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Dealing with Conflict

Conflict has a bad reputation. Most people view conflict as a bad thing because they believe it has to be an adversarial win or lose situation. The reality is that conflict is inevitable in relationships, and it doesn’t have to be a negative thing. It depends if you choose to manage the conflict or let the conflict manage you.Thomas Kilmann defines conflict as any situation where your concerns or desires differ from those of another person. The conflict can be as simple as deciding where to go for dinner with your spouse to something as complex as working out the details of merging two distinctly different corporations.Kilmann says each of us tend to have a natural, default mode we use when faced with conflict, but that particular mode isn’t always appropriate for every situation. The key is to quickly decide which of the five methods are most appropriate in the time period. He describes them in these ways:

  • Avoiding – Taking an unassertive and uncooperative approach to conflict defines the Avoiding mode. Sometimes avoiding conflict is the best move. Perhaps the issue isn’t important enough to address or you need to allow some time to pass to diffuse tensions. But of course avoiding conflict can also be harmful because issues may fester and become more contentious, or decisions may be made by default without your input or influence.

  • Competing – High on assertiveness and low on cooperativeness, the competing mode is appropriate when you need to protect yourself, stand up for important principles, or make quick decisions. Overuse of the competing style tends to result in people around you feeling “bulldozed,” defeated, and un-empowered.

  • Collaborating – The collaborating mode is the highest use of assertiveness and cooperation and is appropriate when your focus is on merging the perspectives of the parties, integrating solutions, and building relationships. Overusing the collaboration mode can lead to inefficiency, wasting time, and too much diffusion of responsibility (because if everyone is responsible, then really no one is responsible).

  • Compromising – Many times people think compromising should be the goal of resolving conflict. I give up something, you give up something, and we agree to settle somewhere in the middle. Hogwash! There are certainly times when compromise is the best route, such as when the issue in dispute is only moderately important or you just need a temporary solution. But if you overuse the compromising mode, you can neglect to see the big picture and create a climate of cynicism and low trust because you’re always giving in rather than taking a stand.

  • Accommodating – This mode is high on cooperativeness and low on assertiveness, which is appropriate for situations where you need to show reasonableness, keep the peace, or maintain perspective. If you overuse the accommodating mode, you can find yourself being taken advantage of, having your influence limited, and feeling resentful because you’re always the one making concessions to resolve conflict.

Because conflict will never go away, ignoring it makes it worse, we have to choose to move beyond our default mode and actually proactively think through how to manage our conflict. If you do, you can significantly enhance workplace morale and boost productivity.Be aware of the fine line between differences in opinion and conflict. Some people actually enjoy playing devil’s advocate. They challenge other ideas for the enjoyment of it. This will be unbearable if you are thrown by confrontation. If confrontation makes you uncomfortable, explore why. Try increasing your comfort level when people express different ideas. Remember it’s about ideas, not about people. If handled correctly, disagreements can lead to progress and innovation.Encourage and allow team members to solve conflict on their own. Interjecting yourself will not help the situation most of the time. Wise parents know that interfering in a sibling squabble often only makes matters worse. As a leader, your presence runs the risk of escalating the situation. Encourage squabbling team members to meet in a neutral location, like a conference room instead of one person’s office or cubicle. It equalizes power.Know when it is time to intervene. Though most times it is advisable to stay out of the situation, sometimes co-workers are unable to settle conflicts on their own. Let them know that you are available as a sounding board, and that they are welcome to set up a meeting with you as mediator. Engaging in difficult but important conversation can help build a cooperative spirit as you don’t take sides, but mediate differences for a mutual future.Set ground rules. You may need to create a set of guidelines or a code of conduct for your own team if you overhear unkind remarks or witness any hint of workplace bullying. It’s even better if you do this proactively before anything goes off the rails. You can find examples to help you in many thriving businesses.Remain neutral. It is likely tempting to take sides in a conflict between team members, but as a leader, you need to be impartial. Make sure you give team members equal time and opportunity to be heard. Be aware of your own biases and the things that push your own buttons. Keep them out of the situation.Recognize inflammatory conditions. When people are stressed, overtired or anxious, their coping skills are at their lowest. When your company is going through a transition of any kind, it takes a toll on individual and team morale. Even good stress, like a period of rapid growth, can cause problems as people work 15-hour days to keep pace. The leader has to recognize his or her own stress levels, take steps to manage it, and lighten the load for the team.Be proactive. When you notice tensions running high, encourage team members to take a break. Take a walk, drink a coffee, slow down before they say something they regret. Use team building activities or cultivate group traditions to create a positive atmosphere. When team members actually feel connected, appreciation and respect as individuals grows. Interactions are richer and more helpful.It might be helpful to remember a short acronym to keep yourself on target in conflict: CARE for the people.Communicate. Real, open communication is vital in conflict. Stick to the facts, but authentically express how you feel. Focus on the problem, not what the other person did that you think is wrong.Actively Listen. Simply listen. Refuse to interrupt. Focus on being objective, asking open-ended questions. Try to make sure that both sides understands what the other thinks and feels. Don’t over talk another person or talk FOR them.Review the Options. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. There is more than one way to solve your problem. Talk over the options, looking for solutions that will benefit everyone. Don’t be pressured. Bring in an objective third party if necessary.End with a Win-Win. A mutual win is the ultimate goal—to agree on an option that benefits both sides to some extent. When one party wins by intimidation or aggressive behavior, or the other party caves and gives in, someone is losing. The team loses too, because there are no outcomes that address the causes of the conflict. It will happen again.Conflict is inevitable, but it can be managed and actually lead to progress if you choose to lead properly.

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