Conflict can often have a bad reputation but in this article we are going to look at changing that perspective and demonstrate how you can harness conflict to build better relationships, teams and achieve your goals. When people think about conflict, they may feel; uneasy, fearful, defensive, anxious, victimised, awkward and a whole host of other seemingly negative emotions or mind-sets. It doesn’t have to be that way though. Let’s talk about the positives of conflict, where it comes from and how to manage it, to get all parties into a better position. To do this, we will break the article down into 3 sections; The benefits of conflict, where it comes from and how to conquer it.
When you saw an article about managing conflict, what kind of imagery formed inside your mind? I’ll hazard a guess that for most people, it conjured up negative images, negative thoughts, feelings and memories. Conflict doesn’t need to be like this, in fact, one powerful tool you can use for managing conflict is to change the way you perceive it. We can attach unhelpful thoughts and feelings to situations which can hinder how effectively we handle them, if you change the way you see conflict to focus on its benefits, you may have an easier time managing it. We aren’t saying that conflict should be continually sought out but it can be beneficial to see, understand and embrace the benefits of conflict, to help make it seem less daunting and reduce any anxiety that may come with the thought of conflict.
Take a few moments to think about and write down the benefits of conflict, once done read on and see if we got the same answers.
We believe that there are 7 main benefits to conflict;
Improved mental health
Conflict can create new solutions, ideas and improve situations. When people disagree, there is often a call for a new approach. Most people see compromise as a lose-lose scenario as neither side fully gets what they wanted. This mindset can help people work together to find a better solution for everyone involved. It may lead to entirely new ideas and solutions that wouldn’t have previously been thought of. Think of a time you were arguing with someone you cared about, did you seek to find a solution? Did you put something in place or agree to something you hadn’t previously been doing? Conflict can lead to innovation.
- Trust and Support
When done right, conflict creates psychological safety which fosters trust and support between people. If through conflict you can demonstrate that you want what’s best for the other parties and can both agree on the same mission or goal, you will begin to remove ego from the conflict and build on psychological safety. There is a huge difference in how the other parties will feel if they can see the difference between conflict over wanting something for yourself and conflict because you want to achieve the same objective in a different way.
When people realise you have the same mission or you want what’s best for them, conflict can turn the situation into one that fosters growth and strong relationships.
- Creates Understanding
If you let your ego take over in conflict, the chances are you aren’t going to get anywhere productive. We will look over the 6 main causes of conflict later in the article but one of them stems from a lack of understanding. Steven Covey is known for saying “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” If you try to understand the other parties view instead of just trying to get your point across, you create understanding. What’s better?
- Win a conflict and potentially damage relationships
- Reach an understanding of another person, situation and outcome, broadening your horizons and growing as a person whilst at the same time, finding the best solution for the situation.
- Relationship building
Linked to the first 3 points, if you use conflict correctly you will build trust, show support, create understanding and instigate healthy change. All of these points will help you to build relationships with people as they will know that throughout the conflict, your focus wasn’t on winning but creating an understanding and seeking to work together.
If we don’t manage our differences effectively, it may lead to internalised resentment, people wouldn’t set expectations and situations would spiral out of control. Your ego can be your biggest enemy here so try to keep it in the backseat to forge strong relationships with others.
- Effective teams
Directly born out of building relationships is creating effective teams. An effective team is one that has been through the stages of team development and through the notorious Storming stages. It is here where values and norms are tested and challenged, where people argue over who is pulling their weight and where if not dealt with correctly, resentment grows and the team breaks down. On the other side of this though, where conflict is dealt with productively and from a place of trust and respect, the team moves into the norming and performing stages of team development. Once you are here, your team is an effective, objective accomplishing force.
Just like with innovation, conflict can push you to progress. Think about the person who wants to cling to processes because “it’s what we’ve always done!” and think about the disruptor that comes in to find a new way. This conflict can lead to progress on multiple accounts. On a personal level, it can encourage personal growth and development and on a professional and solutions focused level, it can see people move past stagnated processes in order to move forwards.
- Improved mental health
Imagine a situation where every time you went into work, you were expecting pent up tensions. How would you feel day to day? Our guess is likely anxious. You can use effective conflict and conflict management to remove tensions and get into a healthier frame of mind. Effectively airing out the issues can alleviate tension, help all parties feel heard and valued and provide peace of mind.
With these 7 benefits of healthy conflict covered, it’s time we explored the 5 main factors of conflict before we look at effectively managing it. The main factors are; Values, Paradigms, Motivation, Communication skills and Understanding.
- Beliefs and Values
A major cause of conflict are beliefs and values. We develop beliefs and values from a young age and they form as our conscious and subconscious drivers for our behaviours. The values and beliefs we hold change the way we think, feel and act. Where we expect others to live to our values and beliefs instead of their own, conflict can often arise.
Examples of beliefs and values causing conflict may be the value concept that “It’s important to be on time.” By holding this value, you may see people who are late as rude, thoughtless or lazy. Holding onto this view of people can lead to conflict even though the person who was late may not be rude, thoughtless or lazy. They may simply have other commitments, had a late night or don’t particularly see the value in being on time for this particular event.
