Breaking the Chains of Conflict

Conflict binds us, just like chains. No matter where you work, no matter what size and type of organization, at some point in time you are going to face conflict. You may find yourself embroiled in conflict, or you may be called upon to help resolve a conflict between others. Knowing how to prevent conflict from disrupting the flow of progress, will ensure everyone achieves the strategic intent of the organization.

The biggest challenge many leaders face is actually recognizing that what they are experiencing is a conflict. In a work environment, there are many different personalities, attitudes, work ethics, ideals, values, experiences, and more. These contrasting perspectives and worldviews can lead to misunderstandings. Remembering that people approach their work from varied points of view and perspectives can make approaching and resolving the conflict much easier.

While most people do equate conflict as being a negative experience, this is not always true. Many conflicts can result in positive experiences and improved working conditions if you are willing to adjust your approach to the situation. I recall my own workplace conflict with a fellow senior leader. He fiercely disliked me and regularly attacked my ideas, often attacking me personally. While I could not pinpoint the exact reason for his dislike, I leveraged the experience so that the outcome would favor me.

First, I had to break away from my feelings and accept that there was something about me, or our joint work situations, that triggered a negative response in him. This step helped me maintain emotional control and channel it into something more useful – empathy. My ability to empathize with even the harshest criticism opened my mind long enough to pick out the most important points he was making so I could adjust my original plan, idea, approach, and proposal. By not allowing myself to get caught up in a type of dogfight with him, I was able to leverage his caustic criticism and shape it into something that was positive and useful.

I learned early in life from my father who, when confronted with seemingly crazy situations, would say, “Pam, you have to learn to eat the meat and throw away the bones.” I’ve been presented with many “bones” in my career, as you will be too. The key is not to choke on them in conflict, but glean the good from the situation, let the “meat” make you better, and throw the rest away.

Competitiveness can also cause conflict. However, if properly managed, and under the right circumstances, competition can spur people into action and help you identify potential leaders. Additionally, conflict helps to surface issues and get them resolved. Breaking the silence on unspoken issues before they lock up progress will benefit the
entire organization.

So then, how do you break the chains of organizational conflict?

  • Examine your mental model and theirs. Remember my story above. Break through assumptions by considering, “What do you want to get out of this situation? What is the common goal you share? What can you learn by maintaining emotional control? What perspectives of theirs might you be missing? How might you help them see your perspective?” By maintaining emotional control and identifying a common goal, you can prevent a conflict from escalating, and with practice learn to mitigate the negative effects of unresolved
    conflict quickly.
  • Explore what’s going on. Unlock alternatives and allow all parties involved to discuss their perspectives. Allow them to talk through what they are thinking or feeling. Conflict coaching at this point is invaluable and can prevent you from entering through another door of conflict. When those involved are allowed to explore their views, their opinions and their ideas in a safe space, new and improved processes have the potential
    to emerge.
  • Expand the landscape. A problem or conflict is never one side versus the other. Those in conflict may only see two options, but there is always another way out. Establish common ground and encourage the parties in conflict to work together to identify all the possible alternatives. Discussion takes the focus off their own worldviews and instead encourages expanded and creative thinking.
  • Express new learnings. Accountability is critical for unfettered, sustained conflict resolution. “What have you learned about yourselves and one another?” “How will you hold yourself and one another accountable for long-term change?” “What steps will you take to quickly resolve conflict scenarios in the future?” These are the types of coaching questions you can begin using immediately to help seal the deal for sustained resolution of issues.

Remember that you are viewed as a leader. Don’t allow a situation to get to the boiling point before attempting to diffuse it. Be prepared to step in and take action immediately. Learn to examine, explore, expand, express, and break the chains of organizational conflict.

Here’s to healthy discourse and conflict resolution.

Author Pamela J. Green, SPHR, PCC, ICC, is an author, speaker and executive coach. She maintains a full roster of clients who call on her to provide proven solutions for their pressing collaboration, conflict management and communication needs. She can be reached at pam@pamelajgreen.com.
Photo credit: ©iStock.com/PeopleImages

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