If there is no communication, then there is no respect. If there is no respect, then there is no caring. If there is no caring, then there is no understanding. If there is no understanding, then there is no compassion. If there is no compassion, then there is no empathy. If there is no empathy, then there is no forgiveness. If there is no forgiveness, then there is no kindness. If there is no kindness, then there is no honesty. If there is no honesty, then there is no peace. If there is no peace, then there is no love. If there is no love, then there is no happiness. If there is no happiness, then there is CONFLICT BECAUSE THERE IS NO COMMUNICATION!
2020 has placed a lot of extra strain on relationships. Crisis is, more often than not, an opportunity for growth and evolution if we approach it from the right perspective. Conflict in any relationship is virtually inevitable. In itself, conflict isn’t really a problem. How conflict is handled, however, can bring people together or tear them apart. Conflicts can be productive, creating deeper understanding, closeness, and respect, or they can be destructive, causing resentment, hostility, and a severing of the connection.
While many of us struggle with taking too much ownership over things that are not ours, there’s always some truth in that both parties contribute to every conflict. Sometimes your part might be as simple as not speaking up or not staying curious. Other times it might be a larger and more pressing issue, like a tendency to blame or shout, a lack of accountability, an inability to respect boundaries, or projecting your insecurities on others.
Difficult conversations and disagreements in the workplace are common and completely normal. Unfortunately for many of us these situations are stressful and result in both parties feeling miserable. Conflicts tend to activate our brain’s fight-flight stress response – this typically narrows our perspective, activates unconscious biases, and increases our sense of separation. We experience a distinct sense of ‘us versus them’.
“When introverts are in conflict with each other…it may require a map in order to follow all the silences, nonverbal cues, and passive-aggressive behaviours.”
— Adam S. McHugh
Common Conflict Tactics
- Avoiding or denying the existence of a conflict.
- Giving in rather than struggling through the conflict.
- Blaming the other party.
- Competing and wanting to win at all costs.
- Using power and influence to control and get their way.
- Appearing to compromise but subtly manipulating to win more ground.
- A few people can control their anger, competitive, I-give-up feelings, and self- serving tendencies and genuinely seek a fair, optimal solution for both parties. This is a creative integrative win-win approach.
How conflicts get resolved, not how many occur, is the critical factor in determining whether a relationship will be healthy or toxic, mutually satisfying or unfulfilling, friendly or hostile, deep or shallow, intimate, or cold. When conflict arises, we sometimes choose to grit our teeth in a bid to keep it together when we start feeling irritated.
In families, in relationships, in the workplace…there will always be conflicts. The truth is, problems and disagreements are a part of life. But, they don’t have to be feared, or agonised over. When dealt with in a healthy manner, conflicts that arise can be opportunities for growth personally, relationally, and professionally
Avoiding conflict it is not healthy and often results in a mess of uncontrolled emotions and otherwise preventable blow-ups. Steering clear of conflict can complicate or even end relationships, and it can be a cancer to a productive and peaceful work environment.
“What if every moment of conflict is a chance to make your relationship even stronger?”
The Benefits of Healthy Conflict
Conflicts can and should be addressed in a healthy manner, where disagreeing parties come together for the betterment of the situation or relationship. Working through conflict in a healthy, productive manner can:
- Strengthen connections and bonds in relationships
- Build trust and a sense of security
- Facilitate better decision making
- Broaden everyone’s perspective
- Be built on the rules and code of ethics established as part of the company culture. These must be built into the organisation’s cultural DNA from day one on a foundation of trust and respect.
- Level-up team members’ communication skills as they are encouraged to away from finger-pointing and work toward perceiving, understanding, and respecting where others are coming from.
- Demonstrate that everyone’s opinions matter and that they are able to express them without fear of being bullied.
- Bring resolution to situations that may have otherwise been kept secret (thus creating discontentment, bitterness, and anger bubbling beneath the surface)
Now, at this point you might be thinking that the concept of healthy conflict sounds a little too “picturesque,” or a little like “wishful thinking.” If so, that’s no doubt due to the fact that we all know how ugly conflict can be!
