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Why is Handling Conflict So HARD?

& What We Need to Know to Change It!

By Louise and George Altman

"The problem with American business is that it is afraid of dealing with the business of people." —W. Edwards Deming

In the late 90's we created and led a very successful public seminar on Conflict Management. In the ten years that followed, we met thousands of participants who attended those seminars armed with their workplace war stories.

Some came because they wanted to improve their conflict management skills, but most came because someone (their manager, HR, etc) "suggested" they attend. Once we got the initial resentments of the participants who got "sent" out into the air, we would inevitably discover the amazing common ground that most employees in the workplace struggle with - how do we navigate the range of people differences and get work done effectively? Often, not an easy task!

People bring all of their unresolved emotional baggage to work - and there is little we can do about that.

Enduring outmoded collective beliefs like - work life and personal life should be separate - are really old, old-school ideas that speak to a lack of knowledge about the neuroscience of emotions and human dynamics. People don't stop being people just because they are at work.

But what really struck us in those years of experience was how little people know about conflict in general - where it comes from and how to respond to it. Even more telling is how little management and organizations know - and do to address it.

There are deep, historic reasons why business continues to manage conflict so poorly. Part of it has to do with the "legacy" of the organization as machine. People never did fit smoothly into the Frederick Taylor model of people as widgets. Their needs and emotions are sloppy and unpredictable and mess up the engine of production, right? All of these factors have undoubtedly contributed to the habitual ways organizations structure their management practices and policies. Conflict issues usually get relegated to HR or some other designated entity and usually get remedial treatment.

Occasionally, an "enlightened" organization (or HR professional) will provide workers with conflict resolution skills training - a good thing (for consultants like us - and we believe for the participants and the organization). Unfortunately, too often those interventions are not system-wide and do not address the structural roots that can trigger conflict within an organization or department. Consequently, individuals and managers are left to fend for themselves with varying levels of conflict awareness to resolve the inevitable issues that will arise in the process of work.

What's Missing in the Conflict Equation?

One thing that has consistently emerged for us while working with people to increase their conflict management abilities is the persistent belief that there is a magic formula we can learn to resolve conflict. If there is one - we don't know about it. There is no magic bullet!

Our experience has taught us that becoming more successful in responding to conflict requires rigorous self-awareness and the deepening of knowledge and skills at many levels. The tendency of many people we have worked with is to look outside of themselves for answers, which often includes futile fault-finding and blaming.

There is an interesting saying within the mental health profession that goes: "Not everyone can be the patient." Meaning - someone has to step up to the plate - regardless of the source/s of the conflict.

"Everything we do is in service of our needs. When this one concept is applied to our view of others, we'll see that we have no real enemies, that what others do to us is the best possible thing they know to do to get their needs met." —Marshall Rosenberg

Becoming More Skillful in Managing Conflict - A Checklist

What is your Conflict Style? Few people have transcended what they learned as children about conflict. This has everything to do with expressing and handling feelings. Think back - who were your earliest conflict modelers and what did they teach you about conflict? Most of us learned some version of the three predominant conflict "styles" - avoid, attack and defend. If those fit your description, maybe it's time to learn something new and go beyond those old conditioned responses?

Identify Root Causes — Most of the time we never get to the real source/s of conflict. The root of a conflict has to do with human needs. Most of us are not practiced in identifying our deeper needs; we just keep roaming around the surface. That is one reason why conflicts continue to stay unresolved and recycle with new triggering external events.

Understand What Type of Conflict You are Dealing WithMost conflicts are internal - yes, we'll repeat that - internal. Even if we are reacting to something external that is triggering us emotionally - it is often our internal processes that drive the conflict (at least our part in it). All conflicts are not interpersonal. We can have an internal conflict when no one else is involved. Many conflicts are structural in nature. This is especially true within the workplace. The problem is too many people are internalizing conflicts whose roots are organizational and trying to solve issues that are out of their control!

Examine Your Beliefs. Unchecked beliefs play a huge role in conflict. Your expectations, assumptions and behaviors are driven by your beliefs. We have beliefs about EVERYTHING - people, work, how things should be done, why people do and don't do things, etc. And we have deep-rooted beliefs about conflict. The first question to ask yourself is: What do I believe about conflict? Can anything positive come from this experience?

Undeveloped Emotional Intelligence Skills. Without making a commitment to develop our emotional awareness and skills competencies, we really can't expect to improve our ability to manage conflict. Most conflict is triggered or exacerbated by a lack of awareness of why we feel what we feel and how to manage those emotions more constructively.

Ineffective Communication Skills. Lots of conflict results from lazy or unclear communication. In the blizzard of contact that happens in today's world, it is easy for misunderstandings to happen. Only about 1/3 of our audiences rate their listening skills as very good. We ALL need to get better at listening and practicing empathy towards others.

Care. Seems simple, doesn't it? You have to care. An alarming number of people we encounter in today's workplace tell us they really don't care about their co-workers! These people often see workplace relationships as a means to an end - and that end is getting things done. If you see people at work as tasks - and not as people (with their own needs and feelings) - you're likely to have much more conflict. This gets even more challenging when you don't like someone or they are "poor performers."

It's our experience that concentrating and applying even one of these principles in responding to conflict will shift your outcomes. You will feel and see the difference, even if it is, at times, subtle. While you may not get instant or total resolution to every conflict, understand that you are creating a new process - and shedding a life long pattern of habits that keep producing the same outcomes and results.

Whether you are a manager, a co-worker, parent, friend, partner or spouse, becoming more familiar with what drives your responses to conflict will serve you and those around you - well! Ultimately, it is about how you respond to the many events that are outside of your control to "fix," that shapes conflict. The big fix is inside - HOW you think, feel and respond to those events is always your choice.

Louise and George Altman have many years experience as trainers, coaches, seminar developers, group facilitators and public speakers.

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