By Trevor Bentley and Howard Boorman
Conflict is just about inevitable in any workplace. Where conflict is seen as stemming from different ideas and viewpoints it can be very useful, leading to creativity and innovation. However, conflict is usually seen as a difficulty between people and frequently gets in the way.
As a leader the conflict you may need to deal with may be between yourself and someone else or between others.
If the conflict is between you and someone else it’s important to recognise that all situations between two people are, at least to some extent, co-created and that shifting your viewpoint or position may be enough to help the other person shift theirs so that any conflict can be dealt with usefully.
The following extract from Sue Clayton’s book, Simply People1, may be useful:
Our lack of understanding of difference, and misassumptions about each other can lead to all sorts of difficulties. These entanglements and conflict that arise from these difficulties can be daunting.
Resolving difficult relationships takes energy, thought and self reflection. I try to take the view that ‘it isn’t the person that is difficult, it is the relationship that’s difficult’, which means that I am also contributing to this difficulty and I need to understand what I do that adds to the difficulty.
In these situations I usually discover that I have not fully understood the other person and neither have I been understood by them.
This can happen for a number of reasons:
our differences do not allow us to have any degree of empathy with each other’s position
we are seeking commonality on opposing issues rather than valuing difference on our diverse viewpoints (or we are not looking for a third option!)
our differences (beliefs, values, viewpoints) are not being mutually respected.
Resolving difficulties usually isn’t about seeking similarity or acknowledging difference, it is about finding a dynamic balance between the two.
All relationships have some degree of difficulty. The difficulty in relationships provides us with an opportunity to develop and refine our own behaviour, to see our imperfections, and to fine tune our relationship skills.
Conflict also provides us with a wonderful opportunity to build stronger relationships, if we are prepared to deal with the consequences of our actions, especially the unintended consequences.
Working with unintended consequences
Generally people tend to avoid taking action if they fear the outcome might be unpleasant, or not what they want. In other words we hold back for fear of the consequences. If this fear can be lessened or removed it releases us to be more daring and adventurous in our disclosures and interventions.
We’ve identified three steps in working with unintended consequences
In addition to working with the consequences when you think you’ve done something ‘wrong’ or inappropriate (or even when it doesn’t seem that way from your perspective but appears to be the case from the other person’s perspective), you can choose to treat it as a ‘miss-take’ (rather than a ‘mistake’) and you can have another go (‘Take 2’), or ask the other person to ‘correct’ you.
Regardless of whether the conflict is between you and another or between other people, the following process can be very useful when dealing with conflict between two people (here identified as A and B):
Set the ground rules, e.g. timeframes, confidentiality, owning what we say (i.e. using “I” statements), no interruptions. Both A and B should be encouraged to make reference to assumptions, expectations and interpretations they’re making.
A talks for the agreed time describing what it’s like for them in the situation. B listens (and makes notes if they want to).
B then seeks clarification of anything A has said that mightn’t have been fully understood. B says how listening to A has left them feeling (there is no “made” here; throughout the process, and especially at points like this, it’s vital that people stick to “I” statements such as, “When you said that, I felt X.”)
A & B then swap talking and listening positions and can repeat the process as often as seen to be useful.
When both A and B have heard each other and clarified misunderstandings, each person states how they would like to progress coming to an agreement. (This is often not needed as the work has been done already!) If necessary, a date can be set to meet to review progress.
If you are operating as a supporter in this process, your role is to:
1 Clayton, S., Simply People, the space between publishing, 2001
2 Bentley, T., A Touch of Magic (in the business world), the space between publishing, 2002
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