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Managing Conflict - Tools and Techniques
 

This article about how to handle and resolve conflict. We often see conflict as destructive and it can be if mishandled. When you handle conflict well it can lead to magnificent creativity and growth. The article will give some tools, stories and practical ideas. 

What are the issues about managing conflict? 

People are different we are all utterly unique. We sometimes want different things at different times or have different beliefs about what is important. Although I am not sure that conflict is inevitable, it happens because of these differences.  

Unfortunately, most have us have been in conflict with parents, teachers or other people in authority at some time in our lives and these people often don't handle conflict elegantly. Coercion, bribery, manipulation or avoidance is common and when we experience these we feel awful! So, it is really hard to think about resolving conflict creatively with this weight of history behind us. 

Where there is a history of conflict between groups it is even more difficult. If you have heard for years that "you can't trust X'ers" or "Y'ers are really stupid/aggressive/dishonest", it is ever so hard to forget that conditioning when you have a difference with one, or your group with their group. 

You need some tools and processes to engage creatively with each other and if possible, come up with a win/win situation. I will offer some later on.  

Resources 

I have an amusing model for thinking about your own style of conflict handling that may be helpful. What sort of animal are you?!

David Augsberger's "Caring enough to Confront" is very good. 

Common humanity, common vision 

I said that conflict was perhaps not inevitable. I have done a lot of vision building work with groups and have always found that when you have established enough connection and sharing people always want the same thing. For example, a group of production workers and their manager wanted "Everything running smoothly". 

As we are all members of the same species and have the same needs for safety, health, shelter, love, fulfilment, service and growth, I find it helpful to believe that we all want the same things too. It may or may not be "true", but it leads you into much more creative territory than assuming the other person/group is out to get you.  

Tools and stories  

Put the other parties position

Many conflicts are not "real" but are based on a misunderstanding often caused by not listening. You can help by asking A, or group A, to put B's argument and then to check back with A that B has got it right, modify the argument if they need to and put it again until it is right. This compels careful and active listening. Then you reverse roles and do it again. 

A story

I was facilitating a week's workshop with a group of very senior police officers. They were going to do a project with a rural police force but all worked in cities. They had a lot of thinking and planning to do. At one stage in the group there was a conflict between "John" and "Fred" which took all the energy of the group - everyone was entertained by it but it was going nowhere. 

I asked them to stop and put each other's argument. Fred had understood John's argument perfectly but John had not understood Fred's at all well. He had not been able to hear it. When Fred helped John understand Fred's argument clearly, they realised that their positions were quite close and they agreed what they should do very quickly. This saved lots of time and potential bad temper and they learned about the value of listening. 

Change the process

Sometimes it is obvious why a conflict between people stays unresolved. Perhaps they have a destructive process of blaming each other or not listening. You can often help by helping them notice how they interact and then invite them to change. You can't compel them. 

A story

I was working with a married couple. "George" was a very small quiet man and "Mary" was large and loud. Mary complained that George did not talk to her and spent every evening in the shed on his hobbies. I noticed that whenever George tried to put his point of view (that Mary was not interested in him and was so talkative he needed to escape!) that Mary interrupted him. Then George went even quieter. 

When she interrupted again I put up my hand and asked them in turn what had just happened. It took several goes but they both realised what was going on and Mary got a bit better at not interrupting and George seemed to open up a bit.  I was amazed next week to find them so much happier. Mary had started listening to George and was enjoying it and George was spending much less time in the shed!  

One person can work out what is going on and change it

You don't need two people or parties to be directly engaged in resolving conflict. If you can help one party think clearly about what is going on, that can be enough. It is clear that if you change from blaming and attacking someone to trying to understand their position then things will change. 

I learned an excellent analytical tool Seven Column Analysis from Chris Bull that can easily help. The most common problems that it surfaces are distorted communication - what you say does not reflect what you feel and making false assumptions about what the other person needs or wants. There is a worked example and more information on the link. When you know what is going on you can change what you do and it will often make a difference. 

Traps for the unwary 

Getting too involved in solving the problem

It is hard to take responsibility for resolving the conflicts you are in. It is much easier to blame the other party or pass the monkey to someone else, like your boss. If you can get that person on your side you can "win". If you are trying to help people resolve conflict it is very important to push back the responsibility to resolve the conflict to the people involved.

One manager would put the parties in a room; tell them how he would judge they solution they produced and leave them to get on with producing one. It was their problem. 

People don't always want to resolve the conflict

Unresolved conflict can meet emotional needs. People like to have appreciation and nice things said about and to them (in Transactional Analysis "A Warm Fuzzy") but if you can't get a warm fuzzy (positive attention) then the opposite, criticism and nasty things, a "Cold Prickly", (negative attention) is very much better than no attention at all. Having a fight can get you noticed by others and being in one at least means someone knows you are there! 

A story

I worked with a couple that had violent rows (US-fights). They said they wanted their relationship to be better but week after week they rowed in front of me. Eventually I got it. They did not want to stop rowing; they wanted to have someone notice how good they were at it. When I faced them with this they initially denied it and then grudgingly admitted it and left arm in arm. People are so complicated! 

Don't expect miracles 

In another article I describe Team of Two that is a simple tool to improve cooperation between pairs of people. It works well when there is reasonable goodwill on both sides. I have tried to use it where there has been a long history of conflict and little goodwill and it has not worked. I fell for the demand for a "quick fix" and my need to be a "magician". 

Resolving conflict can take a lot of time. You may have to listen to both sides separately before you can bring them together and if attitudes are deeply entrenched, you may fail. Then it may be best to minimise the interaction or leave the relationship. Good listening can help people learn and grow so they are less likely to get in the same difficulties again. 

Conflict between groups 

There is an article on here on Team Building between Teams and much in the re-evaluation counselling literature. One of the key principles is that people must feel good about themselves in their own group before they are willing to hear from another group. I have some designs for conflict reduction workshops. If you would like to see them, just click designs and tell me the context and I will send you something.  

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I am entirely happy for you to use or draw on any these materials in any way you think will be helpful. I am keen to have my work, and the work of the people I have learned from, used.  

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The language on this site is correct UK English throughout. There are differences in spelling and meaning between UK and US English. The context should make the material understandable in the US.

Further Information

There are free articles, exercises, designs, book references and links to other sources about many aspects of personal, team, management and organisation development on this website. I will add other resources as I learn what you want.

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