Here are some examples of beliefs and values that may cause conflict:
A paradigm is the way we see the world and it closely links into our beliefs and assumptions. When we change our paradigms, we change our experiences in life. Some examples of Paradigms include:
- No-one respects me
- This team cannot win
- That person is ignorant
- I am an expert in this field
Each of these Paradigms may impact how you interact with others and cause conflict. If you have it in your head that no-one respects you, the likelihood is you will see the actions of others as disrespectful, even when this isn’t the case. If you feel like you are an expert in a field, you may be less likely to take on new ideas and even be insulted when someone suggests something that differs from what you want to do.
Check out this video by Stephen Covey that looks into examples of paradigms:
Personal motivators can cause conflict amongst people. If your team need to work together to achieve a bonus, it’s likely that if one person is motivated by money, another is motivated by personal satisfaction and another isn’t motivated at all, conflicts may arise in how they wish to tackle a problem and about the commitments of other team members. Lets have a look at what each differently motivated team member may think about the other members of the team:
Money motivated: “Why don’t they just meet their KPIs? I want this bonus and they will stop me from achieving it!”
Personal satisfaction: “I want to do the right thing on this project, why can’t they see that by just meeting KPIs, we are not focusing on the right outcome for our customers?”
No motivation: “This is just a job. I don’t need the bonus and I’m not paid to go above and beyond. I clock in, do my job and clock off.”
You may be able to see how these different motivators may cause conflict between the team members, especially if they fail to spend time understanding how and why the other person thinks the way they do.
- Communication skills
If you look into our Situational Leadership articles, you will quickly see how using the wrong style of leadership can create tensions, barriers and conflicts between people. The same goes for communication skills. If you lack empathy and the ability to convey this in your interactions, you may inadvertently cause conflict as the other person doesn’t feel understood. We also see communication clashes between people when their styles mismatch. Think about a direct communicator, they want to deliver the message quickly and concisely. They won’t beat around the Bush or necessarily consider feelings when talking. If they communicate with someone who cares more about the details in a message or someone who is overly considerate in how their message lands, there will likely be a mismatch and possibly conflict.
Consider the following conversations about someone not meeting expectations and think about how quickly a conflict may arise:
- A direct communicator delivering a message to someone who bases their language on relationships and feelings.
- The relationship based communicator may get upset by the lack of empathy and blunt delivery from the direct communicator. On the other way round, the direct communicator may get frustrated by the emotional response and the inability by the other person to get to the point.
- A detail orientated communicator delivering a message to someone who prefers listening to high level, abstract ideas.
- The person who prefers listening to abstract ideas will likely get bored of the details and get frustrated with the focus at the granular level. The detail oriented person may get frustrated by the other persons inability to see the specifics and say things like “Get your head out of the clouds!” or “tell me what exactly you need to do!”
Just like leadership, a clash in communication styles can lead to conflict.
- A lack of understanding
A lack of understanding can encompass a wide range of issues, from not understanding another person to not understanding a process. A lack of understanding can cover the rest of the causes of conflict as well. If we don’t spend time trying to understand other people’s values and beliefs, there may be conflict. Don’t spend time understanding how other people’s paradigms or motivations impact their lives? The likely result is conflict. Dont invest time in understanding how to effectively communicate with others? Can you guess it may lead to conflict?
We all make assumptions – it’s necessary to do so. If we had to know the specifics of everything we did, we would get nothing done, argue about the fine details and probably overload our minds with endless possibilities. Assumptions and Presuppositions help us to understand information quickly. Often times, when we ask questions to understand, we end up in a much more effective place. How many times have you argued about something or pushed back against an idea but once you understood more about it felt much more at ease with the idea?
With the 5 main factors of conflict discussed, we need to decide on how we will manage this conflict effectively. To do this, we can use a simple 3 stage technique; Research, Presentation and Take action.
This phase stops you from rushing into the conflict and having unproductive conversations. By researching the issue at hand you are able to:
- Evaluate the impact of the other parties actions
- Understand the frequency it happens
- See a different perspective
- Decide if it is worth your effort
This step can be worked through using the 3F’s technique: Facts, Frequency and Fractured relationships.
At this stage, we collate as much relevant data as possible. This is important as if you bring in your feelings and assumptions, you are increasing the chance of unhelpful conflict. This is due to you seeing behaviours that may not be there or the other person being insulted by your assumption. Facts are concrete evidence that allows you to specifically address behavioural concerns instead of generic accusations such as “You don’t get your work done!”, which is a generalisation that may cause offence.
The truth is, they probably do get their work done, you only notice what doesn’t happen. The likely response to this accusation is to go on the offence and blame you for why the work has not been done – such as not providing adequate resources or changing your mind too much. A better way would be to use facts such as “The deadline for the project was the 15th of Feb, it was handed in on the 20th of Feb.” There is no argument to be made here, as only factual information has been stated. Similarly in a KPI driven environment, you could present your team member with the average calls met from the team and then themselves to give perspective on expectations. With this in mind, it’s a good idea to create a list, allowing you to be methodological, thorough and keep on track with a structure. The list will discourage you from bringing up unrelated issues and keep emotional out of it which may make the other person feel under attack instead of working towards a solution. Remember the benefits of handling conflict positively when preparing the facts.
