Getting an extension built at the the same time as working from home in my garden office has given me the opportunity to observe the resolution (or not) of lots of minor conflicts. Whether this has been a surly delivery driver refusing to accept on error on the delivery paperwork or a building inspector disagreeing with an interpretation of the architect's drawings, it has been illuminating to watch different approaches in action.

Some of the individuals in these situations have successfully and skillfully defused the situation while others have unintentionally escalated the situation leading to unsuccessful outcomes. The techniques apply in virtually every situation and while some may seem obvious, if you look around your own environment you will see how often they are not used.

Depersonalise The Situation

One of my builders was excellent at depersonalising the situation to avoid blaming the other person. He focussed on how the fact something hadn't been completed on time could be addressed rather than whose fault it was that it hadn't been done on time. 

When blame is directed at us our brain treats it as a threat and the body responds by flooding our system with unhelpful chemicals. Focussing on the situation and what needs doing, rather than how the situation arose is the best way of doing this. 

The exception to this is when the situation is focussed specifically on an individual's performance or actions in which case focussing on what led to the failure rather than applying blame can lead to positive resolutions.

Tone Of Voice

It shouldn't be surprising that using sarcasm in a conflict resolution situation is unhelpful but it is surprising how often this creeps into people's communication. Whether consciously or not we often use changes in our tone of voice to try to establish dominance in a conversation and this triggers the subconsicous threat mechanism in the other person.  Being consicous of the pitch, tone and volume of our voice and trying to maintain a calm, neutral manner can be instrumental in avoiding escalating a disagreement.


The joke wasn't even funny or particularly well timed but one of the workers defused a build up of tension that had been caused by a number of minor irrations over the course of a morning.

The act of smiling and laughing releases endorphins into our system which can counteract the hormones which the threat response can trigger in our system. Self-depreceating humour if appropriate can also help with the depersonalisation of the situation.

Allow A Way Out

The building inspector who came to visit the site when I was there was fairly junior He committed to a decision that could have caused real problems. His decision was based on poor information and wasn't backed up by the building regulations. Rather than call him out on getting the decision wrong my builder suggested this was quite a complex issue, that there were different views on how the regulations could be interpreted and requested he speak to his boss who had dealt with a similar issue recently. This approach allowed the inspector to change his viewpoint without embarrassment after the call to his boss.

Trying to avoid trapping someone in decision that they may then feel compelled to maintain can be highly effective at influencing a change of direction. It also helps build longer term relationships rather than just 'winning' the argument.

Fingers crossed I don't have to observe too many more of these in action before my extension is finished. If you want to improve at your own conflict resolution try to oberve minor disputes that you aren't directly invovled in and analyse how people are successful or not. Conscious practice and reflection leads to improvement.