"I want to thank you for all your efforts. We didn't achieve the outcome we were hoping for, but it was not through any lack of effort or empathy on your part."
This is the kind of thing I sometimes hear from visitors to my office, and as the Ombudsman I believe we can learn some interesting things about conflict from this perspective. Often we think about the content of a conflict: I want a better grade, or access to more financial aid, or a better working relationship with with my advisor. Sometimes we get some or all of what we want, and sometimes we do not.
Equally important, I believe, is how a conflict situation is handled. The way we treat someone with whom we are in conflict can have positive impact on the situation, even if others don't get all that they want. This is especially true on a college campus where maintaining healthy relationships is an
important part of conflict resolution.
I am continually reminded of some critical, related aspects of communication that can make a world of difference as we work through conflict situations:
Listening is paramount, and truly listening to understand the other's perspective. Too often "listening" means that we are inwardly formulating our response, or seeking chinks in the other's perspective. Using skills such as asking open-ended questions, and even the language of "Help me understand...." can help the other person truly feel understood.
Validating the experiences of others before we move to next steps. When we first speak with someone about a difficult situation, our natural inclination may be to help the person think of it in other, more positive ways, to help the person see that things will get better, or perhaps to talk about specific ways to resolve the situation. These are important aspects of conflict resolution, but often the first thing a person wants is to be sure we understand that their experience is real to them, and valid. A person experiencing a difficult conflict may feel stuck unless and until they feel like their perspective has been validated.
Expressing empathy. Related to validation is the notion of empathy, of conveying that you understand what someone else has experienced because you can try to put yourself in their shoes and see it from their perspective. Again, sometimes using the overt language of empathy can be helpful: "I can put myself in your shoes and appreciate how this email from your professor made you feel like she does not respect your work." Using empathy can help open the door for understanding a conflict from multiple perspectives.
Keep in mind that using all of these skills — being empathetic, listening to understand, and validating others' experiences — still does not imply that we must agree with the other's perspective. We can engage in this approach and still convey another perspective that is equally valid. But using these good communication skills, I believe, generally increases the likelihood of successful conflict resolution and can ensure that parties have some satisfaction with the process even if they do not get all that they want.
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