“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandela
A growing organization that was thought to be revolutionary in its field of research had a thorn in its side. The VP of R&D and the VP of operations could not even look one another in the eye. Each intentionally avoided the other and used third parties to communicate to avoid risking an encounter. This nagging thorn plagued the organization for weeks, until it became apparent that the conflict required immediate resolution.
With the guidance of an internal mediator, the two individuals entered the same room for the first time in over a month, under strict conditions: commit to pursuing what is right, commit to confidentiality, acknowledge the good in their relationship, refrain from condemnation or blame, use “I” rather than “you” in discussion, avoid words like “always” and “never,” and confirm understanding before responding, by restating the other person’s position.
Over the course of several meetings which followed these guidelines, the two individuals were able to gradually extract the thorn and commit to immediate action steps that breathed new life into the relationship. Both became aware of the negative implications of their behavior on the organization and committed themselves to move forward in a way that most effectively served each other as well as the company. Each of them owned partial truth in the conflict. By extending themselves to understand the other’s truth, they were able to acknowledge their own missteps and deepen their insight into the other’s perspective. At the end of the resolution process, all emerged victorious—the VP of R&D, the VP of operations, and the organization.
Raise your hand if you enjoy handling conflict. Make this request at your next team meeting and see how many hands are raised—very few, if any, and it won’t be because they didn’t hear you! You’ll probably observe anxious facial expressions, fidgeting, or people looking for an escape route from the room. For most of us, dealing with conflict does not come easily, and our first inclination is to avoid it at all costs.
But conflict is a powerful reality that influences the safety, the success, and the promise of communities across the globe. Conflict in the areas of politics, race, and religion (among others) has been the root cause of inestimable suffering in the world for decades, with no alleviation in sight. While we in the USA are fortunate enough not to be in the midst of life-threatening conflict on a daily basis, it’s critical that each of us understands the implications of the methods by which we manage conflict. And if we truly want to change the world, we must commit ourselves to lead future generations to surpass our own ability to cultivate harmony among opposing viewpoints.
Let’s begin with the person we influence the most—ourselves. In every situation of conflict, we bring our own biases to the table. Relationship dynamics, current life circumstances, past experiences, stress, ego, goals, etc., all shape our beliefs and impact our ability to achieve objective views. Before engaging in conflict, first seek to develop your self-awareness. What biases may you be carrying that could distort your objectivity? Take time to identify what you’re carrying and why you’re carrying it. Then choose whether or not you’re going to let what you’re carrying obstruct your ability to resolve the conflict at hand.
Once you’ve identified and sorted your bias, take off your shoes and put on someone else’s—preferably someone who holds a contrasting viewpoint from yours on the issue at hand. Consider what bias they may be carrying. Why do they feel so strongly about their perspective? What is their goal? How are their beliefs being threatened by the opposition? Now take a walk in their shoes. How might your objective affect them in the short term and the long term? What is the underlying why of the conflict? What would a “win” look like for them?
Dig beneath the surface, especially when it feels uncomfortable—that’s typically what walking in someone else’s shoes requires. The more you explore, the more informed you’ll be about the full spectrum of the conflict.
Keep in mind that a discussion regarding the conflict between the parties involved hasn’t yet taken place. Determining the most appropriate time and manner for a discussion will heavily influence your ability to achieve a resolution. Allow for adequate time to process the circumstances before addressing the issue—this allows emotions to simmer down and the pre-work we just discussed to take place. Keep wearing the other person’s shoes, because this is your most valuable asset in achieving an all-around win. In preparing to discuss the conflict, remember that your tone of voice, body language, and genuine regard for every person involved contribute greatly to the resolution process. More often than not, the manner in which we communicate our message creates more conflict than the difference of opinions we hold. Ask yourself: How would I receive the message that is being communicated?
Effective conflict resolution doesn’t mean that everyone will agree with the outcome. It does mean that each individual feels respected, heard, and understood. Striving to attain the greatest good for every person involved requires a genuine effort to value every perspective and to work alongside one another to envision an outcome that surpasses what either party initially brought forth. Choosing to enter into a dialogue, as opposed to a debate, sets the tone immediately for what will unfold. Dialogue means you’re willing to listen more than you speak, while minimizing the “stuff” you’re carrying into the conversation, in order to maximize the chances for an optimal resolution.
Martin Luther King, Jr. worked tirelessly to resolve one of the greatest conflicts in U.S. history, racial inequality. In his book Stride Toward Freedom, King describes his resolution mentality, by which he sought to defeat injustice and conflict rather than people, resulting in reconciliation and progress rather than enemies and gridlock. He encouraged individuals to identify what is positive in people’s actions instead of looking for ways to humiliate or defeat them. This crucial difference fostered the cultivation of teamwork rather than division. King experienced firsthand how challenging and unsettling conflict can be, but he also foresaw the extraordinary potential for human growth, and he clung to this hope. Like King, the strongest organizations acknowledge the transformative power of conflict resolution to equip leaders for the unforeseen future, believing that there is significant value in the challenges we encounter. They hold fast to that ancient proverb, “You reap what you sow.”