Turning conflict into creativity
Dealing with conflict head-on can open the door to better things, says Ken Blanchard
They say nothing is certain in life except death and taxes. They’re wrong. We need to add conflict to the list, too.
Even when we are not personally engaged in conflict, the disagreements of others rub off on us and shape our lives. We only have to look at our politics, schools and workplaces to see how much time, money and energy are wasted in unresolved conflicts – and the price of these disagreements is one we all pay.
No institution is free from conflict. We watch as our TV screens fill with images of war and violence. Major changes planned to benefit nations are undermined by political squabbles. Siblings bicker and the outcome is estrangement. Airlines are diverted when angry passengers fail to control their emotions. Fights erupt in school playgrounds. Even disagreements in our workplaces can descend into violence and retribution. How we deal with conflict at a personal, national or international level can make or break us as an individual, an organisation or a nation.
Whether we work for multi-million-dollar corporations or small not-for-profits, each of us responds differently to personalities, circumstances, information, requests, management styles etc. Disagreement in any of these areas can spark tension – it is normal human behaviour. The challenge is to make the place we work one where it’s possible to disagree without being disagreeable; a place where we can have challenging conversations that involve caring communication rather than conflict, and a place where outcomes are peaceful and productive.
Usually, conflict arises when one or more people involved in a situation choose to react strongly rather than respond after careful thought. This can, in turn, generate strong emotions in others who are involved, including observers.
When confronted with conflict, whether it be cold, passive-aggressive, deliberately disconnected behaviour, angry emotion or even violence, most of us will default to the very human ‘flight or fight’ response. But both flight and fight can cause additional problems. Fighting may escalate and complicate matters, while sticking our heads in the sand might simply put off the moment of truth if the conflict is one that is likely to reoccur.
Developing skills to handle conflict effectively should be the goal of every one of us, and certainly of every leader. Generally, our perception of conflict is negative, but it can have an upside in both personal and professional settings. Just as every cloud has a silver lining, every conflict has the potential to spur innovation and creativity, and to build a better understanding of issues and people.
So how do we tap into the upside of conflict? First, we need to tackle our natural reluctance to have challenging conversations. Avoiding a challenging and potentially disagreeable conversation can actually cause the very problem we are trying to fix.
At one time or another, every manager has to deliver a difficult message, diffuse a tense situation, give tough feedback on performance, or confront insensitive behaviour. Many of us feel some reluctance at this thought. This is only natural. It becomes problematic when it leads to what my colleagues Eryn Kalish and Pat Zigarmi call “avoidance syndrome”.
When managers suffer from avoidance syndrome, they shut down or withdraw from a situation completely instead of confronting it head-on. What happens then, Kalish and Zigarmi found, is that an already sticky situation gets even stickier, messier and more complex. Emotions build and both parties start to feel guilty, threatened and resentful. Wisdom gets lost because everybody is overheated and upset. The issue becomes a crisis and decisions are made with incomplete information. The result is damaged relationships, damaged projects and decreased motivation, creativity and energy.
Kalish and Zigarmi, co-authors of The Ken Blanchard Companies Challenging Conversations training programme, agree that the longer the situation is left to simmer away without being tackled, the more the parties involved look for clues to prove they are right – which, of course, only makes the conflict more difficult.
“Avoidance is natural, partly because people are concerned they will do more damage to the relationship or the project by addressing an issue openly,” says Kalish. “Because they feel they lack the skills to manage the process successfully, managers often choose to avoid the problem and hope it clears up on its own. It rarely does.”
So it’s nearly always best to deal directly with conflict. But how? First, dismiss two myths about conflict resolution.
Myth number one: The best thing is to be objective and stick to the facts. Of course objectivity and facts are important, but feelings surface whether we want them to or not. They cannot be surgically removed from the situation. Attempting to deal only with facts not only blocks the opportunity to deal with thoughts and emotions, but it’s my experience that people often harden their position when dealing only with facts.
