Conflict is a fact of life. In some office environments, you can’t walk from your desk to the restroom without it finding you. Conflict is generally defined as any time two or more people come together with oposing views or interests. Given that broad definition, we really do manage conflict all the time, sometimes more effectively than others. Think of your last disagreement, when you gave someone feedback they didn’t want to hear, or the last time you remained silent because you knew the other person wasn’t going to like what you had to say. All examples of conflict. When these situations crop up, it can be confusing in the moment to know how to begin to resolve the issue.
Over the last several weeks, I’ve facilitated a number of Managing Conflict training programs for an organization’s team leads, supervisors and managers. It is always a lot of fun for me to be in front of people who are anxious to grow their skills and who appreciate the opportunity to raise their level of performance.
As part of the coursework, participants are split into groups to examine a hypothetical conflict situation between three co-workers. Each group is asked to “get into the head” one of the individuals involved in the conflict. Part of my instructions to them is to list the facts of the problem (conflict) from the perspective of their assigned individual. Most teams come up with at least a half a dozen “facts” to put on their flip chart. As each group presents their findings to the rest of the teams, I ask the room, “Is this a fact or is it an assumption?”
If it is a fact, it is left on the list. If the participants decide it is an assumption, it gets crossed off the list. In the end, most teams only have one or two facts remaining on their list, the rest were crossed off as assumptions. This hypothetical exercise mirrors very closely what I experienced managing conflict during my career in Human Resources. People often enter the conflict resolution process with more assumptions than facts.
Does that surprise you? Think about it. How many times have you found yourself in the middle of a situation where you are at odds with someone else, and in the end it turns out that one, or both of you, made assumptions about the other and once you clarify the situation, the tension evaporates? It happens all the time. Unfortunately, when we choose to avoid dealing with the conflict the assumptions are never confirmed and the tension continues or worse, escalates.
The first step in effectively managing any conflict situation is to separate the people and their emotions (including yours) from the facts. Before you even enter into a conversation intending to resolve an issue, take some time and ask yourself, what are the facts here and what assumptions am I making. For each assumption, you are going to want to ask some great questions to gather more information from the other person to validate or dismiss that assumption before moving to resolve the problem. This puts you in the place of learning rather than defending your position.
Using questions to clarify the facts and eliminate assumptions does several things:
- Learning more about the other person in the conflict will help you to find common interests which are important for resolving the conflict in a balanced way.
- The time you take to have this productive exchange is an investment in the relationship and the effort is likely to be reciprocated.
- It allows you to share your feelings and needs in a way that is non-threatening, so you are more likely to be heard and to have your needs met.
- Taking control of the situation and working through the problem will help you to maintain productive relationships, address issues in a timely manner and grow your confidence for handling conflict in the future.
People’s response to conflict is a very personal thing and is often tied to some pretty strong emotions. By first seeking to separate the people from the problem you will be on your way to effectively managing conflict and building healthy, positive relationships.
The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument identifies five different styles of dealing with conflict; Avoidance, Accommodating, Competing, Collaborating and Compromising. What style do you typically use?