Managing Conflict is one of the top internet searches that brings people to our website. Most clients have the topic included in the leadership training we provide to managers, supervisors and team leaders.
Many workshop participants associate the word conflict with negative words like arguement, war, battle, disagreement and frustration.
Instead we could view conflict more constructively as being essential for effective organizations and relationships. Conflict is normal and natural, especially with regard to change. Because change involves moving away from the status quo, it can create a difference of opinion and it can stir defensive reactions.
Defensiveness is natural and appears in one of two forms: Passive/Victim thinking – the conflict might hurt me so I will lay low. Or Aggressive/Competitive – I will aggressively argue in hopes of winning the conflict.
Instead, leaders should view conflict as an opportunity to lead people through what may initially appear to be an irreconcilable difference in opinion.
Seven steps on how to lead others through conflict
- Check your own thinking: Does conflict stir an aggressive response in you, a passive/victim response or can you view conflict objectively in order to help others overcome their defensiveness? If you do not have control of your own reaction, you will be less able to help others. During the safety briefing on an airplane, you are told to put your own mask on first, before helping someone else with his or her’s. The same concept applies to conflict.
- Put the issue on the table early: Describe what you see as the issue that is creating the conflict or might create conflict in the future. Leaders do not try and avoid difficult issues; instead they believe that getting issues out early is the best way to avoid escalation.
- Name the reaction you see in others: Being able to articulate the reaction you are seeing in others is key to helping them neutralize their defensiveness. To an aggressive person, you can say, “I see you are upset/angry about this.” To a quieter person, you can say, “I sense this is not okay with you, is that the case?”
- Acknowledge that the reaction is reasonable: Instead of immediately presenting a counter arguement, consider telling the person that you understand why they feel the way they do. “It’s perfectly understandable to be upset about this.”
- Reframe to show a different perspective: “Another way we could look at this is…” or “I think we share the desire to get the best possible outcome from this situation.”
- Propose potential solutions – “What if we were able to look at some of the concerns you have, determine how likely they are to happen and the impact on the process and then see if we need to tweak the solution to address those needs?” or “Right now this is what needs to happen because of the business conditions we face. However, we could sit down and review the situation as circumstances change to see if a new alternative emerges.”
- Get agreement and commitment to action: After each discussion, agree on what the next step is. Even if the action is simply to review the situation again in 30 days, at least there is a sense of doing something. In a situation where the leader has little control or influence, there is still an opportunity to monitor future changes and see if additional options will emerge down the road. Avoid commiting to something you cannot do because it can create an even larger conflict in the future.
No Complaints Does Not Constitute Agreement
Sometimes a leader will assume that everyone is in agreement because no one is complaining directly. Passive or victim thinking causes people to commiserate and hint at their concern. The leader must be alert to these more subtle signs of conflict. It takes longer to get a quieter person to express his or her concerns. The reward for the leader in being proactive at bringing out and resolving these quieter concerns is that passive people tend to congregate together.
Do Your Leaders Need to Learn How to Deal with Conflict Constructively?
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