The Role of Conflict Resolution in Being Assertive


As you begin to assert yourself, you will encounter some conflict. This is another reason many find it hard to be assertive. Most people dislike conflict and adamantly avoid it. Conflict can be stressful and difficult to cope with, particularly for those inclined toward introversion or agreeableness. However, this avoidance comes at a price: the relinquishing of your own desires to those of others.

Instead of avoiding conflict, it is important to know how to deal with it without fear and anxiety. It is a necessary part of life as we interact with people whose own wants and needs are not always in harmony with ours. Ideally, everyone would agree with us and just give us what we want without question, but reality dictates that this will not be the case very often. When possible, negotiate and compromise to avoid conflict; but when you cannot, use the tools in this article to resolve it instead.

Assessing the Situation

Before you decide how to handle any perceived conflict, if possible, take time to assess the situation. Try to look at all angles and options for resolution. If it is not apparent, see if the conflict fits into any of the defined types given in the previous section. This will help you better come up with a solution or resolution to the conflict. If the situation is volatile or very important, we often feel pressured to resolve it without considering all options. It is important to do this only if absolutely necessary. Take a breath, appraise the situation, and make a well-informed, "best for everyone" decision whenever possible.

Finding Resolution

ADR is any process used to resolve disputes without ending the relationship or leveraging violent force. Processes that can be used to resolve personal conflict include negotiation, reconciliation, mediation, and conversation.

Let us look at each of these options for professional and personal use:

Professional options to resolution:

ð Negotiation: This method requires finding a middle ground that is acceptable to both parties. It usually involves a back-and-forth process wherein each person makes an offer that is accepted or declined by the other party until resolution has been achieved.

ð Conciliation: With conciliation, you are attempting to appease and pacify the conflicting party because the first order of business is to calm the person down or remove agitation. An offer of reconciliation of some sort is also possible with conciliation.

ð Mediation: This approach often is used when the two parties in conflict cannot resolve the issues on their own without outside assistance. A neutral third party is appointed the task of looking at all sides of the situation and then offering what he, she, or they believe is a fair resolution. For mediation to work, all parties must be willing and agree to be receptive to the solution(s) provided.

ð Settlement conferences: Usually associated with more formal situations and/or legal issues, settlement conferences include all parties, outside experts, and mediators. These people come together to find a reasonable and fair resolution.

ð Arbitration: Similar to mediation, arbitration is an alternative to using the court system, judges, or juries to settle the dispute or conflict. As with formal court proceedings, each party presents its case to an arbitration committee that is charged with making a decision on the resolution of the matter.

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ð Consensus-building: This method involves many parties and is used primarily in regard to environmental issues and mostly for multiple complex issues and international affairs.

ð Community conferencing: This article of action enlists the use of mediators and a group of administrators who bring together a community of people who have been affected by harmful behavior, those who are deemed responsible for the harmful behavior, and the supporters of both groups. All involved search for a resolution to the conflict or issue at hand.

Personal options for resolution include:

ð Negotiation: Similar to professional-type negotiations, this method requires finding a middle ground that is acceptable to both parties. It usually involves a back-and-forth process wherein each person makes an offer that is accepted or declined by the other party until resolution has been achieved.

ð Reconciliation: This method involves a compromise and a reunion. One or both parties must be willing to make allowances for the sake of reinstating their reconciliation. Also called a "cease-fire," it is exactly what it sounds like: Both parties agree to lay down their arms, meaning anger, hostility, issues, etc., for the greater good of the relationship(s).

ð Mediation: Again similar to a professional mediation, personal mediation usually works by appointing a mutual friend, family member, therapist, or other professional to act as a neutral third party. Often this person will be the go-between for both sides so that resolution is achieved.

ð Conversation: This is exactly what it sounds like. Have a calm, clear, and honest talk without hostility with the other party to resolve issues in dispute.

