The Challenge of Managing Conflict
Why conflicts don't have to be mean-spirited.
Posted Feb 19, 2020
Conflict is basically a disagreement through which everybody involved perceives a threat to their needs, interests, values, or goals. Inevitably, we will have disagreements and conflicts with those with whom we work, lead, and follow. Whether they are brought out in the open or left unsaid, disagreements are a part of life.
Reasonable people often disagree, and that is to be expected and, in some cases, welcomed. Conflict is a necessary part of truth-seeking. When we avoid dealing with conflict, it festers and becomes disruptive. Generally, conflict is most destructive when it stems from emotional responses to our disagreements.
As members of an organization, we are called to communion—sharing thoughts and feelings—not unity of opinion. We become effective when we learn how to manage conflict, not avoid it. We certainly don't want to be like the couple that explained to the marriage counselor, "We never talk any more. We figured out that's when we have all our fights."
What Type of Conflict Do You Struggle With?
If you are like most people, most of the conflicts center on at least one of the following areas:
These are conflicts over competing goals or priorities: e.g., you want to focus on a new strategic opportunity; your boss wants to focus on a current operational problem.
People who call their conflicts "personality conflicts" haven't figured out an effective way to relate to each other. A personality conflict usually has to do with differences in behavior or upbringing. For example, if you are a naturally positive and optimistic person, you may have difficulty dealing with someone who has a negative attitude.
Conflict can happen when you're competing over scarce resources. If one of your peers seems to be getting more resources from your boss (e.g., staff, money, time) than you are, that can cause conflict between you, and perhaps between you and your boss, too.
People have different work-processing styles. Your thinking style or communication style might conflict with someone else's thinking or communication style. For example, there are some of us who focus on the "big picture," and some of us who focus on the details of a project. Another example is that some of us "talk as we think," while some of us "think before we talk." All of these can cause conflict in our relationships with others who process information differently.
Values are core, both to individuals and to organizations. This is why many people find that a particular boss, co-worker, organization, or culture just clashes with them. For example, your boss may value how much work you accomplish while you may value the quality of what you accomplish more than how much work you actually did. Values conflicts are some of the most difficult to resolve, primarily because values are so deeply entrenched in people and in companies.
Whichever conflict tends to plague you, engaging in dialogue and negotiation around conflict is something most of us tend to approach with fear and hesitation, afraid that the conversation will make the conflict worse. All too often, we talk ourselves out of having a dialogue, because it takes courage to honestly and clearly articulate your needs and to sit down and listen to those in disagreement with you. It takes courage to look at your own role in the dispute, and it takes courage to approach others with a sense of empathy, openness, and respect for their perspective.
Suggestions to Resolve Conflicts
Try these actions to improve your conflict management and resolution abilities:
1. Start by seeing those with whom you are in conflict as decent, reasonable persons who want to arrive at a fair solution. Deal with them with respect, just as you expect them to deal respectfully with you.
2. Just as you would separate the person from his/her behavior, separate the person from the conflict the two of you are having. Start by clarifying to each other exactly what the conflict or problem involves. Find out what they want (i.e., their interests) and what they need (i.e., their position).
Ask for all the additional information you need to understand. Don't try to offer solutions or "Mr. Fix-It" statements at this point.
3. Recognize that there are probably many possible solutions that would meet both your interests and the other person's interests. Draw upon the things you both agree on and upon your shared goals and interests. Draft some plans that will maximize the desired outcome for both of you. Try to have several plans or ideas, so that it doesn't appear as a "take-it-or-leave-it" proposition.
4. Remember that both parties to a conflict are accountable for the outcome(s). Use "I" statements and avoid blaming "You" statements. Coming to an agreement on the outcome allows both parties to feel good about the process and the results.
Excerpted from Needy People: Working Successfully with Control Freaks and Approval-holics by Dale J. Dwyer (2017).