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6 steps to resolve conflict

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Yesterday a good friend of mine called me in tears. She said she had a very upsetting interaction with someone she had known for many years and didn't know what to do about it. Our conversation during those first few minutes was dominated by a flurry of emotions. Based on my experience coaching couples to resolve their financial disagreements, my master's education in clinical psychology, and my life coach experience with Robbins-Madanes Coach Training, I've distilled a few key steps that may not resolve every conflict, but will certainly help to improve communications. Here is the six-step process I followed with her:

1. Drill down. When you get upset, you become flooded with hormones and emotions. Your mind can start to resemble a bee hive of activity -- racing thoughts and a lack of clear focus. Your goal at this stage is drill down and to really try to figure out what you are actually most upset about. I know; you're probably upset over 20 different things, but your job is to keep drilling until you hit the core of what is most upsetting. Once you get past feeling angry and thinking that your boss is a jerk, you may find that there is something deeper that is really troubling you. Are you upset that your boss called you out in a meeting when he knew you didn't have the answer or that you're really upset you weren't prepared? The answer will have a profound effect on how you handle the situation.

2. Get positive. No, I'm not calling for pep talk. It's critical you do your best to determine the other person's positive intent. What's positive intent? Well, negative intent is when you attribute the other person's behavior to them wanting to hurt you and do you harm. When you are in the middle of a heated argument, negative intent comes naturally. "Why is he doing this to hurt me?" is a perfect example of assigning negative intent -- the assumption that he is trying to hurt you. It's difficult to resolve a conflict if you think the other person is hell-bent on doing you harm. Instead, play detective and try to figure out their positive intent. What positive outcome were they trying to achieve? Once you do this, understanding and empathy can begin to flow.

3. Step in their shoes. This is easier said than done -- especially when emotions are running hot -- but if you really want to resolve the disagreement or conflict, this is essential. Pretend you are the other person and answer these questions: What are your goals? Which of the six human needs are you trying to meet? What must I have been thinking and feeling in order to respond/react the way I did (remember to continue to assume positive intent!)? There is no truth, only interpretation. When you can step into the other person's shoes you can begin to see and understand their interpretation which can help you resolve the conflict.

4. Rub the "magic genie" lamp. Get clear on precisely what you need to have happen. Maybe at this point you realize it's not worth it to resolve the conflict, or alternatively, that what you really need is to rekindle the relationship. Whatever it is, figure it out. Stop focusing on what you didn't get and all the things that didn't work out and start focusing on what you need to have happen now. Notice I haven't suggested what you "want" to have happen. You may want a heartfelt apology and a dozen roses, but what really is the minimum you need in order to have the conflict resolved? Your answer will be your guide going forward.

5. Create a game plan. Now that you've taken a step back and tried to figure out their perspective and what it is you want to accomplish, now's the time to determine the best course of action to get you what you need. Should you send an email? A phone call? Call in a mediator? What can you do that will increase the chances you'll get your wish from step 4? Your game plan should focus exclusively on only those things you can control. While your wish from step 4 may be that the other person apologizes, this is not an effective game plan because you can't control this. Instead, what can you control? Scheduling a meeting? Yes. Having a civil conversation about what happened? Of course. Taking responsibility for things you would have done differently? Absolutely. Do you see what's happening here? You are controlling what you have control over to create an environment where an apology is more likely versus sitting back and waiting for an apology.

6. Execute. Now that you know what you need and what you control, go get it done.

I went through this process with my friend, and while she is still hurt and affected by what happened, she has a greater understanding of the other person's "side" and is actively doing what she has control over to get it resolved. Resolving conflict is not a simple task, but by keeping these guidelines in mind, it can be less painful and more effective.

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