Manage conflict through genuine dialogue

Conflict doesn’t have to be destructive

You and I are different. We do not see the world the same way. Our needs are the same – I do believe there are such things as universal human needs. But we will not always agree on strategies – how to get those needs met. We also may not agree on priorities or values. Conflict is inevitable. How can we respond to our conflicts so that we both gain, rather than one of both us having to lose?

I recently came across this checklist of “collaborative and conflict management skills”. I’ve called it

11 Positive Paths Through Conflict

  1. “I am critical of ideas, not people. I challenge and refute the ideas of the other participants, while confirming their competence and value as individuals. I do not indicate that I personally reject them.
  2. I separate my personal worth from criticism of my ideas.
  3. I remember that we are all in this together, sink or swim. I focus on coming to the best decision possible, not on winning.
  4. I encourage everyone to participate and to master all the relevant information.
  5. I listen to everyone’s ideas, even if I don’t agree.
  6. I restate what someone has said if it is not clear.
  7. I differentiate before I try to integrate. I first bring out all the ideas and facts supporting both sides and clarify how the positions differ. Then I try to identify points of agreement and put them together in a way that makes sense.
  8. I try to understand both sides of the issue. I try to see the issue from the opposing perspective in order to understand the opposing position.
  9. I change my mind when the evidence clearly indicates that I should do so.
  10. I emphasise rationality in seeking the best possible answer, given the available data.
  11. I follow the golden rule of conflict: act toward [rhetorical] opponents as you would have them act toward you.” (Eilberg 2014, pp.70-71, quoting Deutsch and Coleman 2000, pp.43-44)

I find this list profound. The origin of the word ‘conflict’ is from the Latin con-fligere, meaning ‘to strike together’. I know that for myself, I often expect conflict to lead to fiery combustion and destruction (perhaps a conflagration, from con-flagrare ‘to burn up’). But what if we pretended for a moment that the English word ‘con-flict’ came from a different Latin word: flectere ‘to bend’? When we come into conflict with one another, could we learn to bend towards with each other, to bend with (con-) each other?

Martin Buber on dialogue

Eilberg goes on to discuss the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s ideas on relating and dialogue. She quotes Friedman (1976, p.123):

“There is genuine dialogue – no matter whether spoken or silent – where each one of the participants really has in mind the other or others in their present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relation between himself and them. There is technical dialogue, which is prompted solely by the need of objective understanding. And there is monologue disguised as dialogue, in which two or more men, meeting in space, speak each with himself in strangely tortuous and circuitous ways and yet imagine they have escaped the torment of being thrown back on their own resources.”

Eilberg summarises Buber’s approach:

Buber’s 6 Principles of Dialogue

  1. Awareness of the other’s humanity: “Dialogue requires us, first of all, to enter into relationship with another human being.” p.49
  2. Acceptance of the other as different from ourselves: “We so regularly forget that being in relationship with another person necessarily means encountering a being who is different from us.” p.51
  3. Intentional ‘turning toward’ the other: “intentionally reaching for connection and understanding with another human being, animated by genuine curiosity and desire to learn.” p.52
  4. Presence and authenticity: “Dialogue requires opening our belief systems to challenge, thus opening ourselves to ridicule, shame, and disorientation. At the same time, it also requires that we come to the dialogue fully dedicated to our own beliefs, willing to hold our own ground in conversation, balancing our conviction with concern for the other.” pp.54-55
  5. Openness to being changed: “Although I may or may not adopt the other person’s view, to enter into real dialogue is to know that I may emerge changed from the encounter.” p.55 “Dialogue can become less of a duel and more of a collaboration to find truths and solutions that are life-enhancing for all partners to the conversation.” p.56
  6. Non-negotiable concern for dignity of both self and other, even in the midst of conflict

Resolving conflict one small step at a time – the ‘First Step’ exercise

I find all of these ideas both inspiring and daunting. How many of us manage such high levels of self-awareness, courage, integrity and humility, even occasionally? To adopt all these principles at once feels like just too much to take on. So where should we start? Here is a technique that I have created that I call the ‘First Step’ exercise.

  • Time and place: Find a quiet place where you can be by yourself for a while, free from distractions or interruptions. Give yourself up to 30 minutes. You might like to have a candle (and matches of course …). Have a pen and paper ready too.
  • Subject matter: Choose from your own life just one area of conflict. Make it simple. Don’t choose a big, deeply emotionally challenging one for this exercise. Remember, small steps at first.
  • Focussing principle: Choose just one principle from either the 11 Positive Paths Through Conflict or Buber’s 6 Principles of Dialogue. You will be using this as your tool for focussing on the conflict situation you have chosen to reflect on. Make sure you have the statement written out for yourself in readiness for your session.
  • The process (30 mins):
    1. Remembering (discipline yourself to only 3-4 mins for this): turn your attention to the conflict situation in your life that you have chosen for this exercise. Notice what comes up. Most likely there will be familiar images, words, emotions, perhaps physical sensations as well.
    2. Releasing (give yourself 30 seconds): Having reminded yourself of some of the features of the situation, including how you think and feel about it, you now need to ‘break state’. Stand up, walk around quickly, blow air out vigorously through pursed lips, swing your arms, shake your hands in the air, shake your head.
    3. Reframing (15 mins): Read the focussing principle you have chosen. Better still, read it out loud to yourself; physicalising the words helps anchor it in your conscious intentions. Now explore your conflict situation again, and every time you find yourself locking into an old thought / belief / script / emotion (whether negative or positive), apply the focussing principle and test out whether you are truly honouring and embodying that principle. Experiment with reworking the situation in your mind in order to make the focussing principle true for you. If you find your mind and feelings wandering back into the old patterns you identified in (1), return your attention to the focussing principle. If necessary, drop thinking about the conflict in question for a moment, and just think about the focussing principle.
    4. Recording (5-10 mins): Jot down some notes on paper to remind you of any insights that came to you in the session. The writing itself may become a creative process, where more insight come.
    5. Releasing: another 30 seconds of breaking state, and letting go.
    6. Re-entering: Having finished your session and ‘released’, re-enter your normal life. Let the awareness of the session be there at the back of your mind, but don’t analyse it. Trust that you have started a process of re-orienting yourself to the conflict situation in a way that is freeing and more life-affirming; this exercise has, in itself, been a positive intervention. You may find the conflict situation begins to change or resolve organically, or that you are able to initiate positive change with specific actions. You may decide at some point to return to this exercise and same conflict situation, and experiment with another one of the principles.

Doing this process can begin to help us move successfully through the conflict situation. It can teach us something about ourselves, or another person. It can teach us something about the focussing principle that we chose, or about the nature of conflict. And it can help us develop our general ability to handle conflict better.

Another way to use the ‘First Step’ idea is to apply just one focussing principle to a conflict situation as it actually arises. This can help prevent us going into a habitual ‘fight, flight or freeze’ reaction, and open up the possibility of an interaction that is more mutually beneficial. And to that, we would have to have the lists with us to refer to, perhaps on a piece of paper, or memorised. Committing them to memory is itself transformative.


  • Deutsch, Morton and Coleman, Peter T. (eds.) (2000) Handbook of Conflict Resolution, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass
  • Eilberg, Rabbi Amy (2014) From Enemy to Friend: Jewish wisdom and the pursuit of peace, New York, Orbis Books
  • Friedman, Maurice (1976) Martin Buber: the life of dialogue, Chicago, Chicago University Press