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Conflict occurs when two or more people’s differences escalate to a level that negatively affects or might affect productivity, quality, service, morale or working relationships. Conflict has many effects, both immediate and residual. Immediate effects might be obvious, like missing a deadline or losing a sale, or not so obvious, like absenteeism or lack of cooperation. Even after the conflict has been resolved, there can still be long-lasting residual effects on the working relationships of the parties involved.
Stages of Conflict
A personality conflict can start out very slowly and gain momentum without your noticing it.
Likewise, judgments, prejudices, and divergent opinions can escalate to discord and, finally, to arguments. At any stage, conflict can have an outcome of either discovery or damage.
If conflict is escalating but you do nothing to help resolve it, damage is the ultimate result. On the other hand, if at any stage of a conflict you appropriately guide people toward resolving it, you could lead them to a path of discovery.
Signs of Escalation
• • Hanging onto own ideas
• More telling and less asking
• Discounting others’ ideas
• Less tolerant for others’ differences
• Reluctance to listening
• Raising tone of voice
• Common goals replaced by personal goals
• Lack of cooperation
• Deteriorating relationship
• Communication breakdown
• Power struggle
Addressing Conflict with Key Principles
1. Maintain or enhance self-esteem:
a. Focus on facts; don’t attacked or blame.
b. Acknowledge efforts toward solutions.
c. Respect privacy.
2. Listen and respond with empathy:
a. Suspend judgment.
b. Don’t take sides.
c. Allow some “airtime.”
3. Ask for help and encourage involvement:
a. Seek first, offer later.
b. Establish ground rules.
4. Share thoughts, feelings, and rationale (to build trust):
a. Clarify impact.
b. Offer a broader perspective.
c. Disclose judiciously.
5. Provide support without removing responsibility (to build ownership):
a. Be clear about accountability.
b. Beware of quick fixes.
c. Know that support varies.
Resolution Tactics and When to Use to Use Them
Take No Action
When people have differing viewpoints but are still pursuing and achieving common business or organizational goals, you would take no action. Taking no action does not imply avoiding or ignoring the situation. Rather, it requires that you observe the situation and recognize that, if differences go unresolved, you might need to get involved. By taking no immediate action, you demonstrate your confidence in people’s ability to resolve their differing viewpoints.
You might choose to take no action when:
• Despite differing viewpoints, people continue to make progress on goals.
• Those involved feel little or no impact from the conflict on the working relationship.
• There is little or no impact on productivity or morale.
• People involved have the skills to resolve the conflict.
• The people involved are willing to resolve the conflict, even if differences are escalating.
The coaching tactic requires behind-the-scenes involvement. It means coaching someone on how to resolve his or her conflict with a third party; it does not mean giving someone coaching for improvement in order to “fix” the conflict.
When using the coaching tactic, you help build others’ ability and commitment to resolving the conflict by modeling the skills and behaviors needed to conduct the discussion. You do so by asking questions that help to clarify the situation and its impact and by reinforcing the idea that each person’s viewpoint must be heard. You work together to generate possible approaches for resolving the conflict and to decide on the best next steps. You might act as a sounding board or even role-play a discussion. Finally, you bolster people’s confidence by encouraging them to handle the situation directly instead of relying on you to resolve the conflict.
You might choose the coaching resolution tactic when:
• The people involved are capable of resolving it, but are not taking steps to do so.
• Differing viewpoints are slowing progress toward goals.
• There is some negative impact on morale and working relationships.
• At least one person seems willing and able to work it out.
• The parties have asked for your help in resolving the conflict.
• The parties lack confidence and you want to encourage one of them to take the lead.
When Using the Coaching Tactic:
• “Seek more than tell,” especially when someone comes to you for coaching rather than you initiating the coaching.
• Ask questions before sharing your own ideas and information.
• Encourage the person or group to take responsibility for discussing the problem with the other party, instead of relying on you to resolve the issue.
• Build others’ commitment to resolving the conflict themselves.
