When dealing with conflict, don’t just be nice—be kind and firm

Jul 01, 2024 | EDR Blog

by Danya Rumore

Small yellow sunflower in a fieldIn my last blog, I explained “yes, and” thinking and why a “yes, and” mindset is so important for making conflict productive. In this blog, I build on those ideas by sharing a powerful example of “yes, and” thinking in action—being kind and firm.

As I explain, being kind and firm helps us focus on what really matters and get good outcomes for ourselves and others when dealing with conflict—and, in doing so, it helps us avoid many of the problems people create by focusing on “just being nice.”

The problem with “just being nice”

Every year, I teach hundreds of people how to productively navigate conflict. One of the things that consistently stands out to me in working with trainees of all ages and walks of life is that people tend to assume that their only options for addressing conflict are either to a) “be nice” or b) go into defend-and-attack mode. They typically describe “being nice” as pretending there isn’t a conflict (avoiding), giving the other person what they want (accommodating), or just generally skirting around the issue.

In line with this, people commonly assume that surfacing conflict and trying to negotiate a good solution for themselves is inherently “not nice.”

These assumptions are entirely understandable since, as I have discussed in previous blogs, people tend to assume conflict is a problem—we see it as a sign that something is wrong. We also tend to assume someone is going to win, and someone is going to lose (and we don’t want to be the loser!). This mindset around conflict typically leads us to dysregulate and deal with conflict poorly, ultimately creating what I call the downward spiral of destructive conflict.

As a result of these dynamics and the fear of loss, conflict tends to feel uncomfortable. This contributes to people thinking that “being nice” means not surfacing and dealing with conflict.

Unfortunately, when we avoid dealing with conflict, it just tends to fester, and when we overly accommodate—giving others what they want at the expense of our own needs—we ultimately get resentful, frustrated, and/or depressed. In other words, skirting around conflict typically leads to unresolved problems, hurt relationships, and lost value for all involved parties.

This is why I tell my trainees that “just being nice” isn’t enough (and it isn’t helpful at all, if you think it means avoiding or accommodating).

Instead, I suggest we focus on being kind—to ourselves and others!—when dealing with conflict.

What does it mean to be kind?

Kindness is a powerful concept. Being kind means respecting the humanity and dignity of ourselves and others; holding ourselves and others with compassion; and focusing on solving problems rather than judging or blaming. It also means seeking outcomes and solutions that are truly beneficial for everyone involved.

Often, being kind isn’t entirely comfortable, and this is why it is very different from what many people consider “being nice.” For example, if we are truly invested in the long-term thriving of a relationship with a romantic partner, we may need to let our partner know that they have behaviors that are difficult for us to live with. This may be hard for us to share and difficult for them to hear. However, we can share this important information in a way that is compassionate, non-judgmental, and loving. Doing so is important for creating a good outcome for the relationship and everyone involved.

Problematically, we tend to assume the “nice” thing to do is to pretend it doesn’t bother us or to “just accept them as they are” (by which we mean accepting all their behaviors, some of which may not be serving them or the relationship).  When we behave this way, we’re not being kind to ourselves—we’re basically acting as if our needs don’t matter. We’re also not being kind to our partner, since we’re not giving them a chance to remedy an issue that very likely will lead to long-term challenges and, perhaps ultimately, the end of the relationship.

Hence, when dealing with conflict (and in life in general, I would say), I encourage you to focus on being truly kind instead of just being nice.

And to truly be kind, you need to be firm.

What does it mean to be firm?

When dealing with conflict, we need to be super clear about what our fundamental needs and concerns (i.e., our interests) are—and we need to be committed to advocating effectively for these needs and concerns. This is what I refer to as being firm.

Being firm is not being positional; it is not about getting stuck on certain solutions or strategies. It is also not about being unwilling to change our hearts and minds; indeed, we may even shift how we think about our interests or what we see as our key needs and concerns through the course of effective dialogue. In other words, it is not about being a “stick in the mud” or unmovable. Instead, it is simply being firmly rooted in what really matters to us and committed to creating a truly good outcome for ourselves (and hopefully others).

To be firm, we must do the important work of discerning and clarifying what really matters to us. Using the above example to illustrate: Through the process of self-reflection, we may find that our partner’s behavior doesn’t violate any of our fundamental needs or concerns; it is just different from what we are used to, and we simply need to be a little bit more open-minded. Or we may find that the behavior does conflict with a fundamental need, in which case we can communicate this need to our partner and explain why their behavior is challenging for us, and then explore a wide range of possible solutions that could meet our partners’ needs and our needs.

Thus, being firm requires holding ourselves accountable for making sure we’re really clear on and committed to what really matters to us (and not to positions, winning, or being right) so that we can be effective advocates for our needs and find effective solutions.

And this is why to be truly kind—to ourselves and others—we need be firm, since not doing so gets in the way of effectively problem-solving and finding solutions that meet all parties’ needs.

Give it a try!

As I explained in my last blog, “yes, and” thinking is all about seeing the world and situations as non-zero-sum, and embracing the reality that the world is complex and multiple seemingly contradictory things can and do co-exist.

The beautiful thing about this way of seeing the world is that it opens our eyes to all sorts of new possibilities, such as the fact that it is possible for us to meet our own needs while meeting the needs of others—while also being kind. However, for most of us, creating a “yes, and” mindset requires rewiring our brains from our typical zero-sum way of seeing things, and this can be challenging.

In line with this, it may be difficult for us to wrap our head around the fact that being kind and firm are not at all mutually exclusive; to the contrary, as I’ve explained above, they are complementary and synergistic.

I encourage you to give this way of operating a try. Play around with being both kind and firm—and be compassionate with yourself if it is hard at first. And let us know how it goes!

Danya Rumore, a white woman with brown hair wearing a teal blouse and cardiganDanya Rumore, Ph.D., is the director of the Environmental Dispute Resolution program in the Wallace Stegner Center at the University of Utah. She is a research professor in the S.J. Quinney College of Law and a clinical associate professor in the city and metropolitan planning department at the University of Utah. She teaches about, practices, and conducts research on conflict, negotiation, dispute resolution, leadership, and collaborative problem solving. She is also the founder and a co-director of the Gateway and Natural Amenity Region (GNAR) Initiative.


About the EDR blog: Hosted by the Wallace Stegner Center’s Environmental Dispute Resolution (EDR) program, the EDR blog shares ideas, tools, and resources to cultivate a culture of collaboration and help readers be more skillful in working through conflict. Read additional blog posts at edrblog.org.