Keeping Conflict to a Minimum
By Patti Fralix
people do what makes sense to themselves, regardless of the impact
on others. When one person’s behavior is not understood and/or
accepted by the other person, conflict ensues. The conflict can be
overt or covert. If this conflict is managed well, which means
without negativity and the inappropriate display of anger, results
and relationships can be sustained, and even improved.
Unfortunately, too often the opposite occurs. It is time to stop the
cycles of act/react and find better solutions to differences than
often assumed possible. Before focusing on solutions, let’s first
discuss conflict in more detail.
conflict occurs when people have differences yet do not discuss them
openly. There are two types: avoiding and ignoring.
Covert conflict creates internal stress and results in feelings
such as discomfort and anxiety, which can include physical
manifestations, such as ulcers.
conflict is similar to “hiding one’s head in the sand, thinking (and
hoping) that the issue will go away or be resolved on its own.
These thoughts are often subconscious. Ignoring is making a
conscious decision to not deal with the issue. This decision can be
positive or negative, and the difference relates to one’s
intention. If the decision to ignore the conflict is a result of
“not majoring on the minors,” that can be a positive and mature
response. It can also be a result of choosing to “let this one go,”
wanting to make sure that this is something that is a problem one
should address, such as a negative pattern of behavior.
conflict occurs when people openly disagree and choose to confront
(address) it with the other person. This occurs as a result of
different perspectives, expectations, beliefs, values, and sometimes
just information. When one decides to confront an issue with
another, that decision should be made with full knowledge of the
possible, and even probable, types of responses, of the other
person. The most common types of responses are: competitiveness,
compromise and negotiation. One should anticipate and prepare for
those possibilities, including the appropriate response to each.
conflict is preferable to covert conflict, since it is not possible
to resolve covert conflict. Covert conflict is like an undiagnosed
and untreated disease that usually gets worse if left untreated.
Here are just a few ways that companies can help employees prevent
and resolve conflicts:
People are usually either a direct or indirect
communicator. The direct communicator has more “bottom-line”
talk. The indirect communicator uses more qualifiers, which
often “soften” what the individual is saying. This difference
alone can result in misunderstanding and conflict. To a direct
communicator, the person that says “it seems that” (a qualifying
phrase) can be heard and thought of as “wishy-washy” and not
getting to the point. Understanding differences such as these
and communicating effectively based on those differences
improves productivity and results.
Create an environment that is welcoming to
diversity: One of the reasons for the increase in conflicts
is the increase in diversity without an increase in
understanding and acceptance of the differences. Diversity in
and of itself is not positive or negative. It becomes positive
when the differences create opportunities for individuals,
companies, the marketplace, and society as a whole. When those
differences create unresolved conflicts between people, the
opportunities are usually lost.
Make sure there is role clarity and common
understanding of responsibilities and deadlines: Too many
conflicts occur because managers fail to provide employees with
information related to their job responsibilities and the
company in general. Who is accountable for what becomes even
more important to clarify in an environment of teamwork and
project work. While teamwork is becoming more prevalent and
necessary, too often teamwork decision making results in a lack
of role clarity. Also, with most people having more
responsibilities that they can easily manage, it is imperative
that priorities and deadlines be clear to all.
Commit to conflict management: Discuss
conflict on a general level so that employees understand that
change and opportunity always involves conflict. Make sure
people understand that managing conflict effectively is a
company expectation. Treat employees as adults, expecting that
they solve their own problems. When an employee complains to a
manager about another employee, the manager’s first questions
should be, “Have you discussed your concern with [Name of
Employee]?” The manager should be a resource in helping
employees to manage their own conflicts, functioning as a coach.
Implement a communication model for handling
conflicts: Many problems can be diffused by effective
communication. There are three steps that anyone can use to
manage conflicts effectively:
1. Focus first on the desired outcome of the interaction. This will
usually include that the relationship be maintained, and hopefully
2. Ask More Questions/ Make Fewer Statements. This will improve
3. Use the dominant communication style of the other person, Direct or
Indirect, even if it is not your dominant style.
model is simple, but it is not easy. It is much easier to just
start talking without thinking of the desired outcome. It is easy
to think the desired outcome should be to make one’s point clearly.
Counter intuitively, when we focus first on understanding the
other’s position, ours is often heard and accepted better.
increased change, ambiguity, and stress, we should expect more
conflict, both covert and overt. Understanding different
personality styles, communicating effectively with different people,
and utilizing the three-step communication model are good strategies
for managing conflict. When conflict is understood and managed
effectively, results and relationships are improved.
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