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The #1 Way to Resolve Conflict at Home? Prevent It

Posted April 8, 2020 • Conflict Mastery,Emotional Intelligence,Leadership • by Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, Ph.D.


As we experience collective loss and uncertainty, it’s best not to make things worse by adding family and work conflict on top of it. But we’re only human, and conflict is inevitable. How can we deal with it, especially now?

Toward the end of his life, one of my mentors, Dr. Morton Deutsch, who is widely considered the father of conflict resolution, often told me, “Prevention is the best medicine.”

Should it surprise us that a man who dedicated his life to teaching people how to resolve conflict was fond of saying that it is easier to prevent conflict than to resolve it?

I don’t think so. From his experience studying the toughest conflicts around the globe, Mort knew how hard it is to resolve conflict. He knew that, by comparison, preventing it is much easier.

While Mort may have been referring to international and civil wars, if he were still with us today, I suspect he would tell us the same applies even—or perhaps especially—to our lives under quarantine.

Whether you’re already in the heat of conflict with your co-founder, colleagues or family, or you’d like to put things in place now to prevent future conflicts, the following five practices are designed to help.

I’ve listed the practices beginning with the mundane and ending with the more spiritual. The whole spectrum is important.

Some of these practices are not necessarily easy to do, but if you find the strength to do them, I promise they will prevent a significant amount of conflict during what is already a tough time.

1. Create Physical Boundaries 

As routines begin to settle in, take some time to create a dedicated workspace for each member of your family. While people may want to move around to provide variety throughout the day, it can be helpful for each person to know which space is primarily for them.

People who need quiet space to write or make calls may get first priority on spaces where doors can be closed. But even spaces without doors can be set apart creatively, either by moving one person’s work materials into that space or using other signals to let others know to whom that space belongs. You can create “Do not disturb” signs to let people know when you need quiet time, using pictures so even small children can understand.

2. Negotiate With Yourself First

Before you negotiate with others about time, goals, projects and tasks, as my colleague Erica Ariel Fox suggests in her book, Winning from Within, negotiate with yourself first. Ask yourself which relationships, goals, and projects (both home- and work-related) are your highest priorities, given everything going on. Then ask yourself how much time per day you need and want to commit to those relationships, and to the projects and tasks that will help move you toward your goals.

Once you’re clear with yourself, share your priorities and needs with your family, and then with your manager, and colleagues. Ask what their needs are, make any requests for their help, and suggest ways you can accommodate one another. Ask if they have suggestions or concerns about the goals, projects and tasks you’ve prioritized, and about the time you’ve allotted to complete them. Then integrate their ideas into your plan as best you can.

The key is to ensure that you have direct conversations with others so they know what they can (and can’t) count on you for, and you know what to expect from them. Also, you will very likely need to be flexible, given the world we’re living in today. Remember that you can renegotiate your agreements on a moment-to-moment, daily or weekly basis as needed.

3. Observe the Hierarchy of Communication

In a recent Facebook Live, Rabbi Mira Rivera recently suggested a modern hierarchy of communication: a text, Slack chat or email is better than no communication at all; a phone call is better than a text or email; and a video chat is better than a phone call.

To prevent conflict, I suggest using each tool in a way that is appropriate for the conversation you intend to have. Just checking in on someone? A text is fine. Have a quick bit of information to relay? Email or Slack will work. Need to discuss a more complex topic? Make a phone call. These days, as Laura Vanderkam noted in a recent episode of her podcast, Before Breakfast, it may be easier to pick up the phone and call without scheduling in advance. Need to discuss a thorny topic? Ask for a video call. Let the person know what you’d like to talk about. Be as clear as you can about the topic while keeping your request brief.

4. Identify Your Emotions

Grief expert David Kessler has suggested that, during this epidemic, if you’re not sure what you’re feeling, it may be grief. It may also be sadness, anger, irritation, loneliness, frustration, or even appreciation or gratitude for the small things in life. Sometimes just identifying what we are feeling can help an emotion settle and allow another emotion to take its place. Other times, knowing what we’re feeling allows us to constructively express it with someone else. It gives us the capacity to say, “I feel sad. Do you have a few minutes to talk?” or “I feel angry right now. I need your help with the kids so I can go somewhere else and calm down.”

5. Take Care of Your Body, Mind & Spirit

When you’re depleted and dealing with your own grief, anger or fear, you are much more likely to unintentionally act in ways that contribute to conflict with other people. That is why it is critical to take care of yourself. This is not selfish; it is what will allow you to be there for others in constructive ways.

Do whatever you need to stay grounded at this time. Whether you take walks in the park, play music, do yoga, or join game night or talk with friends or family online, engage in healthy practices to take care of your body, mind and spirit. You may need to experiment to find the practices that work best for you. A client of mine recently re-downloaded the Calm app. Listening to it reminded her that she likes breathing exercises and enabled her first solid night of sleep in weeks.

I recorded this short video of my hike in the woods near my house, and a snippet of our family participating in the daily neighborhood “primal scream” as a reminder that taking care of ourselves may come in different, even unexpected, forms. Find the ones that work best for you and stick to them. When you do, you will be much more likely to engage with others in helpful ways that prevent conflict.

If you try any of the practices above, let me know how it goes in the comments below. I’d love to hear about your experiences. In the meantime, be well and stay safe.

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