Conflict-Resolution: Insights into Conflict and Tools to Resolve it…
Understanding the Basics of Conflict:
In its simplistic terms, conflict arises out of a disagreement through which the parties involved perceive a threat to their needs, interests or concerns. Within this basic paradigm there are several important understandings that arise.
It’s assumed that there is some level of difference in the positions of the two (or more) parties involved in the conflict. But the true disagreement versus the perceived disagreement is typically quite different from one another. In fact, conflict tends to be accompanied by significant levels of misunderstanding that exaggerate the perceived disagreement considerably.
Once this occurs, whether it’s between two employees, two work groups or within the family, all future interactions will be clouded by preconceived assumptions that cast the other party(s) in a negative light. If we can understand the true areas of disagreement, this will help us solve the right problems and manage the true needs of the parties.
As any experienced conflict-resolution professional will tell you, for those parties engaged in a disagreement, the situation that rose to the surface and resulted in the conflict is simply a bi-product of some deeper form of resentment, fear and/or misunderstanding from the past. From the point of that first interaction in the past, each subsequent interaction between the parties was viewed through the lenses of individuals with a preconceived bias (or perception) which, unfortunately, only added to the fear, resentment and/or misunderstanding.
Therefore, while one’s perception doesn’t become reality per se, people’s behaviors, feelings and ongoing responses become modified by that evolving sense of the threat they confront. If, on the other hand, they can work to understand the true issues and develop strategies that manage them appropriately, they can act to constructively manage their conflict in a mature, confident and professional manner.
Whether it’s a disagreement between two individuals or among a group of employees within an organization, there is a tendency to narrowly define “the problem” as one of substance, task, and near-term viability. However, conflicts tend to be far more complex than that, for they involve ongoing relationships with complex, emotional components.
Accordingly, there are always procedural and psychological needs to be addressed within the conflict, in addition to the substantive needs that are generally presented. Moreover, the assumptions, interests and concerns of the parties transcend the immediate presenting situation. Any efforts to resolve conflicts effectively must take these points into account.
Like stress, everyone responds to conflict in different ways; therefore, in order to understand what behaviors can help or hurt in resolving the conflict, we must evaluate the consequences of various behaviors at moments in time. These behaviors can be categorized according to conflict styles. Each style is a way to meet one’s needs in a dispute but may impact other people in different ways.
The Different Behavioral Styles of Conflict:
Competing is a style in which one’s own needs are advocated over the needs of others. It relies on an aggressive style of communication and a low regard for a future relationship. Those using a competitive style tend to seek control over a discussion, in both substance and ground rules. They fear that loss of such control will result in solutions that fail to meet their needs. Competing tends to result in responses that increase the level of threat. This style can be found between two or more employees wanting the same promotion or, as many people can attest to, it can be typified by something as simple as sibling rivalry.
Accommodating, also known as smoothing, is the opposite of competing. Persons using this style yield their needs to those of others, trying to be diplomatic. They tend to allow the needs of the group to overwhelm their own, which may not ever be stated, as preserving the relationship is seen as most important (i.e. boss vs employee).
Avoiding (or denying) is a common response to the negative perceptions of conflict. “Perhaps if we don’t bring it up, it will blow over,” we say to ourselves. But, generally, all that happens is that feelings get pent up, views go unexpressed, and the conflict festers until it becomes too big to ignore. Like a cancer that may well have been cured if treated early, the conflict grows and spreads until it kills the relationship. Because needs and concerns go unexpressed, people are often confused, wondering what went wrong in a relationship.
Compromising is an approach to conflict in which people gain and give in a series of tradeoffs. While satisfactory, compromise is generally not satisfying. Each individual remains shaped by their individual perceptions and needs and don’t necessarily understand the other side very well. Thus, they often retain a lack of trust and avoid risk-taking involved in more collaborative behaviors.
Collaborating is the pooling of individual needs and goals toward a common goal. It’s often called “win-win problem-solution,” collaboration requires assertive communication and cooperation in order to achieve a better solution than either individual could have achieved alone. It offers the chance for consensus, the integration of needs, and the potential to exceed the “budget of possibilities” that previously limited our views of the conflict. It brings new time, energy, and ideas to resolve the dispute meaningfully. It also reflects a genuine and authentic motivation toward resolving the conflict which, at the same time, enables the parties to appreciate the value that the relationship brings to them. Thus, without hesitation, they invest their time and energy into a resolution with a desire to preserve and enhance the relationship.
In addition to the behavioral responses summarized by the various conflict styles, we have emotional, cognitive and physical responses to conflict as well. These are important windows into our experienced during conflict, as they frequently tell us more about what is the true source of threat that we perceive; by understanding our thoughts, feelings and physical responses to conflict, we may get better insights into the best potential solutions to the situation while also learning more about ourselves and what we value.
Do you want to grudgingly hold onto a belief that you’re right and they’re wrong or do you want to recognize that you actually value and appreciate what that relationship can do for you long-term and, thus, work to preserve and enhance that relationship?
