A Prescription for Resolving Interpersonal Conflicts
Bill Cottringer

“All conflict can be traced back to someone’s feelings getting hurt, don’t you think?” ~Liane Moriarty, Big Little Lies.

We all get stuck in messy emotional interpersonal conflicts with others from time to time. These are painful to experience and difficult to resolve. Being alone in our ship in calm waters in a safe harbor, we can usually handle our thoughts and feelings. But when we take our ships out of the safe harbor, we frequently encounter rough seas where interacting with others in troubled waters is not so safe or easy.

These interpersonal conflicts often get argumentative and end in hurt feelings that interfere with progress in relationships and even destroy them. Such conflicts are usually fueled by a combination of seven things that furiously interact to tie the conflict in a dreadful knot: Faulty assumptions, inaccurate or incomplete perceptions, unrealistic expectations, unconscious motivations, opposing values and beliefs, hidden resentments, and unproductive communication styles.

Below is a practical prescription to help resolve messy interpersonal conflicts. This is not the ultimate solution, but at least one probably worth considering when you are in a safe harbor rather than already in troubled waters.

1. Assumptions.

I agree with Henry Winkler, that assumptions are the termites that eat away at the foundation of a relationship. Sometimes, in the interest of time, we are forced to make certain assumptions, but somewhere along the line we take our assumptions for granted as being valid. And the more “sacred” they become to us, the more resistive they are to being questioned or validated by anyone, including yourself and especially others. They become encased in cement and guarded by a titanium fence—out of site and out of mind.

Think about the last interpersonal conflict you had problems resolving. It probably started with an assumption or two that turned out to be more untrue than true. If you clarified some of your assumptions as true or untrue, how did that revelation change the direction of the conflict resolution? What assumptions am I or you making about these seven inter-related causes to interpersonal conflicts? We all know to where the assumption that the world was flat led.

2. Perceptions.

In an earlier book I wrote, entitled “Reality Repair,” I proposed one important idea that may be worth considering, as it relates intimately with interpersonal conflicts. The idea is that it is not reality that needs fixing, but rather our incorrect and incomplete perceptions of it. While it may be true that perceptions are our reality, which we act on and live by, an understanding of how we form these perceptions may help us at least to begin to question the validity of them, which is the best way to correct and complete incorrect or incomplete perceptions.

Once we form a perception of another person, from the interactions with him or her and what we think we know and feel about the person, this perception is what drives our behavior. Unfortunately, it becomes virtually impervious to changing, right or wrong. The trouble is, that our perceptions may be entirely off base because of all these other six obstacles to successful interpersonal conflict resolution. There are further problems with the correctness and completeness of perceptions. These include our tendency to close any gaps of missing information with our own information, the filters we have built into our field of vision that select what comes in and doesn’t, and of course the many illusions and delusions that are abundant all around us (Do a Google search on optical illusions for some interesting experiences or just go to: https://michaelbach.de/ot/ ).

3. Expectations.

We all have certain expectations about what we should be getting out of life, where we are going, how others should be treating us, and how to be most successful in what we are trying to do (like trying to resolve an interpersonal conflict). These expectations are formed from a variety of influences including what we learn from our parents, peers, teachers, reading, coaches, employers, fellow workers and all our life experiences that lead us to hope for desired outcomes or avoid undesirable ones.

Expectations can be harmful in interpersonal relationships, especially if they are unrealistic and impose conditions the other person has no control over. One thing we usually learn early in life is that we usually get what we expect. So, the easy course correction is, if you don’t like what you get, change your expectation. Easier said than done? Yes, because maybe some of our expectations, much like our motivations, may be unconscious and not readily known. So, the question is how do you change something you don’t know about? Not to be flippant but, find out is the quick answer.

4. Motivations.

The more evolved we become into our best selves, the more conscious our motivations become and the more aware we are about what really drives us. But for right now we are safe to assume that many of our motivations are buried somewhere in our unconscious minds. Take first impressions for example. The decision as to whether you like someone or not is made within a second of when you first meet someone. The brain makes this decision on auto pilot very quickly, quicker than your conscious mind can catch up with.

