Practical ways to resolve conflict

Practical ways to 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.

What are the issues with managing conflict? 

People are different. We are all utterly unique. We sometimes want different things at other times or have different beliefs about what is essential. Although I am not sure that conflict is inevitable, it happens because of these differences.

Unfortunately, most of us have conflicts with parents, teachers or other people in authority, and these people sometimes don’t handle conflict elegantly. Coercion, bribery, manipulation or avoidance is common, and when we experience these, we feel awful! It is hard to think about resolving conflict creatively with this weight of history behind us.

If you have heard for years that “You can’t trust our finance people” or “Our engineers are always stupid and aggressive”, it is ever so hard to forget that conditioning when you have a difference with one, or your group with their group. (I know trustworthy finance people and gentle, clever engineers. This is just an illustration!) Where there is a history of conflict between groups, it is even more difficult.

Common humanity, shared vision.

Conflict is 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”.

Tools and stories

Put the other party’s position.

Many conflicts are not “real” but come from misunderstandings 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 idea if needed, and put it again until it is correct. Then you reverse roles and do it again. This compels careful and active listening.

A story

I facilitated a week’s workshop with a group of 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. “John” and “Fred” were arguing. This took all the energy of the group. Everyone found this entertaining, but it was going nowhere.

I asked them to stop and put each other’s argument. Fred had understood John’s argument perfectly, but John had not understood Fred’s at all well. He had not been able to hear it. When Fred helped John 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 aggravation, 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.

A story

I was working with a couple. “George” was a tiny quiet man, and “Mary” was large and loud. Mary complained that George did not talk to her and spent every evening in the shed on his hobbies. I noticed that Mary interrupted him whenever George tried to put his point of view (that Mary was not interested in him and was so talkative he needed to escape!). Then George went even quieter.

When she interrupted again, I asked them what had just happened. It took several goes, but they both realised what was going on and. Mary got a bit better at not interrupting, and George seemed to open up. Mary 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 be directly engaged in resolving conflict. That can be enough if you can help one party think clearly about what is going on. If you change from blaming and attacking someone to trying to understand their position, things will change.

I learned an excellent analytical tool, “Seven Column Analysis“, from Chris Bull. The most common problems that it surfaces are distorted communication. What you say does not reflect what you feel. You may make false assumptions about what the other person needs or wants. 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 your conflicts. It is much easier to blame the other party or pass the problem to someone else, like your boss. 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, tell them how he would judge the solution they produced and leave them to get on with having one. It was their problem.

People don’t always want to resolve the conflict.

Unresolved conflict can meet emotional needs. Fighting can get you noticed by others, and being in one at least means someone knows you are there! People like to have an appreciation and pleasant 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), are very much better than no attention at all.

A story

I worked with a couple that had violent rows (US fights). They said they wanted their relationship to improve, but they rowed before me week after week. They did not want to stop rowing; they wanted to have someone notice how good they were at it. When I faced them with this, they initially denied it, then grudgingly admitted it and left arm in arm.

Don’t expect miracles. 

Resolving conflict can take a lot of time. If attitudes are deeply entrenched, you may fail. You may have to listen to both sides separately before bringing them together. Then it may be best for them to minimise the interaction or leave the relationship.

Conflict between groups

People need to feel good in their group before they will listen to people in another group. This simple principle leads to elegant ways to build cooperation between groups and teams.

If you would like help using this idea, or have any comments or questions please contact me. Thanks, Nick