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Healthy Relationships are Never Conflict Free: They are Conflict Resolving

Article by Dr. Alan Zimmerman. Full article available here. 

Work relationships are never conflict free. Indeed, I would say that HEALTHY relationships are never conflict free BUT they are conflict resolving. Here are some practical insights for your workplace conflicts that ensure your relationship wins. The problem is, we fight for victories instead of fighting for solutions. The result is one wins, one loses, and the relationship suffers. Instead, utilise these tactics:

Understand the nature of conflict

Conflicts are inevitable. They’re inevitable because work relationships bring different people together who see things differently. As marriage counselor Gary Smalley puts it, “During those first years of marriage, what one partner finds an absolute necessity, the other views as an unnecessary luxury”.

Conflicts are normal. They’re normal because all relationships, even great ones, experience them.

Conflicts are potentially beneficial. They’re potentially beneficial because when they’re handled effectively, better solutions are found and relationships are strengthened.

Choose the right “style” of conflict resolution

You’ve got three choices: avoid, attack, or approach. Choose the “correct” approach style.

  1. The “avoid” conflict resolution approach

    In the “avoid” style, you “don’t want to rock the boat”. You want to “let sleeping dogs lie”. You fear confrontation, so you bury your feelings, not realising your feelings will eventually come out somewhere … somehow. You clam up, letting your negative feelings build up, until you blow up, hurting yourself or the other person physically or emotionally. Meanwhile, the offenses accumulate, unaddressed issues multiply, and the unfinished business erodes your relationship.

  2. The “attack” conflict resolution approach

    In the “attack” style, you do your best to “get them before they get you”. You are a ruthless fighter who refuses to give in. You attack the other person, which more often than not invites counterattack. Both sides dig in and nothing gets resolved.

  3. The “approach” conflict resolution approach

    In the “approach” style, you are assertive. You confront the issue without blaming the other person. Indeed, you’re sensitive to the other person’s feelings, and you invite them to join you in solving the problem and saving the relationship. In almost all cases, I recommend the “approach” style.

And with that style in hand, you need to match up your particular “type” of conflict resolution with the “strategy” that works best with that “type”.

“Types” of conflict you experience

  1. With “simple” conflict, use fact finding

    The first of four types is called “simple” conflict – because two or more people want different things. That’s pretty basic when you think about it. It may be that the boss wants to implement a new procedure, but the staff thinks the old way is good enough.

    In simple conflict, focus on fact finding. Propose a straightforward statement of the problem that quickly, clearly, and concisely summarises the issue. A straightforward statement might sound like this: “So you want a compensation system that recognises merit, and I want the system to be based on seniority? Is that the issue?” Once you agree on the definition of the problem, get all the relevant facts and all the pros and cons out on the table. And then keep on talking until you find a solution that both of you can feel pretty good about.

  2. With “false” conflict, eliminate your assumptions

    In “false” conflict, two or more people “think” they have a disagreement when they really don’t. They just misunderstand each other. For example, I remember a manager who said she would “get right back to” her colleague, but the colleague became rather angry when the manager got back to her the next day.

    Well, what does “get right back to you” mean? An hour? A day? Or a week?

    False conflict should be the easiest kind of conflict to resolve because there really isn’t anything to resolve. It’s just a matter of clarifying a situation, and everything is okay. The problem lies in the fact that people assume they understand each other.

    Stop assuming! If the other person says something that sounds a little vague, that could be misconstrued, that sounds “off” or confusing, check it out. Say “I’m not sure I understand” or “I’d like to know more about that”. Ask for clarification. Use active listening. Play back what you think the other person is saying, and you’ll find these kinds of conflicts magically disappearing.

  3. With “ego” conflict, show empathy

    An “ego” conflict exists when someone feels attacked, slighted, or put down. Somehow their self-esteem has been diminished by another person’s words or actions, and now they feel the need to defend themself or counterattack. For example, a team member might label another team member’s idea as “just plain ridiculous”, to which they are told, “You never respect anybody’s ideas except your own”.

    In ego conflict, you need to diminish the defensiveness. After all, when a person feels disrespected, they’re going to get somewhat defensive until they are once again reassured of their value. And you do that by showing empathy. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Try to see the world from their perspective. Try to understand their pressures, responsibilities, expectations, and demands. The more empathy you show, the less defensive the other person will be.

    Structure some conflict resolution time. Structure it where one person speaks, sharing what they think, feel, and want – without any interruption – while the other person just listens respectfully. And then repeat the same structure with the second person.

    If that seems too difficult, if there’s too much “heat” in the room, take a cooling-off period. Put your discussion “on hold” for an hour, a day, or a week – whatever you need so you can calm down, gain some perspective, and prevent yourself from saying anything else that might enrage the other person or damage your relationship.

  4. With “value” conflict, look for common ground

    A “value” conflict exists when there are sharp disagreements over what is considered to be good or bad. At work, there may be a value conflict between what you think is “financially right” and what the company is doing to “cut corners”.

    Value conflicts are very difficult to resolve. After all, compromise is somewhat ridiculous. On the corporate finance issue, you can’t “afford everything”.

    Your best choice, in the beginning stages of value conflict resolution, is to stop trying to convince the other person that you’re right and they’re wrong. Instead, spend your energy on trying to understand how the other person came to their value conclusions. Explore their reasoning. Behind every value is a set of thoughts and feelings that are the underpinnings of that value.

    In so doing, you reduce the emotional acid in your communication and in your relationship. You open the door to finding some common ground. You may find that both sides want to be profitable. When you re-frame your conflict in those ways, your disagreement becomes one of methodology rather than morality.

    Bottom Line: There are only two ways you can go in conflict. If you’re going in the direction of “who’s right and who’s wrong”, your outcome will probably be destructive. If you’re focused on “what are we going to do about it”, you’ll be on your way to constructive conflict resolution.

Make this week the week you decide to give up the “avoid” and the “attack” styles of conflict resolution. Decide to use the “approach” style.