Leadership : Who is Afraid of a Little Conflict?

 JoanContact JPAjoan@aol.com or JPAtya@cox.net.  Joan's web site is at http://www.jpa-international.com/.

Part 1:  “The Three Stages of Conflict”

It doesn’t matter how well conflict is handled, it will never disappear.  Even the best relationships have clashes.  Anytime two people get together, there are bound to be some differences of opinion.  There is good news, however.  Conflict can be managed.


The Greatest Cause of Conflict


Conflict is a process, not a “happening.”  It is extremely rare for a person to sock someone in the nose unless provoked beforehand.


Many things cause conflict.  When asked what they think the greatest cause of conflict is, people respond:  “misunderstandings,” “lack of communication” and “differences of opinion.”  While all of these certainly exacerbate conflict that already exists, the single greatest cause of conflict is differing expectations.


The Three Stages of Conflict


The critical first step for preventing conflict is taking time to get to know one another; to find out what is important to each person.  If it turns out that our values lie on opposite ends of the spectrum, at least it’s clear what the problem is.  In such cases, interaction should be brief and stay on a professional level.


Let’s say that you both share similar values/expectations, and you make a commitment.  In the beginning, there usually is stability and growth in the relationship.  If it is a professional relationship, you see productivity.  At some point, however, you notice that something is not quite right, somehow you are not getting along, but you’re not sure exactly why.  You are now in the first stage of conflict.  This is the “warning” stage.  Often, getting together in a casual setting and talking about the situation can resolve the problem.


If the problem is not handled at this stage, the conflict will grow until the differences in expectations become clear.  This is the second stage of conflict and is much harder to resolve.  It means sitting down with the other person in a more formal manner and discussing each other’s expectations.  You should try to re-establish trust, which is the first thing to disappear when conflict arises.  You need to find real solutions that will endure.  If the conflict isn’t resolved at this stage, then it will move to a third and final stage.


In the third stage, you either start fighting or you start ignoring each other.  Either way, it still is possible to resolve problems in the third stage.  You should use the same process that was used in stage two – talking out your problems in a professional manner.  But you are now trying to resolve the difference under even more duress, and that is more difficult.


Part 2:  “How to Resolve Conflict in the Warning Stage”


How to Resolve Conflict in the Warning Stage


In the first segment of this article, we discussed the three stages of conflict:  (1) the warning stage; (2) the conflict grows; and (3) the real trouble begins.


When the warning stage occurs, there are two options:  say nothing and observe or get involved right from the start.  If you choose the first option and say nothing, it doesn’t mean you’re pretending the problem doesn’t exist.  It means you are waiting to gather more information before you approach the person.  The advantage here, especially if you keep a log, is that you will have more facts to back you up if you need them.  The disadvantage to doing this is that by the time you have gathered enough information, the problem will most likely have evolved into the second stage of conflict.


If you choose the second option and approach the person early on, you should keep your tone casual, and ask the person to join you for a quick (but private) meeting.  Then explain how you feel, making sure not to blame anyone.  Tell the person you want to get his or her feedback.  The key here is to keep things casual.


At this early stage, showing emotions could look like you are making a mountain out of a molehill.  If you stay low-key, sometimes you can easily work things out, and the relationship can regain its stability and trust.  Sometimes you can’t work things out, but at least you made the effort, which looks good in your files no matter what your position is in the company.


If a problem grows beyond the first stage of conflict -- that is, simply recognizing that there is a problem -- all your best communication, listening and negotiation skills will be needed to resolve it positively.



Part 3:  “When Conflict Moves Beyond the Warning Stage


When Conflict Moves Beyond the Warning Stage


In earlier segments of this article, we discussed the three stages of conflict and how to resolve conflict in the warning stage.


Many people try to avoid talking with someone when there is any tension.  However, with the right guidance, resolving differences can become a very rewarding experience.  Why?  We grow the most through learning how to work through our differences.  We learn that we can disagree with people but still like them – or at least respect them.  We see that the best friendships and the most creative working relationships are those that allow differences of opinion.  The following steps will increase your ability to work through differences with others, and help restore your ability to be part of a team.




Whenever possible, put distance and time between your reaction and action until you can think things through.  If there is a way you and the other person can take some time to cool off, do so.  Co-workers can learn to say “Time out!” and take a five-minute break before they say something they may regret later.  Managers can ask employees to calm down and think about what happened before they meet to discuss it.


