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Being direct is the best direction in conflict resolution

Editorial opinion by Emily Feek

Conflict probably isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time. Interpersonal stress isn’t fun, so it’s no surprise many of us tend to take the route of avoidance. 

Avoiding potential conflict is easy, especially when dealing with small inconveniences. You know the kind of irritations — your roommate doesn’t do their dishes, they have friends over without asking or they ate the rest of your pizza rolls (again). 

These are all small things, and no matter how frustrating they are, it probably isn’t worth starting a fight over. 

The longer these small things fester, the more they build up. Unresolved issues only breed frustration and full-on conflict escalation. When dealing with roommates, there are plenty of opportunities for small issues to lead to conflict.

Our best option when it comes to any kind of potential conflict, big or small, is to engage. In order to do that, we have to first understand ourselves and our conflict partners. 

A 1984 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which gathered responses from college students, found that its sample group maintained consistent conflict resolution styles across a series of scenarios. Between work conflict, international conflict and interpersonal conflict, students generally responded consistently to each scenario. 

The study was conducted in a lab, not a real-world environment, so it’s difficult to say whether test subjects would respond the same in actuality. It does reveal that conflict is not exempt from our behavioral patterns. Some are naturally avoidant and some might go guns blazing into every conflict. 

Understanding how you prefer to handle conflict will help navigate these concerns. When we know what we want and understand how to leverage our communication styles, we can end up with a win-win scenario instead of unproductive conflict. 

Some of this has to do with the way we perceive and frame things. Gini Graham Scott’s book, “Disagreements, Disputes, and All-Out War,” proposes that potential conflict should be viewed as a problem to be solved. 

By approaching potential conflict as something that can be managed and resolved favorably before escalating to conflict, we can more productively work through our interpersonal problems more productively. 

Easier said than done. Conflict management is a skill we develop throughout our lives, but it can feel especially difficult in college. For some, roommate conflict may be our first experience working through major conflict — or at least working through concerns that can’t be avoided. After all, it’s harder when your issues live with you. 

While there isn’t one best practice for managing conflict, Scott focuses on the emotional-rational-intuitive model of conflict management. The basic idea behind the model is you take the time to understand and work through the emotional elements of a conflict, then use reason, intuition and the appropriate problem-solving strategies to resolve the conflict, according to Scott. 

The E-R-I model requires us to engage directly with potential conflict in order to resolve it. That might be a new skill for some, especially when they have a habit of avoiding conflict in order to preserve relationships. 

Self-expression in conflict has the potential to complicate matters, and many of us may avoid that expression (and conflict entirely) because we fear negative consequences. We don’t want to hurt others or make matters worse, both of which are real possibilities when it comes to expressing negative or even positive emotion in conflict. 

The E-R-I model helps us navigate that emotion in a healthy, productive way. By spending time understanding and managing our own emotions and the emotions of others, we can fully engage in the problem-solving process. 

Suppressing our emotions and self-expression in conflict management only serves to hinder a favorable outcome, according to a 2018 study on expressive suppression by Rebecca Thomson, et al. published in the Journal of Family Psychology. Expressive suppression, or attempts to hide emotion, is linked to less successful conflict resolution. 

It stands, then, that being honest and direct with our thoughts and emotions is necessary to work through conflict productively. Maybe it isn’t an easy process, but it’s a skill we have to develop and refine over time. 

Sometimes we need time to think, defuse our emotions and cool down before managing conflict. That’s reasonable, Scott says. Taking a step back might be our best option from time to time, but we need to be intentional, not avoidant.

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