Making Conflict Work for You 

By Jim Dawson

Conflict is inevitable. We may be afraid of it and handle it poorly, allowing problems to fester and grow. We may use it to control and manipulate others. Or we may accept that conflict is necessary for things to improve or change.

It’s how we respond to conflict that determines whether we see it as a means to encourage innovation and find answers, or as something to be avoided. If you understand the role conflict plays in your work and personal relationships, and you have the proper behaviors and environment, you can make conflict work for you to find better, and often unexpected, solutions.

Understanding Conflict: To manage conflict effectively you have to understand:

Its function: Whenever incompatible activities or ideas occur, conflict occurs. Any two people who have a disagreement usually have some level of emotional attachment to their own point of view. As a result, conflict breeds increased interaction and involvement.

If managed appropriately, conflict can stimulate creativity and new ways of thinking. Conflict also can help build group cohesiveness by providing an outlet for hostility. It may be said that the group, or couple, that fights together stays together.

The norms: Anytime two or more people live or work together, there will be conflict. Minor conflicts are usually handled diplomatically, such as deciding where to go to dinner. During a more significant disagreement of opinion, diplomacy may evolve or devolve depending on the degree of personal investment in the point of view or outcome desired.

When an idea is shared with others, that idea will go through a transition as it’s tested, challenged, and explored by others. This leads to a curious but potentially constructive blend of persuasion, compromise, negotiation, argumentation, flexibility, and firmness of opinion.

The process: Effective conflict resolution leverages the range of communicative behaviors of all the group members, including those who prefer to avoid conflict, and those who try to control conflict as a driver, “My way or the highway,” as a peacemaker, “I must have peace at all costs,” as a compromiser, “I’ll give up what I want,” or as a down player, “I’ll handle it later or maybe it will go away.”  While these behaviors can have merit depending on the situation, they usually foster simmering forms of conflict that lower morale and allow bigger problems to develop.

As conflict is inevitable and it can make a positive impact on relationships and teamwork, for managers and supervisors the question becomes, “How can I maximize the benefits of conflict and avoid the consequences of destructive behavior?”

Laying the Groundwork: When faced with conflict, most people feel threatened or invalidated to some degree. In response, they may keep repeating the same stories or opinions, stop listening to others, or refuse to see the facts of a situation. In essence, they become oblivious to any middle ground and resist working toward a mutually beneficial solution. Some, without realizing it, can’t tell the difference between their wants and needs. They tend to ask for it all and are less interested in finding a rational conclusion.

Regardless of how people respond to conflict, you can help them engage in the resolution process. In most situations, you can do this by treating them in a respectful manner, making time to hear what they have to say, letting them know their contributions are valued, and reassuring them that they play an important part in resolving the conflict.

Providing a SAFE Environment: To make conflict work for you, it’s up to you to provide a SAFE environment that encourages constructive behaviors and helps you facilitate a productive dialogue. Here are four key behaviors that can help you, and by your example, help others see beyond what has been to what can be.

S—Solicit and be open to solutions: Even if you believe your way is the best way, be open to other answers. Be willing to consider all possible solutions and pick the best one that may or may not be the one in which you have a vested interest.

A—Attend mentally as well as physically: It is not enough just to show up. You have to choose to be present and really listen to what’s being said, and contribute 100% of your energy and ability to the effort. Ask questions to clarify the problem and demonstrate your willingness to understand other perspectives. If needed, let the individuals involved vent their anger or express their fears. Your job is to actively listen, establish eye contact, and don’t interrupt the speaker. You are not only showing respect when you listen, you are finding out information that can help you resolve the conflict.

F—Focus on what’s important: It is easy to be sidetracked into meaningless or unrelated issues and arguments. Keep asking yourself and the team, what’s really important? What is our mission? Don’t allow yourself or the team to be led down unproductive side paths.

Express your concerns calmly and try to keep your own emotions out of it. Unless you are dealing with a trend, stick to the present and emphasize that you want to focus on what can be done to resolve the problem now and avoid it in the future.

E—Encourage honest communication—no blame or judgment: Set the expectation that everyone will talk to each other openly and honestly and with respect. State that it’s not about making someone right or wrong--it’s about making the issues easier to resolve. Make it clear that you are looking for a solution, not a perpetrator. Don’t allow finger pointing or accusations.

A SAFE environment is one in which participants show consideration for the other person’s point of view before they speak or respond to what has been said. It is not a blank check to say whatever comes to mind, but a constructive and purposeful process. Creating a SAFE environment takes time and your example and behavior will set the tone that everyone will receive the same consideration.

Most importantly, you must take responsibility for your role in the conflict. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge mistakes or oversights on your part that contributed to the situation. Set the example for others by asking for input about what you could do differently and thank the people who give you that feedback.

Getting Through It: Conflict is normal and an integral part of the way we make progress. When used properly, you will be amazed at what can be accomplished. Don’t worry if you are nervous and things seem unsettling during the resolution process. If you are committed to finding the right outcome, your courage, confidence, and competency will grow.

If you really want to affect change, accept that there will always be resistance. It’s up to you to withstand the pressures. By laying the groundwork and providing a SAFE environment, you will have the proper “pressure valves” and resources in place to turn conflicts into solutions.

Read other articles and learn more about Jim Dawson.

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