Communication, Conflict Resolution, Listening

How to Manage Conflict Effectively

For most of us, all conflict is seen as something bad. We’re inclined to react to conflict in a programmatic computer-like manner by adopting any of the following reactions:

* ignoring it
* eliminating it
* subjugating it
* compromising with it
* developing alliances against it

With the intention being to get rid of the conflict as quickly as possible!

However, conflict doesn’t go away easily. In fact, conflict is an inevitability of life. Behavioural scientists affirm it’s an essential element for human growth and maturity.

For example, the ‘conflict’ that led to a fellow classmate becoming my best friend in high school occurred when I asked to borrow his compass (the type used to draw circles). He threw it to me to catch; I missed and the pointed end became embedded in my knee! Needless to say, I wasn’t impressed (although it made an impression on me!). But that friendship lasted even till today, 60 plus years later, with David becoming the best man at my wedding almost 44 years ago. Even negative conflicts can be resolved if there’s willingness for both parties to work together to find an equitable solution. In the words of Robert Dow, Learning through Encounter: “The very word ‘conflict’ implies a ‘fight together’. To have a conflict there must be, by mutual agreement, an encounter. Any encounter can lead to resolve, reconciliation and growth. (Growth here implies new learning and new behaviour.)”

Workplace conflicts usually arise from:

  1. Differing perceptions between people – eg. one employee sees the promotion of a colleague as the result of favouritism, whereas the one promoted sees it as merit based.

  2. Differing values. If the clash of values does not affect workplace behaviour, the mature approach should be ‘let’s agree to disagree’. However, if the conflicting values (and the needs behind those values) lead to disruptive behaviours, resolving or at least managing the conflict becomes important. The recent angry public demonstrations in our capital cities following the pandemic around vaccination passports and lockdowns is a classic clash of the values of individual freedom versus the common good. A workplace example could be, one worker likes continually chatting with his colleague who shares the same workspace, while the co-worker finds she gets distracted and makes mistakes if she can’t concentrate on her work when someone is talking to her. 

Here then are six steps I’ve found to be helpful in managing conflict, especially conflict in the workplace:

1. Clarify the Nature of the Conflict

Is it a conflict caused by different perceptions, different values or negative behaviours (probably arising from differing values)? As I’ve already said, if it’s just a matter of having different values without any negative consequences, just try to agree to disagree. But lf it’s caused by significant different perceptions or different values resulting in disruptive behaviours, further work is needed.

2. Practise Listening to Each Other

Conflict can’t begin to be resolved unless proponents are willing to try and listen to each other. The most helpful skill here is depth listening, ideally by each party. (If both are unable to do that, then one member can try. If neither, an independent person skilled in active listening is needed.)

A simple framework I encourage clients to use in order to listen at depth goes like this, with each person taking turns to say: “When you (describe objectively the action from the other you saw that contributed to the conflict), I felt (describe calmly your feelings when that happened) and I’d rather (describe the alternative action you would have preferred the other person to have taken).”

The two particular depth listening skills critical at this stage are paraphrase and perception- check. Paraphrase is where each takes turns to listen and then give feedback in their own words what they’ve heard the other say. For example, “You’re saying I said …”, or “You understood I wanted to…”, “It sounds like you believe that when I did … I was trying to …”

Perception-check is communicating the feelings you’ve picked up from the other (through their tone of voice and body language) that seem to lie behind the words spoken. Examples could be, “I get the impression you’re feeling angry that I…”, “Sounds like you feel disappointed with me for…”, “I hear you’re feeling pretty annoyed with my decision to…”

When responding it is important to speak calmly, without aggression, hold your own feelings in check, and use ‘I’ language (i.e. describe how you experienced the conflict) rather than ‘you’ language (words that sound like you’re judging the other’s actions). Also make your responses more suggestive than dogmatic. Managing your own emotions at this point is essential to be able to achieve that.

3. Establish a Shared SMART Goal to Manage the Conflict

SMART is an acrostic for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-framed. In other words, a goal that will help both parties move forward needs to be clear and specific; capable of some form of measurement, ideally as objective as possible; able to be achieved which probably will involve some form of ‘stretch’ of comfort zones, usually from both parties; is relevant to the disagreement and has a ‘by when’ date to be achieved. Obviously, unless both parties agree and are committed to achieving the goal, the conflict will continue – maybe even get worse.

4. Do a Force Field Analysis

Developed by organizational psychologist Kurt Lewin, force field analysis is a method of brainstorming the driving and blocking forces that are maintaining the current state. Lewin maintained that the status quo is held in balance by two sets of competing forces – drivers and blockers. As the terms imply, drivers are those forces encouraging and pushing for change, while blockers are those that impede the desired change from occurring. It’s critically important to identify both the blockers that are behind the problem, keeping the issue alive and stopping both parties from achieving their SMART goal, as well as the current or potential driving forces that could be harnessed to help achieve it. Once identified you can then develop action steps to weaken (or, if possible, eliminate) the blocking forces and strengthen the driving forces.

To streamline the process, I encourage clients to draw on the discoveries of economist Wilfredo Pareto. Pareto, an 19th century Italian economist, found that in any situation 20% of inputs (in terms of Lewin’s model, 20% of the drivers and 20% of the blockers) will produce 80% of the outputs (i.e. 80% of the benefit of achieving the agreed goal).

5. Action Steps

As indicated in 4, the next step is to establish the actions necessary to achieve your goal. That means developing action steps around the priority drivers and blockers – the 20%ers that will do most (80%) of the heavy lifting to reach your goal. And remember, Lewin said it’s important to work on both sides of the ‘ledger’ – if you only address the drivers, somehow the blocking forces ‘react’ exerting more pressure! Naturally both parties need to agree on these action steps plus who is going to do what and by when. Then do it!

6. Follow up Process

The final step is to agree on a follow up process. For example, meet together one month later to review progress (then, if needed, set further meetings, agreeing on any additional actions) or share with your leader what the issue has been and what you’ve already done and agreed to do to address it.

Experience shows that unless conflicts are addressed promptly and sensitively they invariably become intractable. Proponents become intransigent, each emotionally invested in their own position and strongly resistant to change. Unable to reach resolution, each party is then not only unwilling to agree on a solution but often unable to work together at all. Certainly by that point, and usually if the parties themselves are unable to reach step 3 (and sometimes even step 2), the conflict becomes a matter for leadership intervention.

Leaders should be alert to the signs of potential conflict in the workplace and establish conflict minimization systems, training and coaching in conflict management, together with clear conflict resolution policies and procedures, before disagreements escalate. If left unchecked, unresolved and unmanaged conflict undermines team morale, damages productivity and potentially leads to a toxic work environment, affecting all employees.

Graham Beattie

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