Holding effective conversations that are challenging involves talking about feelings and reactions in a healthy way that does not apportion blame.
Myth number two: If you show empathy, it means you agree with the other person’s point of view. Empathy is not the same as agreement. We can step into another’s shoes, understand what they are saying, and acknowledge their feelings – and it’s good to do that – but we don’t have to agree with them. It’s about acknowledgement, not agreement.
Using phrases such as ‘I understand what you’re feeling, but I have a different perspective’ does not mean you are yielding. This is a good communication tool to use if you are feeling angry or hurt – even just saying it can help you keep your cool. Your perspective is as valid as the other person’s. Each of us gets where we are in life via the sum total of our experiences; we are each where our life has brought us and we hold the perspectives life has given us. Within that framework, we can both be right.
To recognise this enables us to detach personally, minimise defensiveness and inspire trust while optimising empathy – and then we are on the way to resolving conflict. We are capable of creating an environment in which differences do not deter from common goals and objectives.
Of course, how we resolve conflict depends on the type of conflict. In the context of the workplace, conflict generally occurs as a result of one or more of the following:
- different interpretations of facts or information
- lack of clear goals
- unclear processes or procedures
- low trust or broken relationships
- diverging values
- issues over ownership and control.
The first three are not as problematic as the last three, which are more personal. Because they are linked to our relationships, our values and our sense of control, they have far more potential to provoke deeply personal feelings and painful emotions such as anger, hurt and anguish. However, it is worth remembering that, if no emotions are involved, the chances are you’re not in a conflict situation requiring a challenging conversation – you have a more straightforward problem to solve.
To help managers improve their skills in dealing with challenging conversations, Kalish and Zigarmi teach participants in training sessions how to speak up without alienating the other person and how to listen even if they are triggered by what they are hearing. The key is to get away from a win-or-lose mentality and trust in a process that resolves the issue in a way that works for everyone involved.
Kalish says: “We’ve developed a five-step model in our training about stating your concerns directly, probing for more information from the other person, engaging people by really listening with your full heart, attending to their body language, watching for cues, tuning in at a subtler level, and also keeping forward-focused in order to resolve the situation when the timing to move on is appropriate.”
One of the greatest skills any individual can learn is to listen well. Listen to others so that you may truly understand other people’s points of view, and listen to yourself and your own instincts about difficult situations. I always say we were given two ears and one mouth for a reason!
Occasionally, there may be times when it’s best to put some distance between you and the person or situation creating the conflict. While it is generally better not to let conflict slide, there is sometimes merit in working through situations on our own, especially if the other person has a personality disorder, if there are serious risks associated with confronting the issue or if there is a potential risk to your job that is not worth taking. In these situations, working through an issue alone can prevent a possible escalation of the issue, even if it doesn’t lead to resolution.
By working through the issue alone, you identify and acknowledge your feelings. You can make a conscious decision to work in whatever way works for you – keeping a journal, venting etc. This helps you resolve your feelings, accept the situation or find ways to change it without actively involving the other person. Often, changing your own attitude is enough. It may not enable you to repair a relationship or get a firm resolution, but, at least perhaps until some time has passed, it may be the best option. Whenever possible, work it through with the other person. When that is not possible, go it alone.
“In these challenging times, the more we can master and model for others how to have challenging conversations, the better our workplaces, families and society will be,” says Kalish. “The choice is clear: do we build the capacity to deal with each other in healthy ways, or do we see the world we care about deteriorate into unresolved conflicts and violence?”
For managers willing to conduct a challenging conversation they might otherwise want to put off, the outcome can be better working relationships, fewer tensions and grievances, fewer corporate crises and much better teamwork. Performance issues are resolved faster in an atmosphere of trust.
The alternative is far more daunting in the long run. It is more rewarding and less stressful to have vibrant, rich, honest conversations about the things we care about at work, at home and in our communities than to simply stick our heads in the sand and let situations spiral out of control.
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