Imagine you’re out walking your dog on a Saturday morning enjoying the exercise and the fresh air when, all of a sudden, he pulls on his leash and starts to growl. Why? Because somebody else’s dog has approached, and that dog is not on a leash. Fortunately, your “Buddy” is well-trained, and you are able to control the situation before something bad can happen. You say to the other dog’s owner, and not very nicely, “where’s your leash?” then mutter under your breath “jerk,” as you cross the street to avoid any further confrontation.

Most people tend to shy away from conflict, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. Mediators are taught how to manage conflict, and for me, the first step is to try to maintain civility. This means that I sometimes have to remind my clients to keep their dogs on a leash.

This next sentence is significant, so please read it twice. It’s important for those in conflict to separate the people from the problem. This can be complicated, especially when the relationship between the parties in conflict has a long-standing history. If you’re in my conference room because you and your older siblings don’t agree about caring for your aging parents, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if your brother gets loud and interrupts because he’s always been a bit of a bully. But that’s the person, not the problem, and certainly not why you’re seeking the help of a Mediator. When I observe that behavior, I’ll remind everyone that each will have a turn to speak uninterrupted.

You might think it’s impossible to remember to establish ground rules in the heat of an argument, and if not impossible, definitely challenging. Identities, roles, relationships, and habits all enter into the mix, and can complicate the most rational efforts to stay civil. And sometimes it’s even beneficial to let your dog off its leash for a moment — to release the anger you’re holding in — so that you can regain control and propel yourself forward in a healthier manner.

I urge you to take a look at these three steps to resolving a conflict in a civil and respectful way (keeping your dog on a leash):

STEP 1: Try to understand.

STEP 2: Try to be understood.

STEP 3: Brainstorm possible solutions.

Easy, right?  Just as easy as remembering the leash when you’re taking the dog for a walk.  Yet also difficult, especially when you’re dealing with a person who always needs to be right.  If you’re nodding your head right now because you work with that person, or live with that person, you can still employ these three steps during a heated conversation.  Try lowering the volume of the conversation (sometimes even whispering) and start with Step 3.  If you can convince the person who always needs to be right that you’re on the same page, that you’re earnestly looking for a solution, you might diffuse the conflict before it gets out of hand.  And just in case, hang onto the leash.