The Physical, Emotional and Cognitive Responses to Conflict:
Emotional responses: These are the feelings we experience in conflict, ranging from anger and fear to despair and confusion. Emotional responses are often misunderstood, as people tend to believe that others feel the same as they do. Thus, differing emotional responses are confusing and, at times, threatening. Everyone reacts to conflict differently with some people simply shutting down while others scream and yell.
Cognitive responses: These are our ideas and thoughts about a conflict, often present as inner voices or internal observers in the midst of a situation. By taking the time to think and thoroughly examine how and why someone is upset or not upset, we come to understand these cognitive responses. For example, we might think (or even say) a variety of things in response to another person taking a parking spot just as we are ready to park.
Physical responses: These responses can play an important role in our ability to meet our needs in the conflict. They include heightened stress, bodily tension, increased perspiration, tunnel vision, shallow or accelerated breathing, nausea, and rapid heartbeat. These responses are similar to those we experience in high-anxiety situations, and they may be managed through stress management techniques. Establishing a calmer environment in which emotions can be managed is more likely if the physical response is addressed effectively.
The actual word or term “conflict” is somewhat nebulous since it’s rarely, if ever, based in what someone actually said or how they acted rather it’s usually rooted in how someone “perceived” them. One exercise this Consultant has found to be effective in resolving conflict is to ask both parties to take “reality” – as they know and understand it – and put on the table.
Instead, for the purposes of the exercise, people are asked to focus on the “behaviors, actions and interactions” each party engaged in and how those behaviors could be “perceived” by the other party. The more time that’s invested in talking about past instances of conflict and then bringing it all the way to the present both parties will see that what they perceived was not what the other party intended.
This point is critically important and something that should be discussed at the onset of any conflict-resolution session; each party must understand and accept that what they perceive about a particular situation is generally never what the other party intended. How many times have you seen someone get upset over something that was said in passing by another party who, when confronted, intended it quite differently? And, in the workplace, this is frequently a bi-product that arises through electronic communication (by not allowing for clarification or discussion) and it almost always perpetuates a preconceived notion of the person – or department – that sent the e-mail which is why sensitive information should, when at all possible, be delivered in-person.
Through the course of working with over 100 different organizations in the past two decades, this Consultant has found that when an individual – or entire corporate culture – relies almost solely on electronic (one-way) communication, there will most assuredly be a significant amount of miscommunication, erroneous perceptions, lower morale, decreased productivity (due to people griping with one another) and a high level of anxiety if not outright conflict; this is why leaders must conduct one-on-one sessions with their direct reports on a regular consistent basis, as well as facilitate regular meetings with the larger group(s) so that there is ample opportunities for two-way communication.
While many leaders avoid these personal interactions stating that it takes too much of their time, in truth it actually saves them time; if/when people are encouraged to ask questions, seek clarification and, most importantly, feel as though they’re being heard (which, when employing millennials, is a necessity), there will undoubtedly be less tension, insecurity and conflict, as well as greater productivity, enhanced retention and higher job satisfaction. Thus, by taking the time upfront to dispel miscommunication and misunderstandings the leaders are actually saving time, and even money, in the long run.
Conflict is defined as a disagreement through which the parties involved perceive a threat to their needs, interests or concerns. One key element of this definition is the idea that each party may have a different perception of any given situation. We can anticipate having such differences due to a number of factors that create “perceptual filters” that influence our responses to the situation:
Filters that Influence our Response to Conflict:
Culture, race, and ethnicity: Our varying cultural backgrounds influence us to hold certain beliefs about the social structure of our world, as well as the role of conflict in that experience. We may have learned to value substantive, procedural and psychological needs differently as a result, thus influencing our willingness to engage in various modes of negotiation and efforts to manage the conflict
Gender and sexuality: Men and women often perceive situations somewhat differently, based on both their experiences in the world (which relates to power and privilege, as do race and ethnicity) and socialization patterns that reinforce the importance of relationships vs. task, substance vs. process, immediacy vs. long-term outcomes. As a result, men and women will often approach conflictive situations with differing mindsets about the desired outcomes from the situation, as well as the set of possible solutions that may exist. In the case of familial disharmony, conflict can often be attributed to things such as birth order and/or sibling rivalry with an under riding belief that the other sibling gets more attention, is smarter, prettier or more outgoing and, thus, any/all actions by the other party are viewed in a negative light.
Knowledge: Parties respond to given conflicts on the basis of the knowledge they may have about the issue at hand. This includes situation-specific knowledge (i.e., “Do I understand what is going on here?”) and general knowledge (i.e., “Have I experienced this type of situation before?” or “Have I studied about similar situations before?”). Such information can influence the person’s willingness to engage in efforts to manage the conflict, either reinforcing confidence to deal with the dilemma or undermining one’s willingness to flexibly consider alternatives.
