Conflict is a natural part of human interaction – wherever two or more of you are gathered there will be disagreement. Disagreements can be useful, leading to vetting of various ideas. When done with curiosity and sincerity, vigorous discussion can be energizing. Sometimes the conversation devolves into aggressive standoffs, complete with dueling accusations. These are draining, painful and alienate us from one another.
I have helped clients in conflict for over 20 years, in the boardroom and throughout organizations. I’ve learned:
- People tend to try to understand and explain conflict in personal and interpersonal terms, even when that is unnecessary.
- Once emotionally involved, accusations and attributions are more likely. This accelerates the doom loop.
- Having assessed others, we pay attention to behavior that reinforces our view and ignore or minimize what would disconfirm our belief.
- Water cooler talk can influence our views of others more than we think.
- Intelligence does not mean people are skilled at conflict resolution.
- Disagreements are generally unpleasant enough on their own – dramatization and exaggeration must be identified and stopped. It’s a needless distraction.
Here are some things to consider if you find yourself stuck in conflict.
- Am I listening to understand or am I merely quiet while another person talk?
- Am I looking for a good outcome or trying to “win?”
- Am I constantly looking for the holes in the logic of others and leap on them?
- Are my positions often a “matter of principle?”
- Do I make attributions of others that decrease a sense of common ground? For example, assuming that some characteristic (ethnicity, gender, religion, place of origin, culture) is responsible for others behavior and it is therefore fixed.
Here’s what you can do.
1. Step back, slow yourself down. Get out of the combat zone.
2. Establish whether or not you agree about what you are trying to do. If not, can you get there? If you agree, but there is still a tug of war, look at how you define the goals.
3. Can you compromise about the methods to achieve the goals if you disagree?
4. Are the roles clear and sensible?
5. Ask yourself if you are listening or psychoanalyzing? If the latter – stop it.
6. Listen to others and expect to be heard yourself – make sure both happen.
7. Check yourself – does conflict seem to find you? Are you often angry, “worked up”, enraged, or filled with righteous indignation? If so – you are likely the cause of your own angst. If you can’t control that, get help. Your colleagues can’t help you with this.
8. Address inappropriate behaviors. If someone with whom you are at odds is loud, sarcastic, shaming, aggressive, or smug – tell them so and let them know this is hurtful to you and greatly reduces the likelihood that you can resolve the issue. Address behavioral issues – no need to categorize or diagnose.
The overwhelming majority of the time, getting on the same page about goals, methods, and roles will solve the issue to a sufficient degree. Still stuck? You can always call me.