Whether it is owner disagreements, performance issues, client concerns, or competitive situations, our professional lives are filled with potential conflict. But given the choice, most will shy away or ignore conflict rather than deal with it. Why? Maybe because conflict isn’t fun – or even comfortable – and we’re not very sure we’ll handle it well if we do try to address it. In this post, we’ll explore our natural tendencies in handling conflict and what can happen when conflict is managed strategically.

When conflict is well-managed, it can have a very positive, transforming influence on your relationships. Conflict typically highlights problems and promotes change. It encourages shared solutions and can enhance the morale and team spirit when it is dealt with openly and promptly. Conflict can also stimulate the creativity and innovation in your organization.

To strengthen your conflict management skills, first, identify your “normal” methods for dealing with conflict.  Then, consciously choose a more effective mindset to manage your disappointments and disputes.

So, What Is Your Conflict Management Style?

Most people have a typical approach to managing conflict when it arises. However, we’re all capable of switching conflict styles and typically use several or all of the four common approaches, depending upon the situation, timing, and the person with whom we’re experiencing the conflict.

When conflict arises in your practice, do you…

  • Avoid it? The conflict avoider often develops a rationale for the conflict, dodges meetings or conversations where conflict is present and hopes that someone else will handle the problem or that the conflict will resolve itself on its own. It rarely does!
  • Give in to the conflicting party? This accommodator gives in to another party’s wishes, eschewing their own goals to resolve the conflict, but feeling “made to do something.”
  • Compete with the conflicting party in an attempt to win or be “most right?” Usually, this conflict style shows an unwillingness to compromise and a dominating approach to force an outcome. Unfortunately, this rarely produces a “real” winner as the underlying source of conflict is never resolved and the matter usually becomes personal.
  • Compromise? If so, you’re probably a pretty good peacemaker, agreeing to give something up, provided the other party does the same so that a conflict can be resolved, but it’s often temporary and usually doesn’t address the underlying cause of the conflict.

Avoiding, giving in, competing, and compromising are all valid methods for “dealing” with conflict, but they won’t generate the kind of positive energy that is possible when you manage conflict collaboratively.

To develop a collaborative conflict management solution, both parties work together to create a solution that allows them to achieve their desired outcome (or close to it!) by changing something and appealing to the major common goals. To do so, self-honesty and the willingness to share your selfish interest are required. Our “selfish interest” usually revolves around our need to:

  • Look good or avoid looking bad
  • Have more time or more control over our time
  • Get more money or avoid losing money
  • Experience pleasure, peace, control or some form of feeling good or avoid feeling bad, stressed, powerless or put out

Your goal is to identify your selfish interest – what you’re afraid of losing because of this conflict - and also create an environment where your conflict partner can be honest about their self-interest, too.  Simply put, you cannot collaborate until all agendas are on the table. There are very few real “Mother Theresa’s” in this world and we all want things to work out “our way” or there wouldn’t be a conflict in the first place.

For instance, when a member of your team appears to have a habit of turning their work in past the due date, your selfish interest may be that their late delivery is impinging upon your time, making you work late or reprioritize other work to rush their late project through to make sure it doesn’t impact the client. Or, their tardiness may cause you to look bad because it delays the project to the client, who is then disappointed. This may frustrate you or stress you out. Your self-interest in managing this conflict is to be better able to manage your time, look better with the client, and be more relaxed when your team member begins to deliver as committed.

In addition to getting all self-interest out on the table, it is important to acknowledge that there are many potential reasons or causes for each conflict, although we usually approach the conflict as if we already know what the reasons are before gaining critical and honest information from our conflict partner. Unfortunately, we tend to spend time interpreting the upset or disappointment and “making up” why we think it is happening – often generating ugly or negative interpretations of the conflict. When you approach the conflict believing your ugly interpretations of the possible reasons or causes, how you handle the conflict will come from a negative place.

Using our earlier example where your teammate habitually turns in work late, you may naturally interpret this as their being disorganized, not caring about you or the client, being irresponsible, plotting against you to make you look bad with your clients and superiors, and more. While these may seem over the top in terms of ugliness, our natural tendency is to subconsciously generate negative reasons for why other people are doing things that affect our self-interest and to paint ourselves as somewhat victimized by their behavior. Now that you’ve read this, start paying attention to your natural tendency to play judge, jury, and executioner in your conflicts, which leads you to then use your natural conflict style of avoiding, giving in, competing, or compromising.

To have power over the negative emotions of conflict, consciously and overtly generate a list of hopeful interpretations for the potential reasons the conflict exists before you enter into a conversation with your conflict partner. This will require discipline and some creativity as most of us are not wired to do so. Using our example of “The Late Person,” some hopeful interpretations may be that you haven’t been clear about the due dates (they weren’t put in writing), that a senior leader might be “trumping your work” with them, causing them to put your work to the side or that he or she doesn’t understand the entire work production cycle - so doesn’t realize the considerable work you still have to do after you receive the deliverable. Another possibility is that this person has too much work due to your staff shortage and that the work isn’t being scheduled or balanced properly. When you generate hopeful interpretations, you can give up being a victim to someone else’s bad behavior and start to look for places where you may have responsibility for the conflict.

This process of identifying the ugly and hopeful interpretations enables you to see that you do not really know what’s going on without speaking to your conflict partner. Instead, you need to have a collaborative conversation so you can play “detective,” searching for clues and causes for the conflict rather than already “knowing” what “bad behavior” they’re engaged in and approaching the matter in a way that inhibits collaboration.

Identifying your self-interest and that of your conflict partner and acknowledging your interpretations will give you more clarity when managing difficult situations. Getting good at this will enable truly open communication between you and your conflict partner. Only then can you honestly examine each other’s goals and collaboratively develop win-win solutions.

For more information on our proven conflict management strategies, take our self-study courseManaging Difficult Conversations Successfully, or read our Straight Talk Your Way to Success E-Book.