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Health & Human Resources

Conflict Isn’t a Threat. It’s an Opportunity To Learn

Train management to manage conflict resolution well

Originally published
Originally published: 8/1/2023

Poor managers – and I’m not rolling my eyes as I type this— for I believe managers have one of the toughest jobs in leading people. One of the tough things they must do is lead their team members through and to conflict resolution. Most are not particularly good at it. After all, they don’t even like giving negative feedback never mind dealing with existing conflict. But dealing with it can result in so much worse. Seldom do conflicts ever just disappear. Ignoring them isn’t the trick. Rather, they must be faced, head-on, and dealt with. Ugh…

Who Among Us Likes Conflict?

Raise your hand—do you like dealing with conflict? Nope? Not a surprise. But managers can’t fear conflict. Why? Because it’s a fact of life within a work environment no matter how healthy and synergetic the culture. Important to note, conflict doesn’t always present itself as a big fight or blow-up between team members. 

Let’s look at what conflict is, and then we can start figuring out ways to deal with it. 

Types of Conflict

Conflict can arise based on a difference of opinion, pushback, or disagreement. Anywhere there is feedback and human interaction, you will find conflict – attributes inherent in day-to-day management. Learning key management resolution strategies is key to maintaining a better company culture.

Consider the following key responsibilities which will almost always elicit some type of conflict, hopefully not every time, but at least occasionally. 

    Employee evaluations
    Budgeting and resource allocation
    Task allocation (i.e., who does what, and why they were chosen)
    Feedback and corrective action

While managers can’t avoid these tasks as a general rule, the ability to successfully resolve conflict is paramount to effectively managing a team. 

How well conflicts are resolved depends on your ability to:

    Manage stress quickly while remaining alert and calm. By staying calm, you can accurately read and interpret verbal and nonverbal communication cues.
    Control your emotions and behavior. When you’re in control of your emotions, you can communicate your needs without threatening, intimidating, or punishing others.
    Pay attention to the feelings being expressed as well as the spoken words of others.
    Be aware of and respect differences. By avoiding disrespectful words and actions, you can almost always resolve a problem faster.

All conflict mediation and resolution management involves a certain amount (more is better) of EQ (Emotional Intelligence). Managers must be able to manage their feelings but also understand the feelings of others, or at least try. This begins with being aware of their own emotions and triggers. Managers who react without thinking first, risk escalating conflicts into areas they’d rather not visit. By being calm and focused, and staying in control of emotions and reactive behavior, managers can better communicate in a way that leads to resolution, versus escalation. 

Speak to Motivation

Once they have a clear picture of what is truly important to the person or people involved – what motivates their actions – managers can then use that information to form a strategy for interesting and influencing others to listen to their ideas. EQ is not about giving others everything they want. Sometimes that is not what’s best for an organization or team, or even the individual. EQ is about hearing and understanding them, and then about doing what’s best. Bear in mind, this may mean being open to what an employee proposes rather than what the manager originally thought was best. Hence, the idea of being open and aware of feelings, and respecting differences in opinion should include being open to those being managed. 

Put On Your Oxygen Mask First

Okay, that’s the prework. Managers – the key is to always first get control of emotions before working with others to find the solution to the conflict. 

Now let’s look at how to address the conflict itself. 

Here are some great tips for managing conflict and driving toward resolution: 

(Source: Clarke University)

    Accept conflict. Conflict is a natural part of life, never mind business. It happens in every relationship and offers us an opportunity to grow, reach new understandings, and improve communication. 
    Be a calming agent. Your response to conflict can make it better… or worse. Therefore, be calm. Provide an objective or neutral view when working with others in conflict. Plan how you will work with the other party (parties) to resolve this. 
    Use your active listening skills. Pay attention and focus on the other party. What are they telling you? How do they feel? What is the impact of actions taken? What would they like to come out of it
    Analyze the conflict. Clarify what the specific problem is. Ask about what triggered it and what is causing anger or confusion. Dig into key issues and listen to what is being said or what isn’t being said. 
    Watch your language. This doesn’t necessarily mean profane language—although that might apply—but also refers to accusations, name-calling, and exaggerations that make things worse. Rather than sinking into this type of dialogue, state what you need to state in a more objective way that communicates information useful for future discussions. 
    Focus on the problem, not the person. Viewing the problem as a specific set of circumstances will help to avoid the accusatory language mentioned above. This approach can also help to manage the problem and reduce feelings of "not being able to stand that person any longer”. 
    Move away from blame and toward working together. Each person must take ownership of their share of the problem. Making commitments to working together and listening to each other can help to solve the conflict. 
    Accept differing points of view. Demanding “the truth” or one right way can lead to ongoing battles. Truth is relative to the individual’s point of view. Rarely do people agree on every single detail. 
    Share your WHY. Sharing interests and whys behind each party’s position can lead to working together to find common solutions that satisfy those interests. 
    Be creative. Sometimes finding a resolution means being creative and thinking beyond what is usual. 
    Be careful not to just give in. After all, agreements reached too quickly usually don’t last and might lead to resentment. Also avoid the “my way or the highway” approach that managers so often employ, unless it’s truly the last resort. Do some brainstorming to come up with creative solutions that will work for everyone, including the company. 
    Be specific. Clarify anything ambiguous and subject to interpretation. You want everyone on the same page. 
    Create a plan for the future. Don’t dwell on what has happened in the past. Be future-focused and create a plan to address this specific conflict and others that could arise in the future. 

Here are some more ideas taken from an amazing TED talk given by Nadia Lopez, who is a middle school principal in Brooklyn. It's a short talk and well worth a listen. 

Following are Lopez’s ways to dial down conflict:

    Be vulnerable. Being open and honest with your team or the person you’re in conflict with demonstrates you are open and trustworthy. Sharing where you struggle fosters a sense of understanding and support. This is far more impressive than pretending you’re a fearless, all-knowing manager and your way is the only way.
    Be aware. Stop and ask yourself why your idea isn’t working. Face-to-face conversations are important here. This isn’t something to handle via email or Slack. Hold yourself accountable to do what it takes to move forward.
    Center yourself. Leaders deal with challenges from all sides. It’s important to be a calm and rational mediator. Writing things down and/or taking time to reflect before acting helps put things into perspective and can help you decide if something is worth the fight. 
    Manage mediation. If you’re put into the role of managing the conflict, lay out what you expect from others in the conflict i.e. protocols and rules of engagement. Create a safe space for open and honest communication. View the problem as a specific set of circumstances. 
    Listen deeply and actively. It’s really important to acknowledge the feelings of others. Show that they’ve been heard by using active and reflective language. Be compassionate and empathetic. 
    Acknowledge, respect, thank, repeat. Thank the people involved for their willingness to work things out. Acknowledge their part in the resolution and show how much you respect their contributions. Recognizing a person’s dedication and skills in conflict calms troubled waters. 

Finally, as leaders, we must understand managers need help with all aspects of managing people—including conflict. Support the soft skills development of your people-leadership team with training and coaching. There is a slew of resources available, and we’re happy to help.

Laura Sukorokoff has always had a passion for soft skills and what they can do to transform business. Her company, Take Charge Learning, takes the message of soft skills (or, as she prefers to call them, power skills!) to businesses everywhere, with a special focus on the world of skilled trades. Laura is an entrepreneur, an author, an inspiring and engaging facilitator and speaker. Her book, It’s Not Them, It’s You: Why employees break up with their managers and what to do about it, explores the subject of connection and its transformative power in the workplace.

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