I once went on a backpacking trip through Europe with two of my buddies. The trip was for 35 days in the middle of the summer. We had no plan; we simply disembarked, arrived in Frankfurt, Germany, looked at each other and said, “Now what?” For the next few weeks, we slept in cheap hostels and road the trains of the Eurail. While we had a great time and were more or less a good team, it was inevitable that conflict would arise. After all, two’s company and three’s a crowd, and when you’re traveling off the cuff in unfamiliar circumstances, things are bound to get stressful.
Things came to a head midway in the journey, while we were in Vienna, Austria. I wanted badly to go to Budapest, Hungary, arguing that it was a bit more unusual than the other stops on our ever-forming itinerary (Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Milan…), but my traveling companion, Robert, wanted to begin heading West, straight across to Amsterdam, so we could begin hitting some of the cities on the Western end of the continent. Our third friend, Ben, was indifferent.
We had been on the road for about two weeks. Spending every waking hour with people, you begin to take notice of certain habits and mannerisms. In this case, I’d begun to get a little bit annoyed with Robert, and he’d begun to get a little annoyed with me.
So there we were, in the Vienna train terminal, me arguing passionately for Budapest, him vying for Amsterdam. Our argument grew louder and louder. People slowed their gaits, turned their heads. We began to sling mud, bringing up those mannerisms that had annoyed one another. Finally, we reached an impasse and went our separate ways for the night, Ben and I going to a bar and Robert returning to the hostel (as we’d missed both trains anyways).
We were college students at the time, and we knew nothing of conflict resolution. But, had we known a few simple concepts and ideas, perhaps our conflict could have been handled with more civility. That in mind, here are a few practical steps we could have taken to head the conflict off and to continue our journey as a happy team.
- Do not avoid the conflict – Both Robert and I knew that we were doing small things to get on one another’s nerves, but neither of us said anything. Our hope was that by not acknowledging it, we could either save face, or it would just go away. What ended up happening, however, was that the small annoyances festered, got bigger, and ultimately exploded in the Vienna train station.
- Agree on the Problem – Often in complex situations, the parties involved in the conflict are actually arguing about two different things. Before proceeding, then, it is important that everyone agrees on the problem, simply because without this agreement, everyone is not on the same page. To do this, each party should state what they think the problem is—in the case of the Vienna train station, we should have made it clear that the problem was our lack of an itinerary. Once everyone agrees on the problem, you can begin taking proactive steps to resolve the conflict.
- Get all of the Information – There will never be an agreeable end to a conflict unless both parties clearly understand one another’s viewpoints. If you are a team leader, this means acting as a moderator for the conflict, allowing each side to speak. If you are a party in the conflict, you should practice empathetic listening—trying to see the conflict from the other person’s point of view. Once all of the information is on the table, you can work as a team to find compromises.
- Brainstorm Solutions – One you have agreed on the problem and gotten the information from each party, the next thing to do is start tossing around ideas and solutions. This is an obvious step, but it can get tricky if the problem is a particularly polarizing one. The point of this is to make sure everyone is involved in coming up with a solution. If everyone feels like they’re involved, then everyone will have the impression that they got something out of the compromise.
In our European journey, I ended up foregoing the trip to Budapest, because Ben, the third companion, put his vote in for Amsterdam. In the end, I was O.K. with it and we had a fine time. But the loud argument in the train station is not something any of us were proud of. If we had used the above steps, we could have resolved our conflict with far less animosity.