Four simple steps can help resolve unspoken conflicts

Medical Post
Helping Hand Column, March 22, 2005

Subjugating your own needs to avoid problems can lead to resentment and eventually end relationships

Q: I read with interest your last column on becoming more assertive. I would like to be more like that. I can see that I tend to give in to what others want, and try to comply to please them. For example, my office partner has taken the March break off again this year. She has children and I do not, so I always agree, but I would like this week off some time to travel with my sister and her family, and visit with my nieces and nephews on their week off from school. I realize that I let my partner always take the week off because I do not want her to get angry. I find it difficult to deal with others' anger and usually avoid conflict.

A: As I stated in my last column, many doctors have grown up being "good." Making others angry is generally not seen as being a good thing to do. Thus, we tend to avoid doing this. When we avoid stating our point of view and just give in to others, to our detriment, this stops being good.

Many of us avoid conflict. We have many assumptions about what conflict is. Conflict is horrible, ugly, there is a winner and a loser, and there is a fight to the end. We feel this must be avoided at all costs. These are all myths! Let's start to correct them.

In fact, conflicts are inevitable and cannot be avoided. All a conflict means is that two people do not agree about something; this will happen between any two people in any relationships at some time, since no two people agree about everything all the time. Conflicts do not have to be horrible and ugly. They are often uncomfortable, but this is only temporary and then resolves. Conflicts do not have to have a winner and loser, or be a "fight to the death." Much of the time, both sides can work together to arrive at a compromise. So, instead of avoiding conflicts, we need to expect conflict and work on making it productive.

Most conflicts happen because people get stuck on the solution. Each one wants it to be their way. Recognizing that you are focusing on the solution is an early step to pulling back and working on the process to resolving the conflict. The solution is the last step in this process. We run into problems when we make it the first step. Conflict resolution must focus on needs, not solutions.

There are four steps to conflict resolution:

1. Identify your need(s). I make this an extra step on its own, because many physicians have to do this separately and consciously. We find this initial step hard because we are used to giving up our needs and do this unconsciously, without often knowing exactly what those needs are. Take some time to think about what you may need the solution to take into account.

2. State your needs. Once you have identified what they are, you need to say them to the other person. They cannot read your mind. Practise with short, clear, direct statements, using "I" or "me."

3. Listen to the other person state their needs. If they do not, ask them what they would need in this situation, and listen.

4. Work together toward a compromise as a solution.

Let's use these steps in the example you gave. Both of you are focused on the solution, i.e., who takes the week off, and since your partner stated it first, you give in. Remember, when someone tells you a solution, all they have done is their steps 1 and 2—now, it is your turn to do step 3, and state your needs while they listen. That way, all the needs are on the table, and you can now work together toward a solution.

Steps 1 and 2: Your partner states that she would like to take the March break off.

Step 3: You acknowledge that it would be nice for her to be off with her family. (It is hoped one of your needs is to maintain your relationship with her, so it helps to acknowledge her needs, too.) You then state that you would like to do the same some time with your nieces and nephews during their March break, and hope that you can work out how this may happen.

Step 4: You brainstorm different solutions to allow you both to meet your needs. For example, she can go this year since she has it planned, and you can go next year and alternate each year. Or, you can split up the week, and each can take part of it off. Or, you can try it next year, and find that a holiday with kids is too busy and decide to take more restful holidays on your own! Now the needs have changed, and you can go back through the steps again. There are many possible compromises; all are fine if both of you are happy and feel your needs are being considered.

These steps are essential any time you feel that your needs are not being met. Most people start to feel resentful when their needs are unmet. Resentments are the beginning of the end of a relationship, in your personal or professional life. Catch them early.

Find your cue that tells you you are feeling resentment; it can be a feeling you know but cannot describe; it can be a physical sign such as clenching your teeth, clenching your fist or churning inside. Then, having recognized your early cue, remember that "resentment equals unmet needs," and try to define and state these needs.

There is no perfect solution, just a workable one. Once you have agreed on a solution that appears to work, go with it for as long as it works. This could be for a few minutes, a few years of forever. Once it stops working, usually because you have become aware of new needs on either or both sides, you are merely back to the four steps again to find a new, workable solution.

What if your partner does not listen and responds angrily? I hear about many such situations. Let's address this next time.

Mamta Gautam is an Ottawa psychiatrist who specializes in treating physician patients. If you have a question you would like addressed in this column, please contact Dr. Gautam at Please include “Helping Hand” in the subject line. All inquiries will be confidential. Your questions will not be replied to, but may be selected to be answered in this column, which is intended to be educational, not therapeutic.