This stage takes into consideration how often the situation occurs along side the impacts of the situation. As above, this information needs to be factual. For example, if someone is late once, you will likely just want a conversation with the person to see if they are okay and if necessary, discuss why being on time is important and the impacts of them being late to the business, team, you and their reputation.
That said, where they are late multiple times, we need to think if there is a deeper issue and question them further to understand the situation. Some situations may not need multiple occurrences before taking formal action such as gross misconduct in the workplace or where you need to set expectations in your personal life.
This stage looks to develop a bridge between the two parties. Here, you need to explain what’s important to you and how their behaviour is impacting your relationship in order to discuss a way forward. This isn’t about placing blame, you need to take ownership here but its important to find common ground and work towards a solution.
The Ladder of abstraction can help you build a bridge with someone and find common ground. For example, 2 people may disagree on the right leadership style to use in a certain situation. That level of detail might be quite granular, so climb the ladder of abstraction to build common ground- what is the purpose of each style? – to lead effectively and achieve the right outcome. With this bridge being built and a common ground established, the conversation can become more productive.
With the research or preparation phase done, we can move to the presentation stage of your conflict management technique.
The first thing you want to do is create a safe space. Set a meeting room with natural light and bring refreshments. Use open body language and set the room out to be less confrontational. The below image sets out some of the room layouts I use when having conversations with people. The majority of the time I use the co-operative layout as you still have the table for notes but from a body language perspective, you have full visibility of each other and are working together in a formal way. The opposing sides is rarely a layout I will use. Working together is something I use when facilitating and the no barriers approach is great for interviews where notes are not needed and you want to utilise body language.
It is a good idea to visualise yourself in control prior to the meeting as a confidence boost but it may also be necessary to have Union or HR in the room due to policy or safeguarding reasons. As the meeting begins, you should set expectations and outline the purpose of the meeting, keeping in mind that the conversation is there to support and find a way forward – not to judge and accuse.
When presenting, you should lay out your research, go over the three F;s and stick to the facts of the case, staying away from assumptions or leading questions.
We need to understand why the behaviour happened, set expectations and work towards a solution to remove barriers and make it easy for the people involved. Below is a sample lead-in statement followed by some sample questions:
The third step is to take action on the back of your discussion. Just like with coaching, people will be more committed to a plan when it is their own idea. Let them tell you what is realistic for them but remember to guide where needed. For example, if they say they will never be on time on a Monday ask these questions:
- Why is this the case?
- What can you do to make it happen?
- Could you finish later?
- What do you think are my concerns about this?
- Do you understand why I cannot commit to this?
- What can we support with?
- I should have approached you sooner regarding this but what do you want out of today?
It’s important that as a leader you take ownership of the issues – what did you do or not do to let this person think their behavior was okay? Show you are listening to them by summarizing and clarifying their points and remain calm and repetitive throughout with your expectations and the purpose of the meeting. Remember that one of the major causes of conflict is a lack of understanding, so ask yourself these 2 questions:
- Is this meeting for me to understand the situation?
- Am I staying out of judgement?
This is the final phase of conflict management. As people are more engaged in a solution they come up with themselves, put the ownership on the other person in regards to setting a goal. There are 2 useful models that may help with this: the SMART or SPIRIT models as below:
Where required, you may still need to issue warnings according to policy but you can present this positively as a record of support and development and utilize it as a consequence if the behavior isn’t fixed.
Here are two great articles that can accompany this guide. The first is how to understand the unsaid – when in the middle of conflict, reading the environment can be key to successfully navigating the situation. Here is an article on how to Understand the Unsaid.
The second article is about accountability. When in conflict, our ego can often take over and we may push back and blame others. Utilising the Ladder of Accountability can help us maintain control and lead us out of the conflict positively. Read our article here: Accountability.
Finally, if you are still struggling and need some help overcoming your barriers to turning conflict into a positive experience, book in your free coaching session with us via: www.Calendly.com/DevelopTheEdge
Whilst conflict can have negative connotations, it can be a positive and productive way for people and teams to grow and innovate. It can be a great relationship builder, providing the patties are involved seek to understand, connect and work towards a solution together.
The main causes of conflict are; Beliefs and values, Paradigms, communication skills, motivation and a lack of understanding. You can overcome most of these by setting your ego and emotions aside and approaching the situation with a desire to understand and reach consensus.
A useful process for conflict management is: research, present and take action. At the research stage, you are dealing with the 3 F’s, facts, frequency and Fractured relationships. During presentation, try to stay out of judgement and stick with the facts. Seek to find a solution. At the take action stage, we need to put our plan in place.
Do you approach conflict differently? Let us know your thoughts by connecting with us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn @DevelopTheEdge