In trying to resolve emotional interpersonal conflicts, it is essential for all the parties involved to not hide their dishonest motivations for saying what they are saying. Dishonest motivations are what usually start wrong assumptions which can contribute greatly to creating a defensive climate of communication, as discussed below. Always pause to know your primary purpose in what you are saying to or doing with another person and separate out any dishonest intentions that you become more aware of as you grow into your best self.

5. Values and Beliefs.

The values and beliefs we have which represent our basic truth about life and people, are highly personal and our right to choose, even if their formation is open for discussion because of serious flaws. But we have no First Amendment rights when we go to impose our personal values and beliefs onto others, especially when the other person may have a set of much different or contrary values and beliefs. We are all familiar with the dangers in discussing religion and politics. The only real conversations that do occur with these topics are with people who have compatible values and beliefs, or people who are open to hearing differing views.

Opposing values and beliefs can easily get tightly wrapped in emotions with these other obstacles to interpersonal conflict resolution, so it is almost imperative to respect the other person’s sovereign right to value and believe in what they want to. Judgment is the problem, whereas acceptance is the solution. Gaining a more accepting attitude toward different values and beliefs than you are used to can be facilitated by taking a journey down the path of your own changing value and beliefs, like the quote below at the end of the article.

6. Resentments.

We all have a reservoir of resentments from unmet expectations, wrong starting assumptions or inaccurate perceptions, and all the other things that happen during bad experiences from failed interpersonal relationships and all the other things that happen to us in our lives. Some people deal with these resentments as they occur, some let them fester until they demand to burst out all at once, and others accept these resentments as a normal part of life. In essence, people deal with all the challenges of living and relating the best way they know how.

One important thing that should be said about the resentments we all have. It might be best to learn to articulate them assertively so they don’t offend another person which they may be directed towards. In the absence of that ability, it might be best to keep the resentments to ourselves. What we know is that unresolved resentments, when spoken outload in a non-assertive manner, cannot be taken back and accumulate to form contempt, which is often a beginning of the end to any relationship. Sometimes silence is golden.

7. Communication Styles.

Now it is time to think about all the possible mistakes in miscommunication and misunderstanding that can be made in trying to resolve an interpersonal conflict by communicating about the conflict with all the contamination from all these other things that make resolution even more difficult. Using the right communication style is the only way to maneuver around these land mines without getting blown up trying. The right communication style has two parts: An assertive style works better than a passive-aggressive one, and anything you say that implies a judgment or lack of acceptance, infers superiority or inequality, or conveys a lack of empathy or too much certainty or control, surely creates a defensive climate that shuts down communication.

The emotionality of most interpersonal conflicts makes good communication quite difficult. The only solution is to try and be as rational as possible, respect all feelings as being valid, and communicate assertively with a more supportive tone—carefully conveying crucial qualities of acceptance, sensitivity, equality, tentativeness and freedom. At the same time, we must try to be very careful to not fight fire with gasoline, like judging the judger (even righteously), who may have started the hurtful judgments and other things that contribute to you becoming defensive and being hurt and then wanting to strike back.

When you are in your safe harbor of calm seas, consider trying out some of these interrelated conflict resolution strategies to make your good relationships better and for later use, when your ship ventures to the open seas with troubled waters.

“Do not think of knocking out another person's brains because he differs in opinion from you. It would be as rational to knock yourself on the head because you differ from yourself ten years ago.” ~Horace Mann.

Author's Bio: 

William Cottringer, Ph.D. is Executive Vice President of Puget Sound Security in Bellevue, WA, along with being a Sport Psychologist, Business Success Coach, Photographer and Writer living on the scenic Snoqualmie River and mountains of North Bend. He is author of several business and self-development books, including, Re-Braining for 2000 (MJR Publishing); The Prosperity Zone (Authorlink Press); You Can Have Your Cheese & Eat It Too (Executive Excellence); The Bow-Wow Secrets (Wisdom Tree); Do What Matters Most and “P” Point Management (Atlantic Book Publishers); Reality Repair, (Global Vision Press), Reality Repair Rx (Publish America); Thoughts on Happiness; Pearls of Wisdom: A Dog’s Tale (Covenant Books, Inc.) Coming soon: A Cliché a day will keep the Vet Away (Another Dog’s Tale). Bill can be reached for comments or questions at (425) 652-8067 or ckuretdoc@comcast.net.