December 12, 2017 • 8 minute read • by Saeed
“We must not seek happiness in peace, but in conflict.” ~ Paul Claudel
Competition in our society is presented as the norm. In our recent political environment, competition and conflict has even been used to divide us.
But our species actually relies more heavily on cooperation for survival and self-preservation.
Have you ever watched two children engaged in conflict over a toy? Then you may have observed them appealing to fairness and striving towards resolution and negotiation rather than stoking the fires of conflict.
If you’ve followed my writing for any time, you will know that I like to talk about the unity of mindset and mechanism.
When we humans witness pain and grief, we become sad ourselves; when we are in the company of someone positive, it brightens our day. These are neurological mechanisms that develop empathy for others, which builds trust, a prerequisite for cooperation.
New studies have found that in fact cooperation, not competition, is the normative mindset in nature. This is because it is more energy-efficient and because predators and their prey actually strive to maintain a kind of balanced coexistence. Nature’s bias is towards harmony and balance, not destruction and chaos.
But conflict is inevitable. No relationship is immune. It is a normal, and even healthy, part of relationships.
But when handled in an unhealthy manner, it can cause irreparable damage. In a work context, it can be disastrous.
To manage conflict effectively, first, we have to define it.
What Is Conflict?
Conflict is a disagreement over issues of substance and/or an emotional antagonism. Conflict arises from differences in values, motivations, perceptions, ideas, or desires. Managers and leaders spend a lot of time dealing with conflicts of various forms. In a work context, there are two basic forms of conflict:
- Substantive Conflict – This involves disagreements over goals, resources, rewards, policies, procedures, and job assignments.
- Emotional Conflict – This results from feelings of anger, distrust, dislike, fear, and resentment as well as from personality clashes.
Not all conflicts that arise are bad, but not are always good either.
What Causes Conflict?
- Role Ambiguities – unclear job expectations and other task uncertainties increase the probability that some people will be working at cross purposes, at least some of the time.
- Resource Scarcities – having to share resources with others and/or compete directly with them for resource allocations creates a potential situation conflict. You can imagine how in society, politicians exploit resource scarcities.
- Task Dependencies – when individual or groups must depend on what others do to perform well themselves, conflicts often occur.
- Competing Objectives – when objectives are poorly set or reward systems are poorly designed, individuals and groups may come into conflict by working to one another’s disadvantage.
- Structural Differentiation – differences in organization structures and in the characteristics of the people staffing them may foster conflict because of incompatible approaches toward work.
- Unresolved Prior Conflicts – unless a conflict is fully resolved, it may remain latent and later emerge as a basis for future conflicts over the same or related matters
Conflict Resolution Strategies for Leaders (Using Your IQ)
In workplace conflicts, differing needs are often at the heart of bitter disputes. When you can recognize the legitimacy of conflicting needs and become willing to examine them in the context of the larger environment, you can begin to solve conflicts strategically. As an organizational leader, you can use various approaches to deal with conflicts between individuals or groups. These may include:
- Appeal to Goals – You can focus the attention on one mutually desirable end state; i.e., shared goals. The appeal to higher-level shared goals offers all parties a common frame or reference against which to analyze differences and reconcile disagreements.
- Change the People – Replacing or transferring one or more of the conflicting parties, conflicts caused by poor interpersonal relationships can be eliminated.
- Change the Environment – Facilities, work space, or workflows can be rearranged to separate conflicting parties and reduce the opportunity for conflict to exist between the parties.
- Change the Structure – Using liaison personnel, special task forces, cross-functional teams, and the matrix form of organizational management, can change interaction patterns and assist in conflict reduction.
- Change Reward Systems – Creating systems that reward co-operation can encourage behaviors and attitudes and promote teamwork and reduce conflict.
- Change Policies and Procedures – A change in policies and procedures can redirect behavior in ways that minimize the likelihood of known conflict-prone situations.
- Train People – As a proactive measure, you can prepare people to communicate and work more effectively in situations where conflict is likely by training them in interpersonal skills.
- Throw Resources at the Problem – You can use this strategy to resolve conflicts whose antecedents lie in the competition for scarce resources. Although it might be expensive, it removes all reasons for conflicts in the future.
Conflict Resolution Strategies for Individuals (Using Your EQ)
The ability to resolve conflicts positively is a key emotional intelligence skill. Conflict resolution is both mindset and skill set. Attitude towards the conflict and towards the relationship is a key mindset component while listening is a key skill set component. When you enter a conflict with a positive attitude and when you listen for where the pain points are for the other person, you are a quarter of the way towards resolving the conflict.
- Self Awareness – As with most things, success in conflict resolution starts with self awareness. If you don’t know how you feel or why you feel that way, you won’t be able to communicate effectively or smooth over disagreements. If you are out of touch with your feelings or so stressed that you can only pay attention to a limited number of emotions, you won’t be able to understand your own needs. Your ability to handle conflict depends on being connected to your feelings and your values.
- Social Awareness – The most important information exchanged during conflicts and arguments is often communicated nonverbally. You can avoid many confrontations and resolve arguments and disagreements through effective communication. When people are upset, the words they use rarely convey the issues and needs at the heart of the problem. Listen carefully for what may be behind the words. Clarify. Restate. Reflect. Validate. Use empathy to develop your awareness of others.
- Self-Management – One of the key components of conflict management is the ability to self-regulate. The capacity to remain relaxed and focused in tense situations is a vital aspect of conflict resolution. Try not to overreact to difficult situations. By remaining calm it will be more likely that others will consider your viewpoint.
- Relationship Management – During conflict it’s easy to forget about the other person or to disregard the importance of the relationship. Rupture in relationships is to be expected. But when there is rupture, there should also be an attempt to repair. Sometimes the best way to fix conflict is to apologize. This requires putting others before yourself. Know when to let something go. If you can’t come to an agreement, agree to disagree. It takes two people to keep an argument going. If a conflict is going nowhere, you can choose to disengage and move on.
A Final Word…
To be truly effective at conflict resolution, you have to make the relationship your priority. Maintaining and strengthening the relationship, rather than “winning” the argument, should always be your first priority. Focus on the present. Listen. Pick your battles. Conflicts can be draining, so it’s important to consider whether the issue is really worthy of your time and energy. Be willing to forgive. Resolving conflict is impossible if you’re unwilling or unable to forgive. Resolution lies in releasing the urge to punish, which can never compensate for your losses and only adds to your injury by further depleting and draining you of vital resources. It may mean that you lose the argument. It may mean that you give up being right. It may also mean that you end up a happier human being.
Don’t fight it. Just trust me.
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