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A powerful word for resolving conflict

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

Conflict-resolution moves hard conversations to an agreeable path. It's much easier to assume everything is fine and ignore the warning signals that relationships are fraying. As said by Patrick Lencioni, "Artificial harmony is the enemy of a great team."

What causes people to shy away from conflict? Mainly is because resolving conflict can be extremely uncomfortable. To point out a behavior that rubbed you or someone else the wrong way to a family member, coworker, or friend can be terrifying.

We're afraid of losing a relationship. A poor cultural trend is to cut ties with those you don't like. So we'll burry the issue with optimistic thoughts like, "It's no big deal," or "Maybe I just take things too personally." In the meantime, our friend repeats the negative behavior (often ignorantly) and our annoyance evolves into high levels of emotion. At that point, stand back!

So how do we structure a conversation that resolves disagreements and repairs relationships? It starts with being committed to getting all the facts before attempting to fix the problem. As a pastor, consultant, and husband, I've learned a powerful word that creates a clear image of what kind of problem in front of me:

a word of exploration ~ "What?"


You're wanting to look up a recipe for a spontaneous game night, but all the cabinets reveal are the random ingredients that are left behind from better-planned meals of the past. And one of your guests is dairy free. So you ask Siri, "What is a non-dairy recipe that's quick and easy?" And off you go to explore the culinary hacks of TikTok, Instagram, and PInterest.

"What" is the ship we embark to venture unknown territory. It's a search bar for us to type all our inquiries and receive an answer. Not only can it unveil random trivia from Wikipedia, a news source, or ESPN, but it can also reveal the cause of tension in our relationships.

A horrific problem in resolving conflict is doing so without all the information.

get all the Facts First

Unskilled communication comes from assuming what someone's problem is by our own experiences, thoughts, and ideas. Unfortunately there is only one of you, and the person you're speaking with is nothing like you.

Suppose your spouse says, "I feel like you're always somewhere else when you're with me."

You have an idea of what it means to be "somewhere else" socially. This could mean that your body language or actions demonstrate disinterest (which may or may not be true). It may also mean the other person has a desired expectation of what it looks like to be together, but for whatever reason, you're not collaborating on that ideal. A vague phrase like this has a lot of room for different interpretations! So dive deeper to get more clarity:

  • "What does it look like to be present with you from your perspective?"

  • "What are some things I'm doing or not doing that appears like I'm distant from you?"

  • "What is something we can do right now to have a present, meaningful time together?"

When we use the "What" question to gather information before trying to settle the matter, we keep the focus off our own feelings and the other person's feelings. It's tempting to turn the tables defensively to the other person, pointing out all the reasons they should be understanding of your behavior. Asking open-ended questions like, "What" shifts the focus from, "I'm not a present person to be with," to "I'm not communicating a desire to be present." Those views are worlds apart.

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