Doing a “dump sheet” is the best way to prepare yourself when you are meeting with someone in a possible conflict situation.  Take a legal size pad of paper and pen, and find a place where you can be alone for five minutes.  Write down all your thoughts, beliefs, anxieties, emotions and biases – everything that is on your mind at that time.  Do not censor anything.


Doing a dump sheet allows you to be more objective.  It helps you see what is bothering you and what strategy you can take with the other person.  Once you have done your dump sheet, the best course of action will become clear to you.


Determine What the Problem Is


When you sit down to discuss differences, you should state your case briefly (with documentation if a manager) and then ask the other person what they are feeling.  Try to suspend all judgments.  At this stage, the goal is to get communication going, not to make any decisions.


If the other person is reluctant to speak openly, ask a sincere, open-ended question related to the situation.  Good open-ended questions are:  “What do you see the problem to be?” or “Your opinion is important:  what do you think?”  Then sit still and say nothing.  Eventually, the person will realize he won’t get away with a mere “Yes,” “No,” or “I don’t know.”


Asking questions and being genuinely interested in the other person’s feelings are critical to getting to the root of the problem.  But the most powerful communication tool is paraphrasing.  Saying back to the person what you think you hear him saying will show you are genuinely trying to understand.  This should encourage him to do the same.


Remembering to give feedback is difficult.  The average person paraphrases once during the course of a short conversation.  Yet many studies show that paraphrasing frequently does more than any other communication skill to promote harmony and re-establish rapport.


Paraphrasing makes the other person feel he can trust you and encourages him to speak candidly.  It facilitates getting to the root of the problem, as long as you are genuinely seeking a win-win resolution.



Part 4:  “Making Peace”


Seeking Areas of Common Agreement


In earlier segments of this article, we discussed the three stages of conflict, how to resolve conflict in the warning stage, what happens when conflict moves beyond the warning stage, and some concrete suggestions on resolving even the most difficult conflicts.  In this final segment, I will present you with more fodder for “making peace.”


Once you have talked over the problem, you should see if you agree on anything.  Take a big sheet of paper, make two columns and write together the issues you agree on and those you don’t.  In the “agree” column, write down anything you can think of.  In the “disagree” column, write down only the main issues.


 This process makes the areas of agreement look larger than the areas of disagreement.  It also helps you both to see whether you agree on what’s most important.


Taking Responsibility


If you have adequately prepared, determined what the problem is and sought areas of common agreement, the next step is to take ownership for how you might have contributed to the problem.  Usually, all parties involved in the discussion contributed to the problem in some way.


What do you do if the other person has a poor history of telling the truth or keeps throwing blame?  It is important to tell this person how you feel.  If you have gotten this far in the communication process and still get nowhere, it would be best to end the meeting and try again later.  You also can try using a mediator.


If the other side seems open to working with you, as soon as you see how you have contributed to the situation, own up.  This will take the other person off the defensive and increase the chances he will own up as well.


Conflict Resolution


Resolving conflict is a lot easier once trust and agreement areas have been established.  A critical component to re-establishing the ability to work together at this stage is to engage in some form of brainstorming.  The goal in a conflict resolution session is to find a solution through a combination of both parties’ ideas.  If everyone involved contributes to the solution, it increases the chances that everyone will buy in and follow it.  Brainstorming is a good way to get everyone’s involvement.  However, if you feel you must take a firmer guiding role, offer options.  In our society, options make us feel we have a choice, even if they are over small issues.


When a solution has been found, it is important to write it down, especially if the problem occurs in the workplace.  In addition, summarize what occurred in the meeting together. 


Some Thoughts to Remember


We have looked at some of the practical and clever ways to make peace a little faster and easier with our colleagues.  In the final analysis, the best strategies will only succeed when we can remain objective and check if our own perspective is correct.


If you ever find your ego in danger of becoming inflated, just think of what Napoleon once said to his troops as they prepared for battle:  “Men, there is somebody wiser than any of us, and that is everybody!”

Joan Pastor has worked with both private and public organizations as a consultant, conference speaker and trainer. Her in-depth knowledge reflects over nineteen years of experience in implementation of quality improvement programs, building high performing teams, developing the "customer" orientation within and outside the organization, change management and conflict resolution skills. Joan's web site is at http://www.jpa-international.com/.

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