Connection gives purpose and meaning to our lives. It’s how we’re wired.
There is a common misconception that worthwhile friendships or relationships are easy and straightforward. The truth is that all good relationships take time, open communication, compromise and forgiveness.
Developing healthy relationships has more to do with how we work through difficulties than avoiding difficulties altogether. We are all human and have our failings, as well as our strengths, as well as different opinions, preferences, expectations and ways of doing things.
For postgraduate research students, there are some key relationships that are particularly important - see this guidance from the Graduate School on how to maintain good working relationships with your supervisor, peers and cohort.
Conflict can arise in any relationship – such as personal or professional relationships – and in all sorts of different contexts – such as in a club, hall, house, society, or class. Often difficulties can stem from how a conflict is handled rather than the conflict itself. The vast majority of conflicts can be resolved through open, humble communication, and conflict can be even a positive catalyst for change.
How to handle conflict
1. Try not to avoid the conflict
Often you will need to be able to interact with the other person, even if you don’t naturally ‘get on’ with each other. It is important to try to resolve the conflict quickly and calmly – avoiding a conflict can make things worse.
2. Pursue and create opportunity for open communication
- Choose a good time to talk.
- Choose just one issue to talk about – if the conflict involves several issues, break them up into separate issues.
- Find a place where you won’t be disturbed.
- Decide who is going to talk first.
- Allow others to talk without interruption.
- Summarise what they have said. If your summary is correct then you can respond. Otherwise, allow them more time to explain.
3. Get to the root of the conflict
It is important to take the time to understand each other and to identify what the conflict is really about. Many conflicts can be based on misunderstandings so it is crucial to listen carefully to what is being said.
- Try not to speak out of anger, instead think before you speak and don’t shout. It is good to try to resolve conflicts as soon as possible, but if you need time to calm down, do take it and come back when you feel able to listen and speak in a composed manner.
- Use language appropriate for the context. Think about who you are talking to – do you need to express yourself in more formal language?
- Always try to meet in person, and avoid having important conversations over text or email. Much of our communication in these difficult situations is shown through body language and tone of voice.
- Use ‘I’ messages rather than ‘you’ messages:
‘You’ messages express judgement, are about the other person, attack the other person’s faults and lead to increased conflict. Example: ‘You never listen to me’.
‘I’ messages always express individual feelings, are about yourself, talk about your own emotions, do not attack others, and can help reduce the conflict situation. These messages state a problem, without blaming someone for it, so are less likely to provoke a defensive or hostile reaction. ‘I’ messages therefore make it easier to solve the problem. Examples: ‘I feel …(name your own feelings)… when you …(name the other’s behaviour)… because …(name how it affects you)’, ‘I feel hurt because no one asked me what I thought’, ‘I feel humiliated as shouting at me in front of others shows a lack of respect’.
4. Seek solutions
- Learn not to ‘win’ an argument – compromise can be the best way forward.
- Don’t be hostile or go on the defensive.
- Learn how you and the person you are dealing with are different.
- Don’t use a current argument to bring past arguments back to life.
- Learn to say sorry.
- Forgive and leave the argument behind.
- Don’t retreat into silence.
If you do not find it possible to resolve the conflict yourself, mediation may be helpful. There are lots of people who would be happy to assist, including: