Most people learn reading, writing, and math in school. However, few of us learn how to productively manage the inevitable conflicts that show up in our lives. As a result, many of us simply are not very good at conflict management, and we are either always ready to aggressively confront the other person, or to bury our heads in the sand and pretend the conflict does not exist. While both reactions are acceptable sometimes, when we use them consistently, they can exacerbate the conflict and increase our stress levels.
For the first forty years of my life, I was in the second group. I suffered from the “ostrich syndrome”, and I mistakenly assumed it was working for me until the late 1990s when I purchased the construction company where I had worked for previous twenty-three years. My husband became my business partner. A few months later, we filed for divorce, and the personal and professional conflicts in my once calm life flourished and took on a life of their own. I knew my avoidance strategy was no longer working (as if it ever was working), and I had to find a more productive process for managing these situations. After all, this went beyond me. I was now responsible for the livelihood of approximately twenty employees and their families. I had several million dollars in contracts that I needed to complete.
My first foray into the world of conflict management was an epiphany. The first lesson I learned was that conflicts are not always the other person’s fault. It is so easy to blame them, but my avoidance strategy did not provide opportunities for relationships to grow. Looking at the world through the other person’s lens opens our hearts and minds to different perspectives. I also learned that even though the dictionary uses all negative words to define conflict, conflicts are not always harmful. In fact, conflict can present positive opportunities for change and growth. How we manage our conflicts determine if the outcomes are productive or destructive. I was on a quest to understand more about managing and resolving conflicts.
The “So What” – Why Is It Important to Learn About Conflict Management
Conflicts are a symptom that something is not working, and they provide opportunities to make positive changes. From an organizational perspective, the costs of unresolved conflicts are:
- Wasted Time
In addition, relationships may be damaged by unmanaged or mismanaged conflicts. If we do not learn a better way to deal with conflicts, we just keep repeating the same behaviors and making the same mistakes. Then, we are stressed and surprised when the conflict persists or worsens.
Some Causes of Conflict
One reason conflict happens is that people have different conflict styles. They are:
- Avoiding – (Conflict? What Conflict?)
- Accommodating – (Whatever you say)
- Competing – (We will do it my way or not at all)
- Compromising – (I will back off if you will back off)
- (My preference is _______. What would you like to see happen?)
In addition, people have different communication styles. Some are extremely direct, and they can appear rude and insensitive. Others are indirect, and they never seem to get to the point. Then, consider that we have different experiences, ideas, and backgrounds, and those influence both our conflict styles and our communication styles. When people with different conflict or communication styles are in either a personal or professional relationship, it is important to learn conflict strategies that help us become more open to diverse ideas and more empathetic to different ways of experiencing life.
Creating a Cooperative Culture
What can people do to productively manage conflict and create a culture of cooperation? A cooperative approach to problem-solving and conflict management begins with understanding that others may simply have a different viewpoint. Recognize and appreciate those differences. Communication techniques, such as asking “help me understand” will help identify the diversity and the underlying needs and interests. Then, listen to understand, not simply to respond. Listening is a sign of respect, and it helps build trust in the conflict management process and inthe relationship.
Additionally, becoming more emotionally intelligent not only helps us become more self-aware of our hot buttons, but it also helps us manage our emotions so others cannot easily manipulate us. Emotional intelligence also helps us to watch, learn, and listen to others and make more informed decisions.
No doubt, there are people whose personalities challenge us. However, focus on the problem, not the person, because we may have some power over the problem, but we cannot control the other person. These tips promote productive conflict management and long-lasting solutions to problem-solving.
Managing conflicts, rather than avoiding or forcing them, is less stressful and more productive when we have a basic understanding of how communication, diversity, emotional intelligence, and power influence the conflict resolution process. In addition, working together to resolve the conflicts, increases opportunities for positive conflict management.
CITI Program’s Conflict Management Course
In this course, learners will gain insight and tools to help them manage conflicts more productively. This course is ideal for individuals just starting their careers as well as experienced managers who are responsible for multifaceted teams.
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