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Understanding Conflict

totem-donutIf you stole some of my doughnut, we’d have a problem…

From time to time we all experience a little disharmony and discord with others.

Managing at these times can be taxing, but with some techniques and practical tools for handling conflict, it is possible to be equipped to confidently deal with these difficult situations and find a positive outcome.

Now we’re not suggesting that we can cover everything about conflict in a single article, but we can certainly cover the basics in terms of where conflict comes from.

Research suggests that managers spend around 25% of their time managing and handling conflict in their teams. Conflict isn’t always necessarily a negative thing – it can often mean that people are passionate about their work and it can encourage creative thinking. Conflict, can however mean that teams become ‘stuck’ when an impasse is reached so finding ways to resolve conflict is important.

Totem Gummi Bears

When conflict occurs in the workplace, it can reduce morale, lower productivity, increase absenteeism and cause confrontations. Reynolds and Kalish (2002) found that managers spent at least 25% of their time resolving conflicts.  This obviously has an effect on the productivity of both managers and employees.

But conflict in work is not always so destructive. It can lead to new ideas and an increased interest in dealing with problems as it facilitates bringing to the fore issues, providing opportunities for people to develop their communication and interpersonal skills.

Stulberg (1997) identified a pattern common to all controversies. He termed them the Five Ps of Conflict Management:

Perceptions: Our negative perceptions of conflict impact our approach in resolving conflict as we strive to eliminate the source of these negative feelings.

Problems: Anyone can be involved in a conflict, and the amount of time, money, and equipment needed for resolution will vary according to its complexity.

Processes: There are different ways to go about resolving disputes: Suppress the conflict, give in, fight, litigate, mediate, etc.

Principles: We determine the priorities of all resolution processes on the basis of an analysis of our fundamental values regarding efficiency, participation, fairness, compliance, etc.

Practices: Power, self-interest, and unique situations are all factors relating to why people resolve disputes the way they do.

A good understanding of these causes is a great first step towards recognising conflict and actually turing it to your advantage.  Conflict is healthy and advantageous when it’s aim is to improve the outcomes for the team.  It’s certainly healthy when it’s respectful and not personal – which is easier said than done!

Healthy conflict requires openness and an ability to entertain others’ ideas. Team members need to set aside ego and avoid becoming defensive in order for conflict to be healthy.

Jelly Bean Diversity

The benefits of creating a team atmosphere that embraces healthy conflict are numerous and profound. These five benefits are just the tip of the ice berg:

  • Healthy conflict leads to better decisions.
  • Healthy conflict is a sign of trust and security.
  • Healthy conflict invites diverse points of view.
  • Healthy conflict surfaces potential issues.
  • Healthy conflict builds commitment.

One book we highly recommend to learn more about conflict is Conflict Communication (ConCom): A New Paradigm in Conscious Communication by Rory Miller.

He explains that our reactions to conflict are subconscious, scripted, and for the good of the group.  And that we have three brains:

  • Lizard brain (survival)
  • Monkey brain (emotion / social status)
  • Human brain (reason)

With each “brain” having a different priority and having evolved to deal with different kinds of conflict. They work using different scripts and have a very clear seniority system.

Although the course that generated this book was originally developed for police and corrections officers, it has now also been taught in hospitals and factories and in a total of eight countries.

What’s great is that these conflict-resolution principles should be applicable to most situations and relationships, including with spouses and coworkers as well as strangers. As Miller concludes in the afterword,

“almost everything in this book is stuff you live with every day. … But now you see it.”

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