The 9 Best Tips for How to Avoid Conflict

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Chimp Paradox" by Steve Peters. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you want to know how to avoid conflict? How can you improve the way you express yourself in conversations? What does body language have to do with preventing conflict? 

In The Chimp Paradox, Steve Peters offers advice about how to avoid conflict and improve relationships. He advises that you should manage your own emotional reactions, making sure that you don’t escalate the situation into conflict. Rather than acting emotionally, you should step back and assess the conversation rationally. 

Read on to find out how to avoid conflict and improve your communication skills. 

How to Avoid Conflict: The Chimp Model Explained

Before we discuss how to avoid conflict, it’s important to introduce Steve Peters’ chimp model. 

According to Peters, each of us houses a primitive Chimp inside our brains that is driven by emotions and prompts us to react to the world impetuously and irresponsibly. If you’ve ever struggled to stay in control of your urges, succumbed to temptation, or sabotaged your own success, your Chimp has probably taken the reins for a bit. Fortunately, our brains also have an inner Human who, when functioning properly, keeps our inner Chimp under control and allows us to interact with the world in a stable, positive, productive way. In The Chimp Paradox, psychiatrist Steve Peters outlines a mind management program that can help you manage your inner Chimp and lead you to happiness, success, and balance.  

Having effective communication skills means figuring out how to manage our inner Chimp and interact with other people in effective, constructive ways (even if those other people are being difficult). If you want to find out how to avoid conflict, follow the following easy tips:

Tip 1: Use Your Human Mode

Understanding Steve Peters’ chimp model is useful if you want to know how to prevent conflict. To successfully interact with other people, recognize that everyone has a Chimp and a Human just like you do, and that they may have trouble managing their Chimp, just as you might. To best manage both of your Chimps, strive to speak from Human to Human, and leave your Chimps out of the conversation.

If you speak to someone else using your Chimp, they will most likely respond with their Chimp. This is how arguments happen: Your Chimp snaps at your partner because she did something that angered you, and her Chimp snaps back, upset that you’re getting so angry about something so trivial. It’s also why arguments are so difficult to stop once they get started—both Chimps are naturally stubborn and reluctant to back down from a position once they’ve dug in. 

To prevent this, go through the steps of Chimp management outlined earlier before you approach someone—exercise your Chimp, reason with it, and contain it. Then, anticipate that the other person will initially respond to you with her Chimp, and help her manage her Chimp as best you can by allowing her to go through the Chimp management steps also: Particularly, allow her to exercise her Chimp so that she vents her emotions and is better placed to hear your reason and logic. Follow up by speaking to her with calm logic that her Chimp has no choice but to agree with.

Tip 2: Allow for Choices

The key to maintaining a good relationship is to acknowledge that each of you has a choice and can make a decision about the relationship, and the other person can’t force that decision. Therefore, you can offer to relate to another person in a certain way but that other person doesn’t have to respond in the way that you want. If she does, then there’s no problem. But if she chooses not to, then you have your own choice to make: Do you want to accept her choice and continue a relationship on those terms, or do you want to leave the relationship?

For example, if your girlfriend is always late to your get-togethers because that’s just how she lives her life, then you can talk to her about how it bothers you, but you can’t force her to care about lateness in the same way that you do. If she’s content being late to appointments, then she’s not obligated to change for you. However, you can certainly decide that this isn’t an acceptable characteristic of someone you date, and you can find another partner. Both of you have a choice and must respect the other person’s choice. 

Tip 3: Adjust Your Expectations

You must have realistic expectations of other people, or you’re setting your relationship up for failure: You can’t expect someone to have talents or traits that they simply don’t have and never promised to have. For example, if you want to be with someone who’s a good artist, but the person you’re dating isn’t a good artist, you can’t fault them for that. You have to accept them for who they are and then decide for yourself if you’ll stay in the relationship or not. 

Tip 4: Examine Your Prejudices

When you first meet someone, you form an opinion from things you observe, such as their clothing, hairstyle, attitude, posture, and speech. This first impression will dictate, to a large extent, how you feel about that person from then on. Be aware that you may be forming this opinion based on Gremlins of prejudice that you’ve added to your Computer but that may not be correct. For example, if you believe that blond-haired people aren’t smart, you might decide that a blond lawyer you meet isn’t very intelligent, based on this prejudice, and you may end up misjudging someone who is, in fact, highly competent.   

Tip 5: Speak to the Right Person

To effectively communicate your message, you must talk to the person you wish to communicate to. While that may sound obvious, all too often, people don’t do this. Instead they talk about their problem to other people—for example, mutual friends, coworkers, or family members. Consequently, the message never arrives with the person for whom it’s intended, and the problem doesn’t get resolved.

Tip 6: Choose the Right Time

Approach the other person at a time when your conversation won’t be rushed, and when the other person isn’t already agitated (and therefore, their Chimp is already activated). Make sure you have time not only to explain your position but also to listen fully to their position.

