Here are 3 facts about conflict:
1. Conflict is normal.
2. Conflict can be managed.
3. There is good conflict and bad conflict.
Conflict is normal.
Conflict is unavoidable. But you do have choices about the way you respond to it.
The way you respond to conflict is a learned behavior. It's what you saw modeled influenced by your personality. The Thomas-Kilmann Instrument (TKI) is a helpful conflict-mode assessment that helps you understand your default response to conflict. The better you understand your natural response and other options available to you, the better you can learn to work through conflict in a healthy way.
Kenneth Thomas, co-creator of the TKI defines conflict as, “The condition in which people’s concerns--the things they care about--appear to be incompatible.” The TKI suggests that there are 2 basic dimensions of conflict behavior: assertiveness and cooperativeness.
The way we personally deal with conflict is determined by how much personal assertiveness or cooperativeness we feel in any given conflict situation. Assertiveness is the degree to which I will go to seek my own concerns. How hard I will fight for my own beliefs or position. Cooperativeness is the degree to which I will go to seek another’s concerns. How far I will bend or forfeit my own position to satisfy another’s.
If I place a high value on my beliefs, I’ll typically be more assertive. If I place a high value on relationship, I’ll typically be more cooperative.
We all have a natural response to conflict, a typical default. Everyone encounters conflict in the workplace, just as everyone encounters conflict in life.
Conflict can be managed.
And it must be managed if we hope to build strong workplace relationships.
Four tips for managing conflict (YouTube_3:12 min)
The following are 4 suggested steps for managing conflict well.
Step 1 – ID the cause
Often, what we argue about in relationships is only a surface issue--a small indicator of a larger underlying issue beneath the surface. Just as with an iceberg that we may only be seeing a small portion of, we must go below the line to discover what the real issue is with conflict.
There are cognitive issue--head issues--issues of logic. (Such as, "I don’t like your idea. I think my idea is better.") Sometimes a cognitive issue is a simple lack of information and you need to explain your position more fully. Or maybe there’s an underlying goal driving your passion level on the issue that hasn’t been considered.
Conflict can also stem from affective issues--heart issue--issues of ego, personality, or deeply held values. (Such as, "I don’t like the way you present your ideas. It's as if you know everything and I know nothing." Or, "Your suggestion feels insincere to me.")
Two questions that help you go below the surface on conflict are:
1. What’s in it for you? (Or...what's in it for me?)
2. Why do you want it? (Or...why do I want it?)
Taking the time to discover the why behind your issues is worth it and safeguards against finding yourself right back in the same situation all over again.
Step 2 – Issue or relationship?
Next, ask yourself which is more important in this situation, winning on the issue, or preserving the relationship?
Step 3 – Consider the externals
Timing - Sometimes you have to lose the battle to win the war. Other times you’re better served to let tempers cool before pressing your point.
Personalities - Is the person you’re arguing with a natural Competer? Are you fighting a losing battle? Or maybe they’re a natural Avoider, making it hard to get to the real issue because they won’t discuss it with you.
Safety - Is the person you’re arguing with getting unnecessarily heated and upset? Does he or she have a past history of overreacting? Are you alone? Should you have a 3rd party mediator present?
Setting - Public arguments are embarrassing for those participating and those witnessing. Praise in public and scold/argue in private as a general rule.
Appropriateness - Sometimes we get angry and jump to false conclusions when, if we had taken the time to learn the whole story, we would have chosen a more appropriate response.
Step 4 – Select the best response
Of the five ways you might respond to conflict--compete, compromise, collaborate, avoid, or accommodate--select the most appropriate for the situation at hand.
Compete when the issue is of high importance. If someone threatened the safety of one of my family members, I would compete. Wouldn’t you? If I’m participating in a contest, I’m going to compete to try to be the winner.
Compromise is healthy if both parties are satisfied with the solution. But by its definition, compromise means both parties have to give something up. So compromise can feel like a “lose-lose” rather than a “win-win.”
Avoid when safety is an issue, or timing or setting feel wrong.
Accommodate when the relationship is of high importance. But don’t be so habitually accommodating that resentment breeds. If you gain a reputation as the one who will always give, you’ll lose others’ and your own self-respect.
Collaborate when you have time for it. It’s the healthiest approach to conflict--taking the time to understand someone else’s position, taking the time to explain your own, then working together on the best solution.
Collaboration is also the most time-consuming approach and that’s not always feasible.
Each of these five responses has merit and each has drawbacks, depending on the external factors. Once again, the better you understand your natural response to conflict, and the better you understand others’ responses, the better you can manage and choose the best approach as you seek to resolve conflict situations you encounter.
There is good conflict and bad conflict.
Good conflict leads to growth. Athletes face conflict all the time. They have to meet and overcome resistance in order to get stronger and achieve desired results. We do the same with learning. We are expanding our minds. Home renovation is about making changes. Growth, expansion, change--all personal disciplines are initially met with some level of resistance.
But there is also bad conflict--destructive, tearing down, harmful and painful conflict. Often, we experience repetitious conflict in the relationships we value most because we get caught in a dysfunctional loop of "You push my buttons, and I react" then "I push your buttons and you react" so "You push my buttons..." and so it goes.
Dr. Alan Godwin in How to Solve your People Problems, suggests that "Working through conflict in a healthy way may feel unnatural at first but gets more natural with practice and repetition." He says, “It’s not automatic, but it is achievable.” Godwin says there are actually 3 types of conflict, and describes them this way:
Reasoning with unreasonable people can still be empowering and growth-resulting for you, but these may not be the outcomes for the other person. Godwin says that conflict with reasonable people, on the other hand, can be growth-resulting for both and bring you closer together.
Conflict with reasonable people requires 5 attributes:
Humility: A willingness to admit you can (and could) be wrong. "It takes a lot of strength to handle being wrong."
Awareness: A willingness to accept feedback. "Close relationships are like full-length mirrors."
Responsibility: We should be bothered by our personal shortcomings and seek to correct wrongness. Godwin says we should apologize 100% of the times we are wrong, and ask for forgiveness.
Empathy: "No one can develop freely in this world and find full life without feeling understood by at least one person." Both listening and validating are critical for empathy.
Reliability: Trust is cultivated when you are concrete and specific about corrections needed, and when you debrief rather than rehash. "Actions follow statements of intent and what we do is consistent with what we say."
A few final thoughts on conflict
Sometimes we exert a lot of effort seeking to avoid conflict, but conflict does have its merits.
Conflict is a great maturing process.
Justice, truth, and mercy rise from conflict. It helps us clarify our values and understand ourselves more fully.
Conflict allows us to struggle and grow. Like the Chinese pictogram for crisis, conflict can be a period of danger and testing, but also a time of opportunity. This is not to suggest that danger or crisis situations are good things because they can lead to opportunity. That would be insensitive. But opportunity…and good…can be found even in the worst of times. Sometimes it is felt most profoundly in the worst of times.
Conflict must be addressed for peace to emerge. “Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it.”
Most every religion calls for its faith-followers to be peacemakers. Without conflict there is no reconciliation. Reconciliation is the sweet “other side” of conflict. By contrast, conflict, if left unaddressed, festers like a wound. Early intervention is typically best.
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