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ICAS – Working Better Together

1817 days ago
Article on Conflict

image

Conflict is inevitable. But it needn’t lead to combat or to conquering. 

CONFLICT

Where people live and work together, conflict is as natural – but perhaps not as welcome – as laughter.

Conflict is the struggle that comes out of a difference of opinion, attitude or action. When the stakes are not high – when the people involved don’t have a lot to lose or gain – the conflict can die down very quickly in a spirit of “live and let live”.

However, when there is something important on the line – money, esteem, a principle – for one or both of the parties involved, the situation can quickly deteriorate into something which is unpleasant for them and for those around them.

Yet, as uncomfortable as conflict feels, it is not necessarily a bad thing. It can help un-stick problems, contribute towards personal development, create space for new ideas and allow us to adapt to changed circumstances when our personalities or attitudes are still lagging behind.

Conflict itself is not usually a problem. The way in which it is approached is crucial. If it’s not handled well, the fall-out can be exhausting and even devastating.

When you sense a conflict arising, don’t fear it. The sooner you spot the signs of a brewing argument, the less likely you are to become so emotionally entangled that you can’t find a way out.

To fight or to flee

You’ll recognise two almost universal responses to conflict: some people will immediately take the stance of a boxer, fists raised and ready for a good old fight. Others will become quiet, will shut down emotionally, scuttle away and try to get as far from the potential fight as possible.

Neither of these responses will make the problem or the friction go away, though. In order to not just resolve conflict, but to use the opportunities it presents, we have to find a straightforward way to deal with it.

Bring it out in the open

Sometimes underlying tension simply erupts and can cause real damage to relationships. It is better to tackle it before people become too emotional.

However alluring the idea of withdrawing, it is better to tackle the issue head-on. Do it delicately, though, and give consideration to these aspects:

  • Is it really a big issue? Does it really affect you badly? Does it happen repeatedly? Is it causing other problems? If it’s a one-time incident or a minor issue, see if you can let it go without holding on to resentment.
  • If not, then pick your moment. As your partner walks in the door after a long day, or when you bump into your colleague in the canteen queue, are probably not the best moments.
  • Don’t use email or social media, however tempting they may be.
  • Pick your spot. Find somewhere quiet and private where interruptions are unlikely. Also try for neutral territory, where you are on a reasonably equal footing and one person is not in the other’s space.
  • Try not to “confront” the person you are in conflict with by, for instance, standing in front of them. Experts suggest that you both sit down and, if it is possible, face each other at an angle of around 45 degrees so that you can see each other clearly but aren’t fronting-off. Another method is to take a walk together, so you are side-by-side. This method also allows energy that might otherwise go towards aggression to be used in the action of walking.
  • Don’t start with an attack, but rather with an observation like: “I am feeling a lot of tension between us lately, especially since I took on that job. Do you feel it too?”

Keep your focus tight

If it is possible, be very specific about what you think the problem may be. Don’t generalise and don’t go into historical details that have nothing to do with the current situation. You may find the colleague you are having conflict with terribly irritating in general, but that’s not the point.

If the conversation starts meandering towards past slights and old resentments, you can acknowledge those, but try to bring the conversation back to the current problem

Don’t dwell on the problem

Once both parties have agreed that there is tension, the next step is to identify what the problem is. It is not going to be the same for both people or the groups involved in the conflict. There’s no right or wrong definition of what the problem is, so both will have to listen carefully and then come to an agreement about what precisely the issue is that is causing problems.

Once you have both agreed on what the problem is, stop. You don’t want to get into a circular situation of describing the issue over and over again. Move quickly to what the solutions might be.

Conflict is not all bad

If you can avoid conflict becoming damaging – unpleasant remarks, the threat of violence, turning someone into a scapegoat – then conflict contributes to growth in relationships, whether they’re at work or at home. It can bring out underlying feelings, bring new insights and realisations and offer unusual solutions. In short, conflict can be a great energiser and stimulant, if it is handled correctly.

TOOLKIT: COMMUNICATION

Conflict can only really be resolved through communication. Communication is two things: it is expressing yourself as clearly as you possibly can but, perhaps most importantly; it is about listening carefully, with empathy and understanding. Here are some tips for communicating during conflict:

  • Always remain respectful. Treat the person you are in conflict with as an equal and with dignity.
  • Don’t name call or blame. Labels and accusations like “You are so lazy” or “You are such a bully” or “You lied” will only put the other person on the defence and then you’ll have more trouble getting to the core of the conflict.
  • Don’t use words like “never”, “always” or “ever”. They are too general and they also refer to a history and take away from the focus of the conflict.
  • Instead of saying “you”, try to use the word “I” and follow up with how something makes you feel. In other words, instead of saying “You bark commands at me and expect me to remember everything” you could say “I get frazzled when people speak loudly and quickly.”
  • Focus on fact and information, not on rumour and on other people’s feelings.
  • When the other person is speaking, listen attentively. Nod your head. When they are finished you could rephrase what they said so that they can see that you were listening. Don’t jump in and interrupt. Don’t react by being defensive or aggressive. Don’t use sarcasm, slander or threats.
  • Learn to listen calmly, even if what you are being accused of is incorrect or unfair. It is hard to hear criticism, whether it is fair or unfair, but since you might be dishing some out during a conflict, you will also have to learn to bear to listen to what might be difficult to hear.
  • Be clear and specific.
  • Once everyone seems to be agreed more or less on what the problem is, move on to solutions.
  • Everyone has a turn to suggest some solutions and everyone should listen calmly to the proposals. Some sort of resolution must be found if the problem is a big one and this will mean a lot of patience and listening from both groups.
  • Remember that the argument isn’t resolved when someone “wins”. It is resolved when a compromise has been reached. Be prepared that an argument might not end in your favour.

 

♦ End

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