Tip 7: Find the Right Place

Find a neutral place that is neither in your “territory” nor theirs, so they don’t feel that you’re trying to intimidate them. Find a quiet place so you’ll have few interruptions, and you can focus solely on your conversation. This is key if you want to know how to prevent conflict.

Tip 8: Bring the Right Agenda 

If you want to know how to prevent conflict, be clear on what exactly you want to address and what you want to accomplish with your conversation. If you don’t have a clear purpose, your conversation will be reactive rather than proactive, and it will more likely wander and end up being hijacked by your Chimp. 

Be aware that your Chimp and your Human may have different agendas:

  • Your Chimp wants to “win” your conversation. It wants to express emotion and defend itself against criticism.
  • Your Human wants to reach a mutually acceptable outcome. It wants to use logic to understand and explain both perspectives. It’s open to finding a solution that might not be ideal but will be a good compromise. 

The best way to approach a conversation is to first allow your Human to discuss with your own Chimp what agenda you want to bring to the discussion, so that you can get out of the way any instinctive feelings of “winning” and “losing,” which rarely lead to productive conversations.

During your conversation with the other person, try to explicitly state not only your agenda but also what you think her agenda is. This allows the other person to correct you if you’re misunderstanding her, and it keeps your conversation on track. 

Additionally, let the other person accomplish her agenda first. If you let her air her grievances, not only will she be more receptive to hearing your side of the story, but you may also gain a better understanding of the situation and might change your mind on some aspects of it.

Tip 9: Use the Right Method

This last tip is key in discovering how to avoid conflict. Decide whether you want to approach the other person face-to-face or through writing, such as an email or letter. There are pros and cons to either method: Writing your thoughts down allows you to word them constructively and allows the other person time to digest them before responding, but subtleties and nuance can be lost in writing. Often, speaking face-to-face can prevent misunderstandings. 

When communicating face-to-face, keep in mind the way you package your message: the way you present your message to the other person. Packaging your message involves four things:

  1. Body language: the non-verbal messages you’re conveying with your posture, face, and limbs. You can convey many emotions without words—for example, defensiveness (by crossing your arms), aggression (by towering over someone), or displeasure (through facial expressions). 
  2. Intonation: About a third of your message’s meaning is conveyed through your voice. Faster speeds indicate urgency or anxiety, while slower speeds indicate relaxation or confidence. Louder volume might indicate urgency, relaxation, or confidence, while softer volume might indicate uncertainty. Your emphasis on specific words can change a sentence’s meaning entirely: For example, the sentence “I like you” mean different things depending on if you emphasize the “I,” the “like,” or the “you”). 
  3. Verbiage: We attach emotions to certain words, and when you use emotive words inappropriately, the other person can feel attacked, awakening their Chimp. For example, saying “I hate that” will elicit a different emotional response than saying, “I’m not thrilled about that.” Choose your words carefully so as to convey your meaning without unnecessary emotions attached. 
  4. Attitude: Your attitude is your demeanor—whether or not you come across as friendly and approachable or aloof and cold. Inner Chimps are skilled at interpreting other people’s attitudes so that they don’t approach someone who poses a danger. If your attitude says “Stay back,” then other people’s Chimps will recognize that and will act defensively toward you. 

Manage Continuing Conflict

The above tips tell you how to avoid conflict. However, sometimes conflict happens. In these cases, here are three ways you can approach your continued conflict:

  1. Negotiation: You can try to continue to work with the other person on a one-on-one basis, trying to find common ground and agreement through additional discussions.
  2. Mediation: Sometimes you may need to bring in a neutral third party to help facilitate the discussions between you. The mediator would not pass judgment on either of your positions nor make decisions for you, but would instead be a calming presence so that you both can keep your Humans driving the conversation.
  3. Arbitration: If you just can’t reach a consensus with the other person, you may need to bring in a third party who will make that decision for you. This might be a legal person, like a judge, or it might be someone who’s somehow related to your situation, like your boss, and whom you both agree to allow to make the decision. 

Follow the tips above to learn how to avoid conflict and how to deal with it when it arises.

The 9 Best Tips for How to Avoid Conflict

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  • Why we struggle to control our urges, succumb to temptation, and sabotage our own success
  • How to manage your inner chimp to become happier, more balanced, and successful
  • Why your psychological world is like a solar system with 7 planets

Elizabeth Shaw

Elizabeth graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in English Literature. Growing up, she enjoyed reading fairy tales, Beatrix Potter stories, and The Wind in the Willows. As of today, her all-time favorite book is Wuthering Heights, with Jane Eyre as a close second. Elizabeth has branched out to non-fiction since graduating and particularly enjoys books relating to mindfulness, self-improvement, history, and philosophy.

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