Raise your hand if you enjoy handling conflict!
Try saying this at your next team meeting and see how many hands go up… Probably 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. That’s because for most of us, dealing with conflict does not come easily, and our first inclination is to avoid it at all costs.
Imagine This Situation
A growing organization, a revolutionary in its field, has a thorn in its side. The Vice President of Research & Development, let’s name her Leslie, and the Vice President of Operations, James, cannot even look at one another as a result of a past disagreement. Leslie and James intentionally avoid each other and use third parties to communicate. This has been going on for weeks until it finally becomes apparent that this conflict requires an immediate resolution.
With the guidance of an internal mediator, Leslie and James enter the same room for the first time in over a month. They do so under strict conditions: a) commit to pursuing what is right; b) commit to confidentiality; c) acknowledge the good in their relationship; d) refrain from blame; e) use “I” rather than “you” in discussion; f) avoid words like “always” and “never”; and g) confirm understanding before responding by restating the other person’s position.
Over the course of several meetings, Leslie and James are gradually able to commit to immediate action steps that breathe new life into the relationship. Both are now aware of the negative implications of their behavior on the organization and commit themselves to move forward in a way that most effectively serves each other as well as the company.
Conflict Has Power
Both Leslie and James owned partial truth in the conflict. But by extending themselves to understand the other’s truth, they are both able to acknowledge their own missteps and deepen their insight into the other’s perspective. At the end of the resolution process, all emerge victorious – Leslie, James, and the organization.
The point of the story is: conflict is a powerful reality that influences success. While it might be tempting to avoid it, conflict resolution is essential for moving forward and benefiting ourselves, those around us, and our larger mission. But how to do this effectively and positively?
Take this path to move beyond conflict and become a collaborative problem solver:
Step 1: Understand your own perspective
Let’s begin with the person we influence the most—ourselves. In every 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 these and why you carry them. Then choose whether or not you’re going to let these obstruct your ability to resolve the conflict at hand.
Step 2: Take Off Your Shoes
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. Consider what bias they may be carrying. Take a walk in their shoes to try and answer the following questions:
- Why do they feel so strongly about their perspective?
- What is their goal?
- What are they saying?
- How might your perspective affect them in the short-term and the long-term?
- What is the underlying conflict from their point of view?
- What would a “win” look like for them?
Dig beneath the surface, especially when it feels uncomfortable. The more you explore, the more informed you’ll be about the full spectrum of the conflict.
Step 3: Time Your Communication
Keep in mind that you haven’t engaged in the actual discussion yet. Determining the most appropriate timing can make a huge difference in 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.
Step 4: Create a Dialogue
More often than not, the manner in which we communicate our message creates more conflict than the difference of opinions we hold. Think about how that other person will receive the message that is being communicated. People have different communication style preferences. Be aware of the other person’s preferred approach. Then, choosing to engage in dialogue, as opposed to a debate, sets the tone immediately. Dialogue means you’re willing to listen to understand more than you speak. 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.
Step 5: Respect the Outcome
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. It’s essential to value every perspective, to work alongside one another, and to envision an outcome that creates a win for everyone involved.
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. He encouraged individuals to identify virtue in people’s actions instead of looking for ways to humiliate or defeat them. This crucial difference fostered 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 leaders and organizations acknowledge the transformative power of conflict resolution to create a better future, believing that dialogue through challenges can actually lead to stronger relationships, better solutions, and higher productivity.
So… if we truly want to change the world, we must commit ourselves to walk the path through conflict to collaborative problem-solving. The only other alternative is to allow the walls of conflict to separate and divide. Choose the path… one step at a time.