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Workplace conflict – more please?

Workplace conflict – more please?

by Abigail Hunt on February 12, 2018

Conflict: the context

Stupefyingly difficult people cross and re-cross our path – the ridiculous boss, the toxic colleague, the impossible line report…

We also work with a much larger group of talented people who simply think, communicate and behave in a way that is very different to our own.

Workplace conflict and related tension are inevitable given the potent mix of our different personality types, backgrounds and strengths. Many of us suppress and so magnify a lot of our feelings because we:

  • fear conflict
  • don’t think it is acceptable to speak up
  • don’t trust ourselves or the other person to manage conflict well
  • feel trapped and powerless to change anything

How many difficult colleagues have you worked with?

More than 3? Less than 10? How many conversations did you have with these people about the issues, the resulting personal and commercial impact, your differences, new insights and possible solutions?

Few people relish workplace conflict

However, if we don’t tackle this important issue what is the impact on us as individuals, leaders and team members?

Are we also missing out on the competitive advantage and cultural benefits of encouraging differences, a more questioning approach and more constructive, if sometimes difficult, conversations? How many valuable new ideas and insights go un-shared in favour of mid-ground/status-quo thinking to avoid “rocking the boat”?

Understanding ourselves and others

Increasing our self-awareness with the help of mentors, coaches and trainers helps us to:

  • be more conscious of what makes us feel, think and act as we do
  • acknowledge our own contribution to situations
  • understand and value differences
  • remember that we are all changeable and vulnerable to stress, life events and health issues
  • empathise more with other people
  • decide what to let go and what to tackle
  • articulate our ideas and concerns
  • ask more questions and dig deeper
  • listen to what is and isn’t being said
  • seek feedback, input and support
  • experiment, stretch and risk failure
  • admit we are sometimes wrong
  • reduce our fear of conflict
  • find better solutions
  • work more collaboratively and innovatively
  • develop as leaders and team members
  • model good behaviours

Your preferred conflict style

In the 1970s Professors Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann identified 5 preferred conflict modes that vary in their degrees of cooperativeness and assertiveness:

1. Competitive

(taking a firm stand, often operating from a position of power – useful when a decision needs to be made fast yet it can leave people feeling resentful if used in less urgent situations)

2. Collaborative

(cooperating and acknowledging that everyone is important – useful when a variety of viewpoints need to be brought together or when there have been previous conflicts in the group)

3. Compromising

(trying to find a solution that will at least partially satisfy everyone – this is useful when the cost of conflict is higher than the cost of losing ground or when there is a stalemate/deadline looming)

4. Accommodating

(a willingness to meet the needs of others at the expense of their own needs – useful when peace is more valuable than winning – overall this approach is unlikely to create the best outcomes)

5. Avoiding

(avoiding the conflict entirely e.g. delegating controversial decisions or avoiding the feelings of others – it can be useful when victory is impossible/the issue is trivial but it is often a weak and ineffectual approach).

Knowing your preferred conflict style helps you to adapt it when useful to deal with conflict better.

Remembering that we all react differently to conflict when calm or angry also helps us be more self aware and detached.

Preparing for difficult conversations

  • Don’t skip the prep.
  • Be honest with yourself about the real issues and your purpose in having the conversation. Do any of your emotions relate to an unconnected aspect of your personal history rather than to the matter in hand?
  • Reframe “opponent” as “colleague” in your mind to create a positive mind set.
  • Write down the points you want to get across – unexamined thinking can become distorted.
  • Review your points with a mentor, coach or friend. Select this wise counsel carefully – this is no role for a drama king/queen or the friend who only tells you what you want to hear.
  • Practice saying your points out loud, enlist a friend to play the other person and even record or film yourself so you can hear your words and tone, notice your speed and watch your body language.
  • What assumptions are you making about the other person’s intentions?
  • Ask yourself how both you and the other person might have contributed to the problem.
  • What sort of solutions might they and also you suggest?
  • Empathise with the other person, how they might be thinking about the situation and what their needs and fears might be. Try physically sitting on the other side of the table and arguing their case rather than your own.
  • Practice your difficult conversation skills on real issues that you have with family and friends.

Having difficult conversations

  • Think of the conversation as an opportunity.
  • Use positive opening sentences e.g. “There’s something I’d like to discuss with you that I think will help us to work together more effectively”, “I’d like to talk about X with you but first I’d like to get your point of view”, “I would really appreciate your help with something – can we talk about it now?”
  • Listen and observe with an attitude of positive curiosity and learning rather than just in order to know how soon you can speak or with an “I’m right and you’re wrong” mind set.
  • Convey your points without making accusations e.g “I felt that xyz” not “you should/shouldn’t abc.”
  • Consider asking the other person for help with something – this can be disarming and shows a commitment to cooperation.
  • Reflect back, paraphrase and seek agreement that you have understood what has been said.
  • Agree next steps and try to finish the conversation on an optimistic note.

Becoming more practiced at managing conflict helps us as individuals in terms of self-development, well-being and personal satisfaction. It also helps everyone around us, as it reduces tension and creates a more open, innovative culture where differences and different perspectives can thrive.

Which difficult conversations will you open up this week?

Abigail Hunt

Abigail Hunt

Abigail Hunt helps leaders to have courageous conversations. An Innovation Consultant and Executive Coach, she is an associate at Mackie Consulting and a member of Bridge Collaboration and Møller PSF Group.

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