Mediating requires a greater degree of involvement than the first two resolution tactics. You take an active role in bringing the parties together, facilitating the discussion, and helping them develop workable solutions.
The goal of mediating is that the parties involved commit to resolving the conflict. You help them do this by describing the situation and asking them to consider the impact of the unresolved conflict on themselves and others. Once people see the potential for damage and recognize that you are there to help, not to blame or take sides, they can begin to identify causes of the conflict and, eventually, focus on solutions. By encouraging both parties’ involvement throughout the discussion, you build their confidence and commitment to a resolution, while demonstrating that you value their viewpoints.
You might choose this resolution tactic when:
• The people involved are at a stalemate.
• There is a noticeable drop in productivity and a disruptive effect on morale and working relationships.
• Communication is guarded or nonexistent.
• The people involved have reached a stalemate and are struggling to work out the problem.
• Prior resolution attempts by the people involved have failed but they still want resolution.
• Coaching didn’t work and the situation is escalating.
When Using the Mediate Tactic:
• Make sure that all parties’ viewpoints are heard and understood.
• Empathize with each person’s perspective to help defuse his or her emotions.
• Be alert to verbal and nonverbal cues of both parties.
• Create a balance in involvement, seeking out quiet individuals, while managing the input of naturally outgoing and talkative individuals.
• Check for mutual understanding frequently.
• Make procedural suggestions if the discussion is getting off track or becoming one-sided.
• Don’t take sides.
• Ask the parties to suggest and agree on ground rules for the discussion, such as giving five minutes to voice concerns without interruptions. Refer to the ground rules as needed to ensure a smooth and effective discussion.
• Ask parties to consider the impact of the unresolved conflict on themselves and others, including the effect it might have on the organization’s strategies, goals, etc.
In some situations, despite your best efforts, a conflict might evolve to the point that it
interferes with productivity, teamwork, morale, and customers’ needs. When damage is
occurring and you’ve tried everything else, your only option might be to take charge. When you take charge, you inform people of what they must do to resolve the conflict, reinforce their responsibility in carrying out the plan, and follow up to ensure that the plan is accomplishing its objective.
Often leaders think that there are only two approaches to resolving conflict: taking no action or taking charge. They might ignore the escalation of differences until the situation gets so bad that they have to take charge. Or they might think that taking charge is what leaders are supposed to do. Inappropriate use of this approach is a disservice to people. They never get the chance to learn to resolve conflict or to take responsibility for handling it. They’re likely to feel patronized and rebel against the leader’s prescribed approach. Taking charge should be used after you’ve tried coaching or mediating (perhaps several times).
You might choose this resolution tactic when:
• Productivity and progress are at a standstill.
• Morale, trust and teamwork are at an all-time low.
• The parties have shut down and given up.
• Attempts to coach and to mediate have failed.
• You are concerned about others’ physical safety or emotional well-being.
The interaction process, illustrated below, equips you with the skills you need to address both kinds of needs as you use and apply the coaching or mediation resolution tactics.
1. OPEN by identifying the conflict and its impact:
• Make procedural suggestions.
• State purpose of discussion.
• Check for understanding.
• Identify importance (impact on/benefits to person, team, organization).
2. CLARIFY causes of the conflict:
• Seek and share information about the situation/task.
• Identify issues and concerns.
3. DEVELOP ideas for resolving the conflict:
• Seek and discuss ideas.
• Explore needed resources/support.
4. AGREE on a plan for resolving the conflict:
• Specify actions, including contingency plans, if appropriate.
• Confirm how to measure progress.
5. CLOSE by summarizing and confirming confidence:
• Highlight important features of plan.
• Confirm confidence and commitment.
On the other hand, if you recognize the signs of conflict—at any stage—and appropriately guide people toward resolving it, you can lead them on a path of discovery, in the form of new ideas or solutions, as well as improved partnerships, processes, products, or services. A new sense of teamwork and trust can emerge, strengthened by having survived the conflict. How skillfully you address the conflict, regardless of its stage, will determine its outcome.
