Conflict is complicated.
Most of the time, it involves feelings that are both logical and illogical. That thing you're fighting about, whether at home or at work, is about both what's being stated and what's not being stated. It's about what's on the surface and what's underneath.
The thing is, most of us focus on the surface and ignore what's underneath. Which is a mistake.
Oprah Winfrey is no stranger to conflict, and she's in a good position to comment on it, given how much experience she has had as an interviewer. She has addressed subjects as complex as suicide, infidelity, mental health, sexual abuse, and more -- situations that involve deep-rooted conflict.
"I've talked to nearly 30,000 people on this show," she says, "and all 30,000 had one thing in common."
What was it? The thing every person had in common, whether they were a firefighter or a PhD, a dental hygienist or a software engineer? According to Oprah, "They all wanted validation."
She wasn't talking about ego-stroking validation like "You're such an amazing wife" or "I can't believe what an incredible boss you are."
No, she was talking about something more basic, and critical when it comes to connection through conflict: validating what a person is saying, and validating that it's important to you.
When Oprah spoke on career, life, and leadership at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, she touched on this. In particular, she said that all your arguments come down to three questions, and three questions only:
- Did you hear me?
- Did you see me?
- Did what I say mean anything to you?
In other words, whether your partner is upset that you came home late again, or your employee is trying to tell you they need another person on their team (and why haven't they been hired yet), what they're really wanting is to be seen. To be heard.
They want to know whether you are truly listening to them, and whether you care about what they're trying to tell you.
This doesn't mean you have to grovel or kowtow or immediately change the situation (by, for example, hiring another team member, or promising you'll never work late again).
It does mean you need to start by not defending yourself or addressing the "content" of the argument. If you actually want to soothe the person and resolve the conflict quickly, the best thing to do first is help the person feel understood--and that what they're saying matters to you.
"You're right -- I've been working late a lot. I know it's frustrating not having me home for dinner. I want you to know that matters to me."
"I hear you. You've been juggling a ton of things lately on the team -- managing schedules, responding to clients, liaising between the team and the engineering department. I see everything you've been doing, and appreciate it."
According to Oprah (and every psychologist ever), once someone feels that you see them and care, the game changes. The person's nervous system relaxes. Their tone softens. The problem suddenly starts to seem more manageable.
You can probably relate yourself. When you have a problem with someone, if you dig deep enough, it's almost always because somehow you didn't feel seen or heard. It isn't just that your neighbor parked in your spot again; it's that you felt overlooked, or unimportant, or frustratingly impotent.
When, in sharing your upset, you feel like the other person is actually seeing you and listening to you (deeply listening, not just saying they're listening), you start to feel different. You don't feel alone anymore; you feel like they're actually getting you.
You feel supported.
In Oprah's words, "Try it with your children, your husband, your wife, your boss, your friends. Validate them. 'I see you. I hear you. And what you say matters to me.'"
Then watch the magic happen.