diaphragmatic breathing, benefits the vagal tone by promoting relaxation in the nervous system.
  • How to do Vagus Nerve Breathing
    • Step 1: Find a comfortable, upright seated or standing posture.
    • Step 2: Inhale slowly through your nose for 4 counts.
    • Step 3: Exhale gently through your mouth for 8 counts.
    • Step 4: Repeat for 3 minutes, focusing on slow, deep breaths.
    • Feel free to adjust the timing, 2:4, 3:6 etc, finding what feels good. The essential thing is that the exhale time should be at least double the inhale time. For something so simple, it’s amazing how effective this practice can be. See a guided video of Vagus Nerve Breathing here.

Step 3: Openness

In a place of neutrality, I can begin to ask “what am I missing in the other person’s perspective?” “what have I not shared?”

Using the E3 Behavioral Assessment to Enhance Awareness & Understanding

In addition to the steps outlined above, The E3 Behavioral Assessment is another powerful tool that enhances awareness and understanding. Using The Line Chart and Coaching Report, you can gain data-driven insights of why you may be behaving in certain ways, further heightening self-awareness and providing you with additional tools to self-regulate in challenging moments. 

Once you have heightened self-awareness, you can then use The Conflict Report to help you identify behavioral areas where you may have conflict with another person. The report also provides powerful insights of how a person might best communicate or receive communication, allowing you to have more informed, effective discussions. 

Cultivating a Culture of Awareness

In conclusion, instead of searching for the perfect thing to say, navigating workplace conflict requires leaders to first prioritize awareness and understanding of self and others. By acknowledging and addressing inner conflicts while implementing practical tools for resolution, leaders can cultivate a culture of awareness, trust, and mutual respect in the workplace. Through these efforts, conflicts can be transformed into opportunities for growth and connection.

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