Bottomless Pits and Bottomless Pit Relationships

Previously we discussed bottomless pits. As described briefly, these are people who, for whatever reason, cannot and/or will not agree to give you anything you need or want, no matter how often or how nicely you ask. Alternatively, they give you so little of what you want and need that your relationship with them is exhausting, unbalanced, unsatisfying, unfair, and unhappy. To be sure that is the case with the person in question, try all the forms of resolution mentioned above. If you have never or rarely asserted your wants and needs to this person, you need to do so and see what the response is. A true Bottomless Pit will rarely, if ever, give back what he or she gets from you or give you what you ask for; or, if the person does accommodate your request, it will be like pulling teeth every time you ask.

If someone is harmful to your emotional, physical, or mental well-being, it goes without saying that you should get out of the relationship immediately, even seeking legal assistance if you must. If there is no serious harm or threat, only a lack of a healthy reciprocal relationship, you should take steps to distance yourself. Some people can be very persuasive when faced with losing you and may make all sorts of promises of fulfilling your wants and needs because you are ending the relationship. However, if they continue to remain unchanged and those promises are never fulfilled, stay out of that relationship.

This is often frightening for many people because they worry that they will never find a new friend, romantic partner, etc. However, if you have the courage to get out of something that is not fulfilling for you and begin being assertive with every new relationship you begin, you will be able to form healthier, stronger, more enjoyable people to share your life with. Take the time in between to get to know yourself better, and use this article to discover what you really want and need. In this way, you can seek those things from each new person that comes into your life thereafter. If the person in question is someone you cannot completely break away from, or cannot not do so immediately, you should take all steps required to keep contact to a minimum. Limit physical proximity, telephone contact, and interaction with that person.

Appropriate Workplace Assertiveness

Aside from our family and personal life, the place we spend the most time is at work. This section is devoted to healthy, positive assertiveness in the workplace.

Whether you encounter situations that require you to be assertive on a daily, monthly, or occasional basis, this section will help you deal with handling work-related situations properly. Unlike our personal lives, it is important to be able to clearly ask for what you want and need and express what you do not want and need in a calm, professional manner. Work is not the place for emotionally charged, negative communication. It is important, particularly at work, that we remain as composed as possible when we communicate. That is not to say you never will become emotional in a work environment.

People can and do get angry, frustrated, disappointed, excited, or elated at work, sometimes to the point of crying. However, showing extreme negative emotion on a regular basis will not help you get what you want and need from superiors or even colleagues. Frequent aggressive, hostile outbursts may intimidate people into giving you what you want temporarily or shock them into silence. Likewise, weepy drama may grant you a sympathy win, but in the long run you will not be viewed as a valuable, level-headed employee if you use and abuse these tactics. You may even lose your chance of promotion or your job. Making enemies or having superiors view you as the emotional one will not help you achieve much in the end. A good idea is to find one or two co-workers with whom you can form friendships. Not only will this make work more enjoyable, but you also will be able to vent any negative emotions to them rather than to superiors. Likewise, you can be a listening ear for them when work gets difficult.

Appropriate and Inappropriate Communication in the Workplace

Not everything is written in stone. The points offered below are simply guidelines for how to communicate in most workplace situations. However, if your work environment is more casual, then you should follow the culture that already has been established. For instance, you may work in a highly emotionally charged field, and demonstrative outbursts may be more frequent and acceptable. You may work for friends or family, and so the communications are more typical of those that happen in personal situations. Use common sense. No matter where you work, though, being negatively explosive frequently with your superiors or colleagues will not be appreciated.

Appropriate communication with superiors, co-workers, and colleagues includes the following:

  • clear, direct communication and knowing what you want and need going in;
  • being firm and having conviction;
  • honest, straightforward requests;
  • presentation of facts, with evidence if possible;
  • professional discussions and exchanges;
  • polite communication;
  • appropriate humor;
  • positive speech;
  • discussions concerning co-workers, superiors, etc., as they relate to the job.

