Iam often asked to do work on "conflict management." This is probably a very good thing, because it might mean that organizations are becoming aware that conflict skills need improvement. Conflict, especially unnecessarily hostile conflict, can reduce productivity. If work conflict goes home with you, it can cause sickness, it can harm your family, your friendships, the people you love. So improving conflict skills is something we want to do, something that will not only improve productivity and the quality of our work, but will improve the quality of our lives.
I've long been puzzled about this idea of "conflict management." Getting better at dealing with conflict is a good thing, that's true, but I'm not sure that conflict management is a goal I want for myself. Conflict isn't actually good or bad, in itself — what matters is how we deal with it. If we deal with conflict in ways that produce high blood pressure, anger, hostility, hatred, disgust, unethical behavior, and so on, then it's bad. If we deal with conflict in ways that produce honest debate, healthy competition, clarification, testing of ideas, better results, innovation, and so on, then it's good. Conflict itself isn't bad or good — how we deal with it is.
So, is it conflict we want to manage, or is it our response to conflict that we want to manage? I think it's the latter. I'm very doubtful that it's even desirable to manage conflict. For example, if I'm working in your organization, and I propose a really nutty idea that I'm very certain will work, and I advocate it, and I'm committed to it, and nearly everyone in my work group sees that it's a nutty idea, there will be some conflict. And there isn't much that management or anyone else can do about it. The change that leads to resolution must come from me, because I'm in charge of what I think and feel — my boss isn't. How I get to a more constructive viewpoint is perhaps a question for me and the people around me to work on, but in the end, I'm the one who will move me, and I can only move if I want to move. No one outside me can manage the conflict, because no one outside me can manage how I feel about the issue.
We can't manage conflict. We can only choose our personal response to conflict, and let us hope we choose wisely.
One set of choices we make relates to how we air our differences. When a conflict moves to a stage in which feelings become increasingly hostile, our responses to the conflict threaten our sense of peace and happiness. This in itself is bad enough, but productivity can suffer too. To deal with this problem, it's important to have ways of discussing the conflict itself.
Research by psychologist Howard J. Markman and colleagues at the University of Denver's Center for Marital and Family Studies led to development of some ground rules for discussing emotionally charged issues in the marital context. A report appeared in an article in The Boston Globe in 1990. I've adapted their guidelines to the workplace context, and added a few of my own. When conflict results in intense hostility in your organization, you can use these guidelines to help the participants to move back to dialog.
Choose a good time of the day
Managing your response to conflict starts with a choice of timing. Avoid late afternoons (or the end of a shift). One or both of you could be fatigued or irritable, which could affect the outcome of the dialog.
Choose a good day of the week
A second dimension of your choice of timing is the day of the week. Avoid the end of the workweek. If for some reason you can't reach a comfortable stopping place in one conversation, you don't want to carry it home to stew on during the days off.
Make an appointment
Your choice to respect your partner in conflict is also part of managing your response to the conflict. When you want to discuss an issue, say, "I want to talk about <whatever the issue is>. Is this a good time?". Your colleague has the right to refuse to talk at that time, but it's that person's responsibility to find another time to talk within a reasonable time, say one business day.
Choosing an appropriate environment for your talk is another part of your response to conflict. Find a quiet place. Talk face-to-face, with no distractions-no visitors, no phone calls, no checking email, no music.
One of you can begin being the speaker and the other the listener. You can reverse roles in the course of the discussion. The speaker should not be interrupted. If you need to, use a talking stick. And if you find yourselves getting angry, remember, we all feel angry once in a while-take turns being angry. Try this rule: only one person can be angry at any one time.
Blaming your colleague just encourages a defensive response. Blaming a third party who isn't present can be a way of avoiding the issue between the two of you.
Use "I" statements
Talk from your own point of view, using "I" statements (I think, I feel, …), rather than "You" statements (You say, You think, …). This makes it more difficult to blame. No "fake" I statements: "I feel like you're an idiot."
Talk straight. Avoid analogies, figures of speech, and especially metaphors. For example, say "I felt angry" rather than "I felt like murdering you." Analogies and figures of speech are loaded, which is what makes them so rich and colorful. The trouble is, they're loaded with different things for different people, and so you can't be sure that your partner in conflict understands what you're saying in the way you mean it.
Every few minutes, the listener should summarize what the speaker has said to show that the message is getting through. There's a big difference between simply understanding what someone is saying and agreeing or disagreeing with it. You can understand why your colleague feels or thinks a certain way without agreeing with those thoughts or feelings.
Notice your breathing
To manage your response to conflict, it helps if you can be aware of your state of mind. When a discussion isn't going well, your breathing may become shallow or rapid. Controlling your breathing is a way of staying calm.
Take a break
If you sense that you're unable to give yourself or your conflict partner the respect you each deserve, give yourself permission to take a break. Call time out if you need to, but agree to pick up the discussion at a specific time within one business day. This allows both of you to leave the discussion without incurring resentment or anger.
Deal with obstacles
If your colleagues are unwilling to talk about an issue, ask them to discuss the reason why. Often the reluctance is about fear that a discussion will erupt into hostility. Assure them that this won't happen, and don't let it.
Is response to conflict a problem for your organization? Could you benefit from some expertise in dealing with conflict? Through consulting, workshops, or coaching, I can help your people learn to deal with conflict and their responses to conflict. I offer a Technical Conflict Workshop especially designed for people who work in technical environments.