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Conflict as Productive Tension
by Dr. Terry Stimson
Dealing with conflict is a fact of life in organizations. Accepting that conflict is inevitable, and being prepared to deal with it is an important part of understanding how to survive in the workworld. Imagine yourself leading a staff meeting, which seems to be going well, and as you come to item #4 two members start arguing. They are so busy espousing their view point that they are not listening to each other as each pushes his or her point of view. The rest of the group squirms uncomfortably as the two combatants become more and more combustible. The discussion spins in circles and people get upset.
What do you do now? For starters, rather than seeing conflict as something to be avoided, it is important to view conflict as a positive sign that people care about the issue and are willing to express their opinion. Whether the conflict creates a disaster or becomes productive tension which leads to positive results all has to do with how the conflict is managed.
Healthy debate is essential to the successful decision making of an organization at all levels and on many occasions. If a group doesn't express differences of opinion, then it's basically incapable of making effective decisions. Dysfunctional arguments lead nowhere and often result in unproductive results with hurt feelings.
When conflict is productive:
-people are open to hearing other's ideas
-people listen and respond to ideas even if they don't agree with them
-everyone tries to understand the views of the other person
-people stay objective and focus on the facts
-there's a systematic approach to analyzing the situation and looking for solutions
When conflict creates dysfunction
-people assume they're right
-people wait until others have finished talking, then state their ideas
without responding to ideas of the other person.
-no one is interested in how the other person sees the situation
-people get personally attacked and blamed
-hot topics get thrashed out in an unstructured way
People play a variety of roles in conflict. They may be negotiators who have a stake in the outcome of the dispute; mediators, or facilitators - third parties without a stake in the substantive issues in dispute, who have procedural skills useful to disputants in reaching an agreement; or decision makers or arbiters - people whom disputants have asked to make a decision for them.
Conflict resolution often can be enhanced by clarification of the role that a person plans to play in the problem solving process. When entering a dispute, a person should decide if he or she is to be a negotiator, mediator, facilitator, or decision maker/arbiter and then decide if other parties will benefit from a clarification of the conflict manager's role.
Each role in a conflict carries varying degrees of power and influence. In some situations, the conflict manager may have power or authority to make a decision and may choose to use it. In others, a person may have the power to decide, but may refrain from acting so that others can make decisions.
Conflict management has two distinct steps
Step One: Venting
This involves listening to people so that they feel heard and so that any built up emotions are diffused. People are rarely ready to move on to solutions until their emotional blocks have been removed.
Step Two: Resolving the Issue
Choosing the right structured approach to get to solutions. This can be a collaborative problem solving activity, compromising, accommodating, or consciously avoiding.
The Venting part of the process requires an Active Listening approach to the parties involved which includes:
Validating what is being said, "...must have been painful"
Empathizing - feelings are facts in a conflict situation
Clarifying - use open ended questions to understand the anger
Summarizing - make a statement which reflects you understand the
frustrations without repeating verbatim
There are basically five approaches to resolving the issue once the venting has occurred:
Avoid - ignore the conflict in the hope that it will go away. Maintain silence or try to change the subject.
Accommodate - ask people to be more tolerant and accept each other's views. Ask them to try to get along. This sometimes involves asking one person to give in to another person.
Compromise - look for the middle ground between highly polarized views. Ask each person to give up some of what what he or she thinks are more important.
Compete - use force to make points and quell any conflicts. Go for a personal win even if the other person feels like he or she has lost the argument.
Collaborate - face the conflict, draw people's attention to it, surface the issues and resolve them in a win/win way by using systematic problem solving.
In the opening paragraph I asked how you would handle a conflict situation when you are leading a staff meeting. There are norms which can be established by the group to guide a meeting and prepare for conflict situations before they surface.
Questions that will assist in opening a discussion on conflict management norms include:
"What behaviors and rules should we adhere to if we find ourselves getting into serious disagreements?"
"What can be done to ensure that we have a good debate instead of a heated argument?"
Some sample norms targeted at conflict situations include:
-we'll speak one at a time
-we'll look at each other when we speak and acknowledge any valid points made by the other person
-we'll accept all ideas as valid when presented
-we'll build on each other's ideas
-we won't dismiss any idea without really exploring it
-we'll make sure everyone is heard - not just a few people
-we won't get emotional, argumentative or personal
-no one will attack anyone else
-if the discussion gets heated or we start going in circles, we'll call a time-out and look at how we are doing things
-no one will deliberately block the group from reaching a final solution by taking a position
-we'll take a systematic approach to resolving issues rather than just pushing personal points of view
Once conflict norms are established, they should be referred to at strategic moments, to make sure they're being followed. Sometimes adding a new norm in the middle of a conflict discussion helps to stabilize the situation.
We have thought of peace as passive
and war as the active way of living.
The opposite is true.
War is not the most strenuous life.
It is a kind of rest cure compared
to the task of reconciling our differences.
From War to Peace is not from the strenuous
to the easy existence.
It is from the futile to the effective,
form the stagnant to the active,
from the destructive to the creative way of life...
The world will be regenerated by the people
who rise above those passive ways
and historically seek by whatever hardship,
by whatever toil
the methods by which people can agree.
-Mary Parker Follett