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Resolving Conflicts
Dr. Peter Honey

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Every difference of opinion, every disagreement, is a conflict, either with a big or small ‘c’ depending on the magnitude of the difference. Conflicts between people are inevitable as they try to agree priorities, make decisions, solve problems and work together. If there weren’t differences of opinion it would probably be a sign that people were apathetic or acquiescing by ostensibly saying yes, but in reality hiding major reservations.

While conflicts are rarely welcomed they offer splendid opportunities to:

  • reach a better solution than would have been possible if the conflict hadn’t arisen
  • learn from the experience of facing the experience or the conflict squarely and addressing it constructively.

It sounds pious to say it, but as a manager the way you handle conflicts is a decisive factor in whether they will result in win-win or win-lose outcomes and whether they will result in beneficial learning.

Broadly there are three different ways to react to conflict:

1. Avoid it. Typically this involves:

  • denying the conflict exists
  • circumventing the person/people with whom you are in conflict
  • deciding not to make the conflict explicit or to raise it

2. Diffuse it. This involves:

  • smoothing things over, ‘pouring oil on troubled waters’
  • saying you’ll come back to it (as opposed to dealing with the conflict there and then)
  • only dealing with minor points, not the major issues

3. Face it. This involves:

  • openly admitting conflict exists
  • explicitly raising the conflict as an issue

All three approaches are genuine options when conflicts arise. There may be occasions when it is best to let it go (why win the battle but lose the war?) and there will be other occasions when some pussyfooting is appropriate. Usually however, facing conflict rather than avoiding it or diffusing it offers the most potential. But how you face it makes all the difference. You can face it aggressively or assertively.

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People who face conflict aggressively:

  • are secretive about their real objectives
  • exaggerate their case
  • refuse to concede that the other person has a valid point
  • belittle the other person’s points
  • repeat their case dogmatically
  • disagree
  • interrupt the other person.

People who face conflict assertively:

  • are open about their objectives
  • establish what the other person’s objectives are
  • search for common ground
  • state their case clearly
  • understand the other person’s case
  • produce ideas to solve the differences
  • build on and add to the other person’s ideas
  • summarize to check understanding/agreement.

You can convert conflicts into useful learning opportunities by refusing to adjudicate and doing everything you can to foster assertive behavior amongst the protagonists. If you put your energies into helping them to find some common ground, however tenuous, and to build on it, then you not only make a constructive resolution more likely, you also make people work for it and learn as they do so.

Lessons learned from resolving conflicts include:

the realization that avoiding and diffusing conflict, while tempting, are invariably damage limitation copouts

    • the discovery that assertiveness breeds assertiveness
    • a dawning that there are six possible outcomes to any conflict:
      • Lose-Win ‘You’ll get your way; I won’t get mine.’
      • Win-Lose ‘I;ll get my way; you won't get yours.’
      • Lose-Win ‘You’ll get your way; I won’t get mine.’ Lose-Lose ‘If I can’t get my way, I’ll make sure you can’t get yours.’
      • Win ‘I’ll secure my way and leave you to secure yours.’
      • Win-Win ‘It’s not my way or your way – let’s look for a better way.’
      • No Deal ‘If we can’t find a way that benefits us both, let’s agree to disagree.’ the realization that win-win is the only worthwhile resolution to any conflict, and a failing that, the wisdom of settling for no deal rather than one of the other outcomes

The realization that when someone takes up an intransigent position it is counter-productive to step up persuasive arguments in an attempt to get the other person to relinquish their position. It is much more productive to establish the reasons beyond the position and work out how to accommodate at least some of the reasons in the resolution

A dawning that conflicts and differences are a sign of people’s commitment and passion. By contrast, a lack of conflicts is usually a sign that things are being fudged and/or left to fester.

There is no doubt that each conflict, especially if it is emotionally charged, provides an opportunity to learn and develop but only if you allow it to. A yearning to keep things on an even keel, smooth things over and maintain harmony, stunts the learning and lets the protagonists off the hook.

For more on the skills required read these three related articles:

Giving Feedback

How To Praise

How To Criticize

* These articles are taken from Peter Honey's best selling paperback now in its fourth reprint, ‘101 Ways to develop your people, without really trying!’ To obtain a copy of the book contact your local Priority Office.

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