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Making Conflict Work for You

Conflict is inevitable. Its effect depends on how we respond to it. If we fear conflict and handle it poorly, small problems will fester and grow into larger ones. Unfortunately, some people may exploit conflict, using it as a way to control and manipulate others. In the best-case scenario, conflict can be a catalyst for improvement and change. If you understand the role conflict plays in your work and personal relationships, you’ll find that you can make conflict work for you instead of against you.

Understanding Conflict
  • Its function
    Conflict is the result of incompatible activities or ideas. When two people disagree each usually has some level of emotional attachment to his 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. In other words, the group (or couple) that fights together stays together.
  • The norms
    Any time two or more people live or work together, there will be conflict. Minor conflicts—such as agreeing where to have lunch—are usually handled diplomatically. In case of a significant disagreement of opinion, diplomacy may evolve or devolve depending on the participants’ degree of personal investment in the outcome. 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. Participants may take on a variety of roles—some may 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 for the good of the group”) or as a procrastinator (“I’ll handle it later or maybe it will go away.”) While each of 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.

The question for managers and supervisors becomes, “How can I maximize the benefits of conflict and avoid the consequences of destructive behavior?”

Providing a “SAFE” Environment for Conflict Resolution

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 face the facts of a situation. Regardless of how people respond to conflict, a resourceful manager can help them engage in the resolution process.

To make conflict work for a team, it’s up to the manager to provide a “SAFE” environment that encourages constructive behaviors and helps facilitate a productive dialogue. A SAFE environment is one in which participants show consideration for the other people’s points of view before they speak or respond to what has been said:

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, which 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 really listen to what’s being said and contribute 100% of your energy and ability to the resolution effort. Ask questions to clarify the problem and demonstrate your willingness to understand others’ perspectives. If necessary, allow the individuals involved to vent their anger and express their fears. The manager’s job is to actively listen, establish eye contact and to make sure each person speaks without being interrupted. Listening shows respect and allows the facts to emerge.

F:  Focus on what’s important

It is easy to become 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 unemotionally. 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 who is 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.

Keep in mind that a “SAFE” environment is not a blank check for people to say whatever comes to mind. It is a constructive and purposeful process that takes time to create. The leader sets the tone by making it clear that all will receive equal consideration. He or she must take responsibility for his or her role in the conflict, freely acknowledging mistakes or oversights on his or her part that contributed to the situation.

Getting Through It
Conflict is a normal and integral part of the way people 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.

Of course, there will always be resistance to change. But 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.