“A good manager doesn’t try to eliminate conflict; he tries to keep it from wasting the energies of his people. If you’re the boss and your people fight you openly when they think that you are wrong–that’s healthy.”
— Robert Townsend
Don’t Fear Conflict, Embrace it – It’s your Job!
Here’s the thing – leadership and conflict go hand-in-hand. Leadership is a full-contact sport, and if you cannot or will not address conflict in a healthy, productive fashion, then you should not be in a leadership role. While you can try to avoid conflict (bad idea), you cannot escape conflict. The fact of the matter is conflict in the workplace is basically unavoidable. It will find you whether you look for it or not. The ability to recognise conflict, understand its nature, and resolve it swiftly and justly will serve you well as a leader. The inability to do so may well be your downfall.
How many times over the years have you witnessed otherwise successful professionals self-destruct because they wouldn’t engage out of a fear of conflict? Putting your head in the sand and hoping that conflict will pass you by is not the most effective methodology for problem-solving. Conflict rarely resolves itself – in fact, conflict normally escalates if not dealt with proactively and properly. It is not at all uncommon to see what might have been a non-event manifest itself into a monumental issue when not resolved early on.
“Conflict can destroy a team that hasn’t spent time learning to deal with it.”
— Thomas Isgar
You are a weak leader if you cannot deal with staff who use emotional deceit as a weapon of destruction. Almost every workplace is plagued with manipulative people who use emotion to create conflict in order to cover-up their ineptness. These are the drama queens/kings that, when confronted about wrongdoing and/or lack of performance, are quick to point the finger in another direction. They are adept at using emotional tirades which often include crocodile tears, blame-shifting, little lies, half-truths (same thing), and other trite manipulations to get away with total lack of substance.
When leaders do not recognise these negative repetitive patterns or choose to do nothing about it, the organisation begins to rot. Real leaders don’t play favourites, don’t get involved in drama, and they certainly don’t tolerate manipulative, self-serving behaviour.
Developing effective conflict resolution skill sets is an essential component of building a sustainable business model. Unresolved conflict often results in loss of productivity, the stifling of creativity, and the creation of barriers to cooperation and collaboration. Perhaps most importantly for leaders, good conflict resolution means good employee retention. Leaders who don’t deal with conflict will eventually watch their good talent walk out the door in search of a healthier and safer work environment.
There are some people who always seem angry and continuously look for conflict. Walk away from these people. The battle they’re are fighting isn’t with you, it’s with themselves.”
— Rashida Rowe
What Creates Conflict in the Workplace?
Opposing positions, competitive tensions, power struggles, ego, pride, jealousy, performance discrepancies, compensation issues, or even just someone having a bad day can all create conflict. While this may sound like just about anything and everything can create conflict, the reality is that the root of most conflict is either born out of poor communication or the inability to control your emotions (low emotional intelligence).
Most conflicts arise from a lack of information, poor information, no information, or misinformation. Let’s assume for a moment that you are lucky enough to have received good information, but you don’t know what to do with it. This is still a communication problem, which in turn can lead to conflict. Clear, concise, accurate, and timely communication of information helps to ease both the number and severity of conflicts.
Conflict arises when we let our emotions drive decisions. When you place the need for emotional superiority ahead of achieving your mission, you are likely to engage in shadow behaviour, rather than come from a place of love. Have you ever witnessed an employee throw a fit of rage and draw the regrettable line in the sand in the heat of the moment? If you have, what you really watched was a person indulging their emotions rather than protecting their future.
“Conflict is inevitable but combat is optional.”
— Max Lucado
The Problem with Conflict
It is crucial for organisational health and performance that conflict is accepted and addressed through effective conflict resolution processes. While having a conflict resolution structure is important, effective execution of conflict resolution processes is ultimately dependant upon the ability of all parties to understand the benefits of conflict resolution, as well as their desire to resolve the matter.
The problem is that when we try to push the feelings down, it doesn’t mean they go away. They continue running in the background like a smartphone app, depleting our emotional batteries until our irritation explodes into red hot anger. Then we lash out at the nearest person and behave in ways we later regret.
Another option, when we realise we are irritated at a very low and manageable level – is to stop for a moment. Pause and look inward with curiosity at what’s really going on. See yourself and the other party through a positive lens. Then make an intentional choice about what to do next.
Connection is a basic human need. We seek it through family and friends, but often our intimate relationships are where we expect to find the most connection. When we don’t, we feel isolated and misunderstood. We let these negative emotions lead to arguments – or worse, we stop communicating at all.
“The most important things are the hardest to say, because words diminish them.”
– Stephen King
5 Tips on Handling Workplace Conflicts
There has never been a more important time for us, as a species, to learn how to resolve conflict. The way your business handles conflict between employees, management or business partners can have a big impact on profits, productivity and morale. Conflict is a major cause of staff turnover and costs your organisation money. Queensland Government research shows over 65% of employee performance problems are the result of strained relationships, rather than a lack of skill or motivation.
1. Define Acceptable Behaviour
You know what they say about assuming… Make sure you have a definition of what constitutes acceptable behaviour. Creating a framework for decision making, using a published delegation of authority statement, encouraging sound business practices in collaboration, team building, leadership development, and talent management will all help to minimise conflict. Clearly and publicly make it known how we do things around here, and what will and will not be tolerated. Ensure this is applied to everyone across the board.
2. Tackle Conflict Head-on
While you can’t always prevent conflict, you can weed out areas of potential conflict and proactively intervene. When you demonstrate this behaviour in a just and decisive fashion you will likely prevent certain conflicts from ever arising. If a conflict does flair up, you will most likely minimise its severity by dealing with it quickly. Time spent identifying and understanding natural tensions will help to avoid unnecessary conflict.
3. Listen to WIIFM
Understanding the other people’s WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) position is critical. It is absolutely essential to understand other people’s motivations prior to weighing in. The way to avoid conflict is to help those around you achieve their objectives. If you approach conflict from the perspective of taking the action that will help others best achieve their goals, you will find few obstacles will stand in your way with regard to resolving conflict.
4. Pick Your Battles
The time to avoid conflict is when it’s for the sake of conflict. If the issue is important enough to create a conflict, then it is important enough to resolve. If the issue, circumstance, or situation is important enough, and there is enough at stake, people will do what is necessary to open lines of communication and close positional and/or philosophical gaps.
5. View Conflict as Opportunity
Hidden within virtually every conflict is the potential for a tremendous learning and growing opportunity. Where there is disagreement, there is an inherent potential for understanding and development. If you’re a leader who doesn’t leverage conflict for team building and leadership development purposes, you’re missing a great opportunity. Divergent positions addressed properly can stimulate innovation and learning in ways like minds can’t even imagine. Smart leaders look for the upside in all differing opinions.
Conflict resolution isn’t about solving the problem or brokering a deal. It’s not about coming up with compromises that leave each party ‘equally unhappy’. Conflict management is about building connection. When connection is built between two people, it gives them the opportunity to resolve their own conflict. They unlock their unique experiences and bring their individual expertise to the table. To look at it another way, a leader’s job isn’t to solve a problem, but to build meaningful connection. To bring everyone’s context to the table.
“I’ve always believed that a lot of the troubles in the world would disappear if we were talking to each other instead of about each other.”
— Ronald Reagan
Connection is the Goal.
Connection means that two people are sharing themselves honestly with one another. Each person is accepting the differences in the other, without giving up what they feel or believe. It’s from that place of acceptance and understanding that we can appreciate the other person as a whole individual with different views, different pains, different desires.
When two people do that (in business, in friendship, in partnership), they are connected. So how do you get from conflict to connection? You need to HEAR each other.
