The 7 Deadly Sins of Conflict Resolution

As I watch and participate in conflict conversations and conflict resolution efforts, I notice patterns of behavior that consistently produce bad results. In a recent conversation with one of my coaching clients, we started to discuss these patterns of behavior. We jokingly began to call them “The 7 Deadly Sins of Conflict Resolution.”

The conversation stimulated my thinking about what NOT to do in conflict resolution.

Sometimes, knowing what NOT to do can be as helpful as knowing what TO do. So, I thought I would share the results of my conversation with you today.

Here you go…

The 7 Deadly Sins of Conflict Resolution:

1.  Continuing to talk about the past.

Other than looking at past behaviors to understand how you got into the current situation, forget about it. Talking about what has already happened just stirs up negative emotions and drives conflict escalation rather than resolution.

2.  Trying to “fix” emotions.

Emotions are simply the result of how we interpret and respond to the world around us.

We can control our behaviors.

We generally cannot control our emotions. We certainly cannot control other people’s emotions.

When we try to fix emotions, we sink ourselves in a conversation about things we cannot control. So, we get stuck in a negative conversation spiral that tends to make conflicts worse rather than better.

3.  Rushing the conflict conversation.

If a workplace conflict has grown to the point that it calls for a focused and intentional resolution conversation, it has become a business problem. And, this business problem is probably costing you more than you first realize when you consider the salaries of the involved employees, the value of work that is not being done, the cost of poor decision quality, the impact of poor information flow, etc.

Unresolved conflict gets expensive very quickly.

Since most people are conflict averse, they want to have a quick conversation to get the conflict resolved. They do not want to be involved in an emotionally charged discussion for very long. So they schedule 30 minutes to an hour for the discussion, and they send all parties back to work after the discussion in an elevated emotional state that makes them less able to do their jobs and make good decisions.

This is a bad plan.

While the specific time line for a conflict resolution conversation depends on many factors, most conflict conversations reach their peak of emotional energy at about 45 minutes to an hour. Most resolutions come after the peak emotional involvement. They rarely happen before or during the height of emotion.

If you want to resolve a conflict, make sure that you set aside enough time to get through the emotion and on to the plan.

4.  Continuing to blame others.

We all have our moments when we want to blame others for our behaviors. Sadly, focusing on blame only serves to make the conflict worse.

Blame shifts the responsibility for our behaviors from ourselves to other people. For example, “I yelled at you because you yelled at me.”  While it feels a bit like self-defense, it actually triggers conflict escalation.

Very seldom will anyone respond positively to you if you blame them. (It could happen. It’s just not very likely.)

5.  Trying to justify our behaviors.

Justification is blame’s evil twin. They often go hand in hand.

Blame is a form of justification and justification often leads to blame.

Justifying our behaviors might seem like “explaining our behaviors” to us, but it sounds like “making excuses” to others.

6.  Refusing to apologize or giving a conditional apology.

I often hear people say something like: “I would apologize if…

  • “They would apologize”
  • “They would stop doing _____.”
  • “They would do _____.”

Since I rarely see any conflict where one party is totally at fault and the other party is totally right, I find it hard to believe that we cannot find something to apologize for in the interest of resolving the conflict.

Why make the apology conditional? Why wait for them to do something so that you can apologize for your contribution?

Don’t take ownership of what they did, and don’t apologize for anything that was out of your control.

Do apologize for anything that you did to contribute to the conflict.

7.  Refusing to forgive past behaviors.

Like apology, forgiveness is often offered in a way that is contingent on the other party’s behaviors. For example…

  • “I’ll forgive them when they apologize.”
  • “I’ll forgive them when they stop doing _____.”
  • “I’ll forgive them if they will do _____.”

Forgiveness might be the offer that helps to deescalate the conflict. It certainly is the catalyst for helping you get your emotions back in line. And, it doesn’t work to resolve conflict when it is offered conditionally.

Neither you nor the other person can go back and “undo” a past behavior. When you forgive it, you move out of the past and into resolution for both of you.

Forgiveness is more about changing your own anger and letting go of the negative thoughts in your head than it is about bestowing a gift upon the other person. So, just forgive. Don’t wait for them to ask.

Some additional thoughts on forgiving:

  • Be careful how you offer forgiveness. If you come across as patronizing, it will probably back-fire on you.
  • Notice that I did not say forget. You can forgive someone for their past behaviors and have little faith or trust that they will behave honorably in the future. Forgiving and forgetting are not the same thing.

Watch your behaviors for signs of these “7 deadly sins.” If you see them creeping into your conflict conversations, take actions to get them out of your conflict repertoire and find a more suitable behavior.

Photo by debaird.

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