Managing Conflict – Tools and Techniques
This article is about how to handle and resolve conflict. We often see conflict as destructive, and it can be if mishandled. When you handle conflict well, it can lead to magnificent creativity and growth. The article will give some tools, stories and practical ideas.
What are the issues with managing conflict?
People are different. We are all utterly unique. We sometimes want different things at different times or have different beliefs about what is important. Although I am not sure that conflict is inevitable, it happens because of these differences.
Unfortunately, most of us have had conflicts with parents, teachers or other people in authority at some time in our lives, and these people often don’t handle conflict elegantly. Coercion, bribery, manipulation or avoidance is common. When we experience these, we feel awful! So, it is tough to think about resolving conflict creatively with this weight of history behind us.
Where there is a history of conflict between groups, it is even more difficult. If you have heard for years that “you can’t trust X’ers” or “Y’ers are stupid/aggressive/dishonest”, it is ever so hard to forget that conditioning when you have a difference with one or your group with their group.
You need some tools and processes to engage creatively with each other and, if possible, come up with a win/win situation. I will offer some later on.
I have an amusing model for your conflict-handling style that may be helpful. What sort of animal are you?!
David Augsberger’s “Caring enough to Confront” is very good.
Common humanity, shared vision
I said that conflict was perhaps not inevitable. I have done a lot of vision-building work with groups and have always found that people always want the same thing when you have established enough connection and sharing. For example, a group of production workers and their manager wanted “Everything running smoothly”.
As we are all members of the same species and have the same needs for safety, health, shelter, love, fulfilment, service and growth, I find it helpful to believe that we all want the same things. It may or may not be “true”, but it leads you into much more creative territory than assuming the other person/group is out to get you.
Techniques and stories
Put the other party’s position.
Many conflicts are not “real” but are based on a misunderstanding often caused by not listening. You can help by asking A, or group A, to put B’s argument and then to check back with A that B has got it right, modify the argument if they need to and put it again until it is correct. Then you reverse roles and do it again. This compels careful and active listening.
I was facilitating a week’s workshop with a group of very senior police officers. They were going to do a project with a rural police force, but all worked in cities. They had a lot of thinking and planning to do. At one stage in the group, there was a conflict between “Mary” and “Fred”, which took all the group’s energy – everyone was entertained by it, but it was going nowhere.
I asked them to stop and put each other’s argument. Fred had understood Mary’s argument perfectly, but Mary had not understood Fred’s at all well. He had not been able to hear it. When Fred helped Mary understand Fred’s argument clearly, they realised that their positions were quite close, and they quickly agreed on what they should do. This saved lots of time and potential bad temper, and they learned the value of listening.
Change the process
Sometimes it is obvious why a conflict between people stays unresolved. Perhaps they have a destructive process of blaming each other or not listening. You can often help by helping them notice how they interact and inviting them to change. You can’t compel them.
I was working with a married couple. “George” was a tiny quiet man, and “Gwen” was large and loud. Gwen complained that George did not talk to her and spent every evening in the shed on his hobbies. I noticed that Gwen interrupted him whenever George tried to put his point of view (that Gwen was not interested in him and was so talkative he needed to escape!). Then George went even quieter.
When she interrupted again, I put up my hand and asked them what had just happened. It took several goes, but they both realised what was going on. Gwen improved at not interrupting, and George seemed to open up a bit. Gwen had started listening to George and was enjoying it, and George was spending much less time in the shed! I was amazed next week to find them so much happier.
One person can work out what is going on and change it
You don’t need two people or parties to engage directly in resolving conflict. It can be enough if you can help one party think clearly about what is going on. Things will improve if you change from blaming and attacking someone to trying to understand their position.
I learned an excellent analytical tool, Seven Column Analysis, from Chris Bull that can help. The most common problems are distorted communication – what you say does not reflect your feelings and making false assumptions about the other person’s needs or wants. There are a worked example and more information on the link. When you know what is happening, you can change what you do, which will often make a difference.
Traps for the unwary
Getting too involved in solving the problem
It is hard to take responsibility for resolving the conflicts you are in. It is much easier to blame the other party or pass the monkey to someone else, like your boss. If you can get that person on your side, you can “win”. If you are trying to help people resolve conflict, it is essential to push back the responsibility to resolve the conflict to the people involved.
One manager would put the parties in a room and tell them how he would judge the solution they produced. Then, the manager left them to get on with creating one. It was their problem.
People don’t always want to resolve the conflict.
Unresolved conflict can meet emotional needs. People like to have appreciation and nice things said about and to them (in Transactional Analysis “A Warm Fuzzy”). Still, suppose you can’t get a warm fuzzy (positive attention). In that case, the opposite, criticism and nasty things, a “Cold Prickly” (negative attention), is much better than no attention. Fighting can get you noticed by others, and being in one at least means someone knows you are there!
I worked with a couple that had violent rows (US fights). They said they wanted their relationship to improve, but week after week, they rowed in front of me. Eventually, I got it. They did not want to stop fighting; they wanted someone to notice how good they were at it. When I faced them with this, they initially denied it and then grudgingly admitted it and left arm in arm. People are so complicated!
Don’t expect miracles.
“Team of Two” is a simple tool to improve cooperation between pairs of people. It works well when there is reasonable goodwill on both sides. I tried to use it where there has been a long history of conflict and little goodwill, and it did not work. I fell for the demand for a “quick fix” and my need to be a “magician”.
Resolving conflict can take a lot of time. You may have to listen to both sides separately before bringing them together, and if attitudes are deeply entrenched, you may fail. Then, it may be best to minimise the interaction or leave the relationship.
Good listening can help people learn and grow so they are less likely to get into the same difficulties again.
Conflict between groups
There is an article here on Team Building between Teams and much in the re-evaluation counselling literature. One of the fundamental principles is that people must feel good about themselves in their group before they are willing to hear from another group.