Here are some communication tendencies to avoid when speaking with superiors, co-workers, and colleagues:

  • mumbling;
  • yelling;
  • threatening;
  • disrespectful or surly speech or behavior;
  • lewd comments or jokes;
  • racial jokes or comments;
  • sexist jokes or comments;
  • sexually harassing comments;
  • private or personal information, unless it directly involves an issue relating to work, such as needing time off, etc.
  • gossip about superiors or co-workers.

Appropriate communication with co-workers and colleagues who are friends may include the following:

  • complaints about job issues and issues with superiors;
  • clarification about job issues and instructions from superiors;
  • discussions about the job;
  • sharing personal information, such as weekend plans, relationship discussions, discussions about family, children, home life, etc.;
  • discussing very personal information when the friendship is a close one.

Below are communication tendencies to avoid when speaking to co-workers and colleagues who are friends:

  • yelling;
  • threatening;
  • disrespectful or surly speech or behavior;
  • lewd comments or jokes;
  • racial jokes or comments;
  • derogatory comments;
  • sexist jokes or comments;
  • sexually harassing comments;
  • nasty, negative, or potentially harmful gossip about co-workers, superiors, etc.

Constructive Criticism on the Job

Most people have at least a little difficulty dealing with criticism, with good reason. The very word criticism suggests disapproval and negativity. Some common responses to criticism include anxiety, difficulty breathing, crying, anger, frustration, shock, lowered self-esteem, depression, confusion, disregard, or belligerence. Many companies have dropped the phrase "constructive criticism" from their corporate vernacular in favor of the term "feedback" because this is more in line with what a superior is trying to convey.

However, not all companies or bosses acknowledge the difference between the two or see the benefit of providing accurate advice aimed at improving performance rather than pointing out flaws in a non-constructive manner. To help you better accept feedback from any superior, here are some tips that can be used to avoid feedback fallout and get the most out of what your boss is telling you:
  • Keep an open mind; you may learn something about yourself that you did not know.
  • Maintain an attitude that is interested in self-improvement.
  • If the feedback is ambiguous, ask for clarification.
  • If the solution is not obvious, ask for methods of improvement.
  • Write things down or ask for a copy of your performance review.
  • Ask for a timeline for improvement, such as the next review, several months, etc.
  • Thank your superior for his or her input.

Avoiding Passive Aggression at Work

Always be clear and direct about your needs and wants. If you think you are in a frame of mind that is overly emotional, stop talking. Wait until you are able to be calm, firm, and direct. If you can do so, speak up right away about a problem or issue. Do not let problems fester and grow larger. Do not stifle frustrations and minimize their impact on your ability to do your job. On the other hand, do not make every small issue a catastrophe. Realize that you should not blow small problems out of proportion.

Here is a very simple example: If a co-worker, colleague, or superior takes your pen, do not blow it out of proportion. You do not have to assert yourself over isolated, minor incidents, even if they annoy you. However, if a co-worker continually takes your pens, you need to say something, such as, "Did you know that you can get pens from the supply room?" or simply, "Please stop taking my pens."

If you are a problem-solver, you might grab a few extra pens while you are in the supply room and give them to the culprit with these words, "Here, I got these from the supply room for you. I need my pens to do my work. In the future, if you need pens, please do not take all of mine. You can get pens in the supply room." Try to be good-natured about it if possible. You also could physically show them where they can get pens if they need them and say, "If you need pens, you can get them here." If a superior continually takes your pens, get yourself some extras and put them in your drawer, or get him or her some extras and put them in his or her office.
You have become passive-aggressive if you begin hiding pens to keep a co-worker from taking them or if you start going into his or her office or cubicle and taking supplies in retaliation. This type of behavior will create a hostile confrontation eventually.
Being assertive with co-workers and superiors can be tricky. It is important to avoid blowing up minor, isolated incidents and to be direct, clear, and firm when dealing with situations in which you do need to assert yourself. Be honest. Be good-natured if you can and try humor when appropriate to keep things from being overly tense.