Impressions of the Messenger: If the person sharing the message – the messenger – is perceived to be a threat (powerful, scary, unknown, etc.), this can influence our responses to the overall situation being experienced. For example, if a big scary-looking guy is approaching me rapidly, yelling “Get out of the way!” you may respond differently than if a diminutive, calm person would express the same message. We are more inclined to listen with respect someone that we view as credible then if the message comes from someone who lacks credibility and integrity in my mind.
Previous experiences: Some of us have had profound, significant life experiences that continue to influence our perceptions of current situations. These experiences may have left us fearful, lacking trust, and reluctant to take risks. On the other hand, previous experiences may have left us confident, willing to take chances and experience the unknown. Either way, we must acknowledge the role of previous experiences as elements of our perceptual filter in the current dilemma.
These factors (along with others) conspire to form the perceptual filters through which we experience conflict.
As a result, our reactions to the threat and dilemma posed by conflict should be anticipated to include varying understandings of the situation. This also means that we can anticipate that in many conflicts there will be significant misunderstanding of each other’s perceptions, needs and feelings. These challenges contribute to our emerging sense, during conflict, that the situation is overwhelming and unsolvable. As such, they become critical sources of potential understanding, insight and possibility.
To effectively resolve the conflict the parties must want to improve the relationship; they must see the value in resolving the conflict and possess a willingness and/or desire to find common ground, engage in active listening and work toward finding a solution that’s in the best interest of all concerned. Moreover, creative problem-solving strategies are essential to positive approaches to conflict management. Thus, both parties must change their respective paradigms from one in which it is ‘my way or the highway’ into one in which we entertain new possibilities that have been otherwise elusive.
Unfortunately, however, one or both parties may tend to avoid dealing with the conflict in-person thinking that it might just “go away” or simply remain entrenched in the belief that they’re right and the other party is wrong which is generally the case when one or both parties is unable to let go of their resentments. However, while that approach may be easier and less threatening, it’s not an effective method to actually resolving the situation and, instead, only deepens the resentment.
Based upon this Consultant’s experience, when two employees are forced into conflict resolution session, it’s often met with avoidance behaviors and an unwillingness to acquiesce on anything related to their position for fear of admitting their role in the conflict or, worse yet, having to admit they were wrong in their perceptions; thus, even though the parties may realize that the best thing they can do for job security is to enter into negotiation’s to resolve their disagreement, one party or the other may not agree to even look at the other person and/or negotiate a resolution.
While it’s obvious that both parties must agree to come to the table, if one party resists we can try to transform the situation into one where the resistant person recognizes the potential benefits of a negotiated process. By focusing first on listening to the other person, and seeking to understand the sources of their resistance, you set the stage for clarifying the conditions he or she requires in order to talk things out. This isn’t about being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in the situation, but a practical strategy for getting the other person engaged as a partner in the negotiation process.
However, the other person may still resist the idea of negotiating a solution. In such situations, shift away from substantive needs and focus first on procedural needs to be negotiated. Remember that procedural needs are those that relate to the process being undertaken to negotiate.
Another alternative is to focus on things you can do to influence conflicts in the future, rather than putting initial energy into understanding (or solving) problems we have had in the past. By remaining relatively flexible about the agenda – taking on topics you care about, but not necessarily the most pressing issues – you create an opportunity to reduce the fears associated with resistance. While, again, you may not be able to truly resolve the conflicts, you will still be able to manage some of the key issues that exist and prevent those issues from getting worse.
In closing, we should keep in mind that negotiation requires profound courage on the part of all parties. It takes courage to honestly and clearly articulate your needs, and it takes courage to sit down and listen to your adversaries. It takes courage to look at your own role in the dispute, and it takes courage to approach others with a sense of empathy, openness and respect for their perspective. Collaborative approaches to conflict management require us to engage in dialogue in profound and meaningful ways, so it is understandable if we tend to avoid such situations until the balance of wisdom tips in favor of negotiation.
In the course of this Consultant’s career, workplace conflict has been found in virtually every organization to one extent or the other; it’s the degree and amount of conflict that differentiates routine or almost normal levels of disagreement within the workplace from those where groups of people don’t speak with anyone from another group or where loud vocal outbursts typified by people yelling at one another occurs with some degree of regularity that can result in litigation. Unfortunately, these situations aren’t uncommon with small organizations. Furthermore, this type of environment can be considered a hostile work environment exposing the organization to potential of liability.
Therefore, given that some form of conflict exists in virtually every organization, please don’t hesitate to call or send an e-mail should you and/or your organization find yourself in need of assistance in addressing conflict within your workplace.
For additional information on resolving conflict, please check out the following websites:
Mike Russell is a seasoned professional with three decades of experience in the fields of HR and OD. In addition to having a career trajectory of HR Generalist to a VP within ten years, Mike also has a long and successful background as a Consultant/Business Partner to CEO’s, Presidents and Executive Directors in both the private and non-profit communities across a wide spectrum of industries.
As the sole-proprietor and owner of Organizational Development Solutions (ODS), Mike partners with business leaders committed to insulating their organization(s) from potential liability, increasing organizational effectiveness and adding shareholder value.