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How Conflict Can Make or Break You

By Dr. Alan R. Zimmerman


"What I don't like about office Christmas parties is looking for a job the next day." ~Phyllis Diller

Ask people what they hate the most and you'll probably hear the same three things over and over again: death, taxes, and conflict. Very few people want to die. Very few people want to pay taxes. And very few people want more conflict. But the truth is ... you're going to get all three of them, whether you like it or not. So you had better have a plan for dealing with all three of these issues if you want to be truly happy.

Well, death is a religious issue, and taxes are a political issue ... neither one of which is the focus of the "Tuesday Tip." But conflict is an interpersonal issue, an issue that is at the very heart of my program on "Cooperation and Conflict: Working Together Instead of Coming Apart." For more information about this program, click here.

The bad news is... interpersonal conflicts are increasing in frequency and intensity. All you have to do is watch the news or listen to a Congressional debate to verify that. And in 2006, ComPsych, a Chicago-based employee assistance program, using their StressPulse Survey, announced that "people issues" replaced "workload" as the number one cause of job stress.

To make matters worse... most people have had little or no training in how to deal with conflict. They just fall into one of two automatic, instinctual responses: fight or flight. The problem is ... neither one works. Those that opt for the fight response use aggression. They use sarcasm, cynicism, abuse, and ridicule. They live by the motto that says, "War does not determine who is right, only who is left." And some of them may think, "The last thing I want to do is hurt you, but it's still on the list."

Those that opt for the flight response use regression. They shut up, freeze up, refuse to talk about it, or pretend everything is okay. They may even use the silent treatment as a weapon to control, frustrate, or manipulate another person. Other times the silent approach is taken because it seems to be the least painful.

In fact, marriage counselors estimate that at least half of the cases they see involve a silent husband. Men have a tendency to avoid conflict in discussion. That's why Will Rogers noted, "There are two theories to arguing with women. Neither one works."

Sometimes the two approaches of fight and flight play off of one another. The more one fights the other to get him to talk, the more withdrawn the silent one becomes. It's a lose-lose battle.

And to make matters even worse... people without conflict resolution skills are very expensive. They cost their companies and their relationships a great deal of wasted time, money, and energy.

According to Warren Shepel and his "Health & Wellness Database" in 2005, billions of dollars of effective labor are lost every year due to conflicts on the job. Unresolved conflicts turn into stress, and stress turns into absentee-ism. As Julian Knight reports from the BBC News Online, "Bullied workers suffer battle stress," and "Bullied employees take, on average, seven days per year more sick leave than others."

In and of itself, that would be bad enough, but the rate of presentee--ism is estimated to be three times higher than absentee-ism. In other words, lots of workers show up in body but they're not there in spirit. Unresolved conflicts have them so badly distracted that they're not very productive.

The same goes for a manager's productivity. According to Watson and Hoffman in their article, "Managers As Negotiators," 42% of a manager's time is spent addressing conflicts in the workplace. And almost any manager will tell you there are better ways to use his/her time than try to help two people get along. After all, their effectiveness in resolving conflicts isn't very impressive. As the "Dana Measure of Financial Cost Of Organizational Conflict" reported earlier this year, 90% of involuntary departures are due to unresolved conflict.

My conclusion from all of this? People had better learn some conflict resolution skills and learn them fast. I suggest a three-step process.

1. Become aware of conflicts before they fester too long.

Some people do not even notice the conflicts swirling around them. When I've counseled people, I can't tell you how many wives I've had crying, talking about how bad her marriage is, while the husband meekly says, "I thought everything was okay."

Other people ignore the conflicts thinking they'll just go away. It's like the poster I saw one time: "Some cause happiness WHEREver they go, others WHENever they go."

Open your eyes. Pay attention to the conflicts that are popping up at work and at home. In most cases, those conflicts will not disappear on their own. So identify them before they catch you off guard.

2. Become aware of what is happening inside you when you're involved in a conflict.

Actually, there are two things going on inside you ... one biological and one psychological...

Biologically, the blood flow to your brain slows down. At the very time you need to be at your best ... rational and intelligent ... your brain is dumbing you down. So it's no wonder you sometimes react irrationally or can't think of anything intelligent to say in the midst of a conflict.

Psychologically, your imagination takes over. You experience an "A," an "Activating Event", such as someone not greeting you in the morning or somebody else not listening to your ideas at a staff meeting.

Your "Activating Event" turns on your "B" or "Belief" system. You add meaning, make assumptions, and draw conclusions. You may begin to believe the other person was trying to hurt your feelings or deliberately ignored your ideas. You may begin to believe his behavior was unprofessional, and you may begin to believe the offending party is unworthy of your respect.

All of that leads to a "C," your "Consequence," or your reaction. You may react emotionally rather than rationally. You may respond to the other person with rudeness or a put down. And indeed, based on your "Beliefs", your reaction may seem totally appropriate. You may even get defensive when someone accuses you of over-reacting.

In such cases, I defer to Napoleon Bonaparte, the rather shrewd military leader. He said, "Never ascribe to malice, that which can be explained by incompetence."

More often than not, your problem is not one of over-reacting. Your reaction is exactly right based on your "Beliefs" about the "Activating Event." No, your problem may not be over-reacting. It's probably due to over-interpreting.

What you need is an awareness of what is happening inside you when you're involved in a conflict. And then you need to slow down your responses when your emotions begin to take over. As Phyllis Bottome, the twentieth century writer, put it, "There are two ways of meeting difficulties: You alter the difficulties, or you alter yourself to meet them." Which takes us to the third step...

3. Learn, practice, and use new and better conflict resolution responses.

Here are a few of the conflict skills you need to get started...

Be gentle and tactful but honest and assertive in the midst of a conflict ... like the six guys playing poker. After losing $500 in one hand, Smith clutched his chest and toppled over, dead at the table. To decide who was going to tell his wife, his buddies drew straws. Anderson picked the short one. "Break it to her gently," they all urged. "Leave it to me," he said. When Smith's wife answered the door, Anderson said, "Your husband just lost $500 playing cards." "How much?" the wife yelled with eyes blazing. "Tell him to drop dead."

Conflict is inevitable. Stress and broken relationships are not ... if you learn and use these three steps.

Action:

Where do you tend to over-react or over-interpret? What could you do instead?


As a best-selling author and Hall of Fame professional speaker, Dr. Alan Zimmerman has taught more than one million people in 48 states and 22 countries how to keep a positive attitude on and off the job. In his book, PIVOT: How One Turn In Attitude Can Lead To Success, Dr. Zimmerman outlines the exact steps you must take to get the results you want in any situation. Go to Alan's site
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