Discovery or Damage
While differences in age, gender, personality, etc., might contribute to misunderstandings and conflict, here “differences” mean differing ideas, goals, or points of view. Such differences can promote creativity and innovation. Discussing opposing opinions and building on one another’s ideas can result in unique solutions and lead to positive, productive outcomes for the organization.
However, these same differences also can lead to conflict. Tight deadlines and heavy workloads can reduce people’s tolerance levels. Sometimes, processes force people into adversarial roles; they might have opposing goals or even the same goals, but different ways to achieve them.
The following signs indicate that differences are escalating in an unproductive way:
• People spend more time telling than asking and listening; they discount others’ ideas.
• People are not as tolerant of others’ differences as they once were.
• People show some unwillingness to let go of their own ideas and, as a result, struggle to overcome impasses and to develop solutions agreeable to everyone.
• People start to look out for their individual interests and lose sight of mutual goals. They focus on what’s best for them and what’s “wrong” with others. For example, people might stick with their ideas, no matter how much logical information is presented to the contrary, or they might raise unresolved resentments from previous conflicts. As a result, communication becomes guarded and calculated. An attitude that “we’re right and they’re wrong” starts to build and strains working relationships. People are on their way to the next stage of conflict.
The following signs indicate that people are experiencing discord:
• People are less willing to communicate in a solution-oriented manner.
• People become defensive about their ideas and start to take sides.
• Little two-way communication occurs; lack of cooperation is apparent.
• Conflict is in full swing.
• The issue that started it all might have slipped from focus and been replaced by the struggle to be heard, to be right, and to win.
• Abrasive or mean comments can result in bruised feelings, friction, and ongoing rivalry.
• Morale and work relationships deteriorate to the point that people engage in pettiness, confrontations, hostility, silent resignation, or even sabotage. Productivity decreases noticeably, and the negative effects spread to people other than the conflicting parties.
The following signs indicate that people are experiencing dispute:
• People care more about “winning” than about making the best business decisions.
• People try to win allies—even those who weren’t originally involved in the conflict.
• Common goals give way to personal goals.
You need to be alert to signs of escalating conflict to determine whether to intervene, and to what degree, in order to minimize potential damage. From taking no action to taking charge, each of the four resolution tactics requires an increase in your level of involvement.
When people interact, they generally have two kinds of needs:
• Personal needs: to be understood and involved.
• Practical needs: to reach a productive outcome.
1. Conflict occurs because we have different maps of reality.
2. The meaning of communication is the response you get.
3. If you are not getting the response you want, change what you are doing or communicating.
4. Conflict—Using Tension Creatively:
• Conflict and Differences:
3. Point of view
• Conflict Positions and Results:
1. You lose/I lose (lose/lose)
2. You win/I lose (win/lose)
3. You lose/I win (lose/win)
4. You win/I win (win/win)
• Problem Solving Strategies:
1. State the problem
2. Outline your response
3. List your alternative
4. View the consequences
5. Evaluate your results
Where do I do it?
When do I do it?
Where it happened?
How do I do it?
How it happened?
How do I feel?
Why it happened?
What do I want?
Reclassify the problem
1. The real problem is not…
2. The real problem is…
• Who, where, what’s done that bothered you.
• When you respond, how/why it happened.
The Outcome Factor
1. Aim for a specific result.
2. Be positive—express in terms of doing rather than not doing.
3. See, hear, feel—use sensory data.
4. Dovetail your desires and needs with others.
5. Entertain short- and long-term objectives.
1. Write your wanted outcomes on line 1.
2. Write the other person’s outcomes on line 2.
3. Write your outcomes in sensory-based terms.
4. Think creatively. Brainstorm ways to obtain both outcomes.
5. Write dovetailed outcomes on last line.
3. What would happen if…?
4. Four words to unblock conflict: “What do you want?”
1. Conflict can be a positive force. Problems are solvable.
2. Possibilities and challenges are more fun than problems.
3. Most situations present more than two possible solutions.
4. Action-planning is a way to manage conflict.
5. Anyone can learn to be creative and think of new possibilities.
6. Dovetailing leads to winning solutions.
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