Hold your ground
Engage with vulnerability
Accept with empathy
Repeat and request
Hold Your Ground
Holding your ground isn’t about being defensive. It’s quite the opposite. It’s about recognising and respecting each other’s boundaries. Stay in your lane and speak from your own perspective, rather than somebody else’s. In emotionally charged discussions, it can be easy to put judgments and assumptions onto others. These are all defence mechanisms. “You don’t see my point.” “You just want to take this project away from my team.” “If you only stopped doing A or B.”
Role model boundaries by staying on your side of them. Often, that’s enough to change the tone for the better. If you find the other person is telling you what to do or putting words in your mouth, gently ask for them to respect the boundaries. “I’d really like to hear this from your perspective and understand what’s impacting you.”
Holding your ground means respecting the boundary between your experience and theirs. And staying on your side of it. Once one person starts putting words in the other’s mouth, it can be a cycle that repeats both ways. This is boundary pollution, and it leads to more conflict, not resolution.
Engage With Vulnerability
Once both people are respecting their own boundaries, it’s time to engage. This is not about restating the facts or the data, at least not by themselves. Rather, it’s about being vulnerable. So, what does vulnerability look like here? It looks like simply stating how you feel. It doesn’t have to be sentimental or passionate. Just naming the frustration you feel or describing what you want can be a powerful thing. Talking about facts and opinions can easily lead to argument. Listen to how someone feels. It’s how they feel, and it’s true for them in this moment.
Role model and take the first step in being vulnerable. Share first. Whatever the problem is, reach deep into how it’s affecting you and share that primary experience. Offer an honest, genuine, and open statement of what you’re experiencing. Try focusing on connecting at the emotional level first. “I feel frustrated because I want this project to be completed on time. I’m worried that if it’s not, I’ll be letting my team down. I don’t want to let my team down.”
Accept With Empathy
When you’re sharing, it’s the other person’s job to accept what’s being said. This can be difficult in emotionally sensitive environments. The more the focus is on building connection first, the more that emotion can be in service of that connection. When you role model this by sharing what you really feel, you’re already changing the tone and making it easier to hear. If necessary, ask deliberately for the other to listen, with a commitment to do the same. Try “I really want to listen to you, and I want you to listen to me, too. Can we both commit to hearing each other out right now?”
When you’re receiving, make space for the person sharing. Commit to hear what’s being said and work to understand it. Value what they say and actually listening to the meaning. It’s active listening, focused on authentic empathy. This doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with it. Simply hold space for their beliefs to coexist with your own.
Repeat and Request
After you’ve shared, pause. Then invite the other person to share their experience. Offer the request genuinely, and hold the space to accept what they say. Try something simple like “I appreciate you listening to me just now. I’d like to hear how you’re feeling about the situation.”
Repeat sharing back and forth as necessary. Hopefully, this type of meaningful dialog will lead to some deeper connection. If it does, then the emotion that once fueled conflict will instead create mutual understanding. It’s from this place that resolution takes shape. Naturally, and intuitively.
Once you’re both engaging as peers, try making a request. Be vulnerable in saying what you want. The goal of requesting is cooperation, not compromise. Don’t worry about extending an olive branch or offering something you think the other person wants. Back to the idea of boundaries, it’s up to them to say what they want. After connection is built, it will feel like everyone has a voice.
“In one of our concert grand pianos, 243 taut strings exert a pull of 40,000 pounds on an iron frame. It is proof that out of great tension may come great harmony.”
— Theodore E. Steinway
Creating connection is the best path to resolution. It’s not always easy or straightforward, although sometimes it is. If connection isn’t built easily, don’t give up! And once it is, don’t be afraid to make a request and cooperate on a solution. If your own conflict is getting out of hand, find someone to play the mediator role. Try writing down your ideas if you know it will be easier for you. But avoid just emailing back and forth. Sit down in a room together and give the HEAR framework a shot.
“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”
— Kenny Rogers