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How to Resolve Conflict in the Real World

Two hands pulling a rope on a green background.

The following is an excerpt from Solve Employee Problems Before They Start: Resolving Conflict in the Real World, published by SHRM in 2019.

The real problem with so many "Conflict Resolution Models" is that they are just too complicated. When humans are placed under high levels of stress, they forget things. As a result, no one is going to remember the "7 Steps of Conflict Resolution" in the middle of a highly emotional conflict.

Conflict resolution systems that are too complicated will simply never become part of the culture. Whether you are trying to implement a system for five or 50,000 people, what your organization needs is a simple formula that everyone can easily remember and activate no matter how much stress they're under. Otherwise, why bother? 

Emotional Intelligence + EPR = Verbal Jeet

So, what is "Verbal Jeet"?  The term derives from Bruce Lee's martial arts style called Jeet Kune Do, which roughly translates into "The way of the intercepting fist."

Mr. Lee believed traditional kung fu had too many extraneous moves and reasoned that whenever you found yourself in a conflict, you need only the basics. Any additional "moves" would not only be a waste of time, they could leave you defenseless. Verbal Jeet is resolving conflict with minimal moves and maximum effect.

Verbal Jeet is so effective because it is so simple. It's an easy-to-remember two-step process that empowers you to effectively respond to conflict in any situation.

First, muster the best of your Emotional Intelligence to remain calm. Then proceed by using your EPR skills: Empathic Listening, Parroting, and Rewards.

Verbal Jeet is just like playing baseball. In baseball, you have to get to first base before you can ever hope to score.  In Verbal Jeet, first base is "Emotional Intelligence." This means whenever you find yourself in a highly emotional conflict, you need to take at least five seconds to let your logical brain, or your frontal lobes, catch up with your emotional brain, or your amygdala. 

Our emotions can kick into gear and commandeer our body in 17,000ths of a second, which is at least twice as fast as our logical brain. So, taking a few seconds to let your frontal lobes catch up is critical. 

Since we modern humans are essentially emotional animals with brains much like our ancient ancestors, our first reaction in highly emotional conflicts is a rush into "fight or flight" mode. That means the impulse of some people is to attack the other person.

For most people who want to avoid a conflict, they would rather retreat than constructively engage, not unlike like good ole Aunt Bee from The Andy Griffith Show. Everyone thinks she is so sweet, but whenever she's really ticked off, does she go directly to the person and address the conflict? No, Aunt Bee gamely smiles her way through the moment then later sits at the kitchen table with her friend Clara and stabs the other person in the back with gossip.

Good ole Aunt Bee is the worst kind of communicator – a classic "passive aggressive."

Unfortunately, that's what most of us do: instead of addressing the issue head-on, we end up destroying the relationship by thinking (and feeling) one way but acting as if we thought and felt another way.

In other words, we humans have failed terribly in addressing and resolving conflict because we, to be blunt, are hard-wired to get divorced and fired. Our natural reaction to conflict – fight or flight – kills the trust in all our relationships. And that means we will make sure everyone knows it is not "safe" to disagree with us. This effectively destroys any hope of building a team in which everyone is working towards the same goal. 

Not unlike real baseball, the most important part of Verbal Jeet, and often the most challenging, is getting to first base which is to be an emotionally intelligent person who does not attack and does not retreat. However, once you are on base and controlling your own emotions, resolving the conflict itself is easy.

Once you dampen the rising ire, you are ready to resolve any conflict with EPR.

Using EPR to Resolve Conflict EVERYTIME

Empathetic listening. In most situations, you start to resolve a conflict with Empathic Listening. This means you sit down, relax, bring up the issue with the other person, then listen attentively. The key to resolving a conflict is in listening, not talking. You would start the conversation by saying something like, "What happened last night really bothers me. So, I'd like to hear where you are coming from to make sure we can work this out." And then you quietly listen from the other person's perspective– not yours. 

That is the difference between Active Listening and Empathic Listening. Empathic Listening includes all of the skills used in Active Listening but takes it one step further: you must listen from the other person's perspective. If you are a 60-year-old white man who was raised in Columbus, Ohio, trying to resolve a conflict with a 25-year-old black woman who was raised in Chicago, both parties are best served when each understands an issue from the perspective of the other person.

Parroting. Parroting everything back to the other person ensures that you are in fact seeing the other person's point of view.  Parroting keeps your Empathic Listening honest.  Parroting is simple. Once that person has told you his side, you Parrot everything back to him to his satisfaction. You don't move on in the conversation until the other person agrees that you understand their perspective. You would say something like, "Let me make sure I got this. You are saying this, this and that?  Do I understand?" This ensures a shared understanding between the parties. 

Reward. "Reward" is not agreement. You may disagree with this person, but you're also going to protect his or her self-esteem. Remember, our emotional system can commandeer our bodies in 17,000ths of a second. So, to protect the other person's self-esteem—and avoid inflaming the conflict—you might say something like, "I see where you are coming from, but I disagree" or "I understand what you are telling me, but what about this?"

Yes, other people really do have a right to their own opinion, even if it disagrees with yours. That's OK, as long as you "reward" the opinion by acknowledging it.

Author and speaker Scott Warrick has been an employment and labor attorney and HR professional for almost four decades. His clients range from small and large organizations to governmental institutions. He travels the country presenting seminars on such topics as Employment Law, Resolving Conflict, Diversity, and Leadership. His new book, Solve Employee Problems Before They Start: Resolving Conflict in the Real World, was published by SHRM in 2019.


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