Keep your observation objective, remain curious and manage your connection during conflict situations with difficult and controlling people. These 3 skills are the foundations for confidence in highly challenging relationships.

Step Back & Observe

Everyone has their own preferred story and default role in a conflict situation and it can be a very useful way to observe the situation, as it unfolds. In complex conflicts, it can be hard to accurately read the dynamic.

So take a balcony view. Step back and take a moment to watch and see if any particular ‘stories’ are being played out. Just like a movie script, or novel, in many conflicts there are often 3 roles played interchangeably by all parties:

  • a champion/perfectionist who is confronted, or attacked over their essential issues
  • a target/victim who must defend, or retreat and is misunderstood and defensive
  • a fixer/rescuer who rushes, is over-responsible and over-doing, or hopes like hell someone else will be

Look out for these indicators:

  • is an aggressive style a cover for protecting vulnerability, or a controlling tactic?
  • does a withdrawn, passive and complaining position unreasonably push the responsibilities onto others?
  • who’s bad mood puts others on guard, increase defensiveness and distracts discussion from the main issues?
  • watch out for who’s predicting failure and dismissing opportunities to resolve matters;
  • who rushes too quickly to fix an apparent urgent complaint, which means underlying issues don’t get identified and the tensions continue;

If this dynamic is the case, its likely everyone will compete to be in the victim role, in a bid to gain the most sympathy. The chances are conflicts will escalate quickly. Bad manners and escalating behaviours are predictable outcomes.

Stay curious

Remember to keep your curiosity available to you during conflict situations, so you can look at the conflict dynamic from multiple perspectives. You are not aiming for being ‘right’ about the dynamic, but curious and flexible.

The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, our expectations, what we think other people think and what we think they should do, set up our conflict biases. With these comes the risks of being co-opted into the above drama.

Controlling people tend to lack insight into their motivation for their own behaviours and struggle to reflect on how they may impact other people. They often lack understanding that other people would be offended by unreasonable behaviours, because they see only one perspective, one story. In fact, they may become highly agitated, aggressive, or simply dis-engage when asked to consider impacts of their actions, or another person’s needs.

  • from an observer view, work to develop possible ‘hunches’ about the dynamics. You are looking for evidence to develop reasonable predictions;
  • you may need to review initial assumptions when evidence disproves these ‘hunches’. Its’ often most interesting when we realise we were a little wrong in our theories – there’s something new to learn!
  • if you like, continue the movie theme as you watch the dynamics;
  • which actor would you cast for each character in this conflict/drama? (a little humour and a little perspective can give you great insights – and reduce your stress);
  • more significantly, who would play you? (this will give you clues about your preferred role/conflict bias in your ‘story’).
  • look out for the ‘role’ you may have been cast in by another person. Don’t get caught up in someone’s else’s ‘story’ of this conflict;

Your aim is to describe issues with curiosity about each other person’s position, and maintain some flexibility about your own. Can you describe this conflict from more than one perspective without blame of fault-finding?

Stay Respectful

Decide your level of connection and investment you are prepared to offer the relationship or situation. There are many behaviours that indicate we are severing connection from the other person and these are likely to escalate conflict, unless managed thoughtfully and well.

Maintain respect and empathy during conflict by demonstrating commitment to repair aspects of the relationship, or lead negotiations to workable outcomes. Listen to demonstrate understanding within your defined limits. You don’t have to agree with the unreasonable or stay silent.

  • watch for patterns of behaviours that seems to catch you by surprise, or consistently ‘trip’ you up and result in your reactive response. These reactions are normal, immediate stress-based, responses to persistent difficult and aggressive behaviours;
  • manage your stress levels so that you don’t get too involved in the drama, invested in the solutions, or lose your respect- based boundaries. Avoid feeling obliged to overcompensate and help calm things down. Being too directive will increase the battle and too passive invites more demands;
  • make your wellbeing your priority. Don’t take on another’s anxiety, or urgency. Invest in your personal stress management;
  • keep an arm’s length connection. Or draw a figurative line. Make this clear. Be repetitive and persistent if this is challenged;
  • you may be frustrated by ongoing emotional reactivity and circular thinking. It’s easy to feel ‘emotionally hooked’ and want to withhold any positive responses. Resist this;
  • don’t mirror the behaviours you object to, or resort to tit-for-tat strategies to demonstrate a point.
  • to maintain balanced boundaries, keep your involvement no more than under a 40% investment to solutions, or engagement. You will want to move to a much smaller investment in highly volatile situations;

For more information contact Elizabeth Williamson Solutions on +61 400 219 120