Conflicts are inevitable. There’s no getting around the fact that in business, leaders are going to encounter conflicts. In fact, it’s been said that in business when two people always agree, one of them isn’t needed. Actually, there’s great value in having healthy conflict within an organization because healthy conflict brings to light the best ideas and the most viable solutions to problems.
Look at history, conflict has and will always be, the catalyst for change. Change in most cases which is long overdue. It’s been my experience that conflicts most often arise over differences in goals, methods and beliefs. And the pain we feel during a conflict is actually within ourselves. We want to get our way, but at the same time… we want to preserve the relationship with the other person. Our fear, another important aspect of conflict is that we can’t have both. We’ll have to choose between our “way” and the relationship and in that is our pain.
But in truth, we can make the best of a conflict situation and come out a winner. Once you understand a few key principles, you’ll view conflicts not as things to be avoided, but as opportunities to build and grow your relationships with others, strengthen your own character and develop better outcomes and growth within your organization.
- The first principle: Conflicts are cyclical. By that I mean that when you start feeling uncomfortable, like a conflict is brewing, don’t deny it. Do that and it will get worse. Think about it; we are all the same. First we try to talk ourselves out of feeling that initial twinge of conflict. We let it pass, hoping it will just go away. But it doesn’t so we start thinking that maybe it is us. We’re the ones making a big deal out of nothing. After that doesn’t work, then we succumb and think it can’t be us, it’s the other person. From there we start to heat up and build our case. At this point we may be giving the other person the cold shoulder. We may be short or curt in our responses. We may even avoid the person altogether. Eventually, this leads to a full blown confrontation. It can be a screaming match or it can be more subdued, but in either case, it’s two opposing sides going after each other usually about anything but the real issue. Ultimately, after the clash is some sort of resolution. It can be a kiss and make up or it can be we’re going our separate ways. If the root of the conflict isn’t really resolved, the cycle will start over again.
- The second principle: The sooner you can address a conflict, the more effective your outcome will be. Why? Because the earlier we are in the conflict cycle the more rational we are. We haven’t vilified our opponent, yet. Actually, early in the conflict, we don’t even consider the other person an opponent at all. The last place you want to address a conflict is during a confrontation. That’s when our emotions are highest and we’ll have the most difficult time remaining calm and speaking purposefully.
- The third principle: The secret to effective conflict management is effective communication. Many people profess that the best thing you can do in a conflict situation is let the other person speak their peace and avoid the temptation to speak yours until the other person is done. But what if you are the other person? Follow that practice and it sounds like you have a license to just spout off. Well, unfortunately, if you want a good outcome, one that preserves the relationship, you don’t have that license. And, good thing. Because there is no guarantee that the other person has read the article that says, ‘listen intently and respectfully until the other person is done venting.’ So what do you do? You speak with purpose and you speak about yourself, not the other person. Think of it this way, you start your sentences with “I,” not with “you.” “You” puts the communication and you in blame mode. “I” puts you in feeling mode and when it comes to conflict, it’s all about sharing your feelings, your perceptions, your wants for yourself, your desired outcomes for the other person and the organization, and what you are willing to do to have a good resolution.
- The fourth principle: Conflict communications requires purposeful language. In fact, when sharing your feelings and perceptions, word choice is everything. A good choice is a sentence like “I heard you; you are unhappy with my decision.” A bad choice is “You obviously are unhappy with my decision, you always have a problem with what I do.” The first option is empathetic. The second is passive aggressive, blame filled and globalizes the issue. Those are three no-no’s. Other conflict communication don’ts include the language of martyrdom: “That’s okay. I’m used to being slammed by you every time I make a decision.” The no-no’s there: “A stance of suffering, globalization and blame.”
- The fifth principle: Plan your conflict communication, then talk. I never enter into a conflict discussion without planning exactly what I am going to say. I write my thoughts down and not only is the exercise helpful during the conflict, it is clarifying. It helps me get to the heart of exactly what is bothering me. When planning your communication, ask and answer these questions: What am I sensing or experiencing around the issue? How does it make me feel? What do I want for myself? What do I want for you? What am I willing to do to achieve this outcome?
Conflict is a unique communication challenge. But once you understand that conflict is inevitable, that it is an important catalyst to change and progress and once you know how to manage it, you can master it. It just takes understanding, technique and practice and you’ll never avoid conflict again.
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