Why Conflict is So Hard and What We Need to Know to Change It

Note: We’re on the road .. so today’s post is a rerun of one of
our most popular posts this year.  Needless to say, conflict is
escalating in the workplace (and outside). The rise in incidents (those
that are reported) of workplace bullying is significant and is directly
related to failures in conflict management.  An important point we want
to get across is that resolving conflict is an inside job – first.
Resolving conflict has to begin with an understanding of our thinking
process and emotional triggers before we can begin to work with others
to explore solutions.)

In the late 90’s we created and led a very successful public seminar on Conflict Management
In the ten years that followed, we met thousands of participants who
attended those seminars armed with their workplace war stories.

 Some came because they wanted to improve their conflict management
skills, but most came because someone (their manager, HR, etc)
“suggested” they attend.  Once we got the initial resentments of the
participants who got “sent” out into the air, we would inevitably
discover the amazing common ground that most employees in the workplace
struggle with – how do we navigate the range of people differences and get work done effectively? Often, not an easy task!   

People bring all of their unresolved emotional baggage to work – and there is little we can do about that

Enduring outmoded collective beliefs like – work life and personal
life should be separate – are really old, old-school ideas that speak to
a lack of knowledge about the neuroscience of emotions and human
dynamics.  People don’t stop being people just because they are at work.

 But what really struck us in those years of experience was how
little people know about conflict in general – where it comes from and
how to respond to it. Even more telling is how little management and
organizations know – and do to  address it.

 There are deep, historic reasons why business continues to manage
conflict so poorly. Part of it has to do with the “legacy” of the
organization as machine.  People never did fit smoothly into the Frederick Taylor model of
people as widgets. Their needs and emotions are sloppy and
unpredictable and mess up the engine of production, right?  All of these
factors have undoubtedly contributed to the habitual ways organizations
structure their management practices and policies.  Conflict issues
usually get relegated to HR or some other designated entity and usually
get remedial treatment.

 Occasionally, an “enlightened” organization (or HR professional)
will provide workers with conflict resolution skills training – a good
thing (for consultants like us – and we believe for the participants and
the organization).  Unfortunately, too often those interventions are
not system-wide and do not address the structural roots that can trigger
conflict within an organization or department. Consequently,
individuals and managers are left to fend for themselves with varying
levels of conflict awareness to resolve the inevitable issues that will
arise in the process of work.

 What’s Missing in the Conflict Equation?

 One thing that has consistently emerged for us
while working with people to increase their conflict management
abilities is the persistent belief that there is a magic formula we can
learn to resolve conflict.  If there is one – we don’t know about it.  There is no magic bullet!

 Our experience has taught us that becoming more successful in responding to conflict requires rigorous self-awareness
and the deepening of knowledge and skills at many levels.  The tendency
of many people we have worked with is to look outside of themselves for
answers, which often includes futile fault-finding and blaming. 

 There is an interesting saying within the mental health professional that goes: “Not everyone can be the patient.” Meaning – someone has to step up to the plate – regardless of the source/s of the conflict.

Becoming More Skillful in Managing Conflict – A Checklist

“Everything we do is in service of our needs. When this one
concept is applied to our view of others, we’ll see that we have no real
enemies, that what others do to us is the best possible thing they know
to do to get their needs
Marshall Rosenberg

  • What is your Conflict Style?  Few people have
    transcended what they learned as children about conflict.  This has
    everything to do with expressing and handling feelings.  Think back –
    who were your earliest conflict modelers and what did they
    teach you about conflict? Most of us learned some version of the three
    predominate conflict “styles” – avoid, attack and defend.  If those fit
    your description, maybe it’s time to learn something new and go beyond
    those old conditioned responses?
  • Identify Root Causes – Most of the time we never get to the real source/s of conflict.  The root of a conflict has to do with human needs.
    Most of us are not practiced in identifying our deeper needs; we just
    keep roaming around the surface. That is one reason why conflicts
    continue to stay unresolved and recycle with new triggering external
  • Understand What Type of Conflict You are Dealing With.  Most conflicts are internal –
    yes, we’ll repeat that – internal.  Even if we are reacting to
    something external that is triggering us emotionally – it is often our
    internal processes that drive the conflict (at least our part in it).
    All conflicts are not interpersonal. We can have an internal conflict
    when no one else is involved.  Many conflicts are structural in
    nature. This is especially true within the workplace.  The problem is
    too many people are internalizing conflicts whose roots are
    organizational and trying to solve issues that are out of their control!
  • Examine Your Beliefs.  Unchecked beliefs play a huge role in
    conflict.  Your expectations, assumptions  and behaviors are driven by
    your beliefs.  We have beliefs about EVERYTHING – people, work, how
    things should be done, why people do and don’t do things, etc. And we
    have deep-rooted beliefs about conflict.  The first question to ask yourself is: What do I believe about conflictCan anything positive come from this experience?  
  • Undeveloped Emotional Intelligence Skills.  Without
    making a commitment to develop our emotional awareness and skills
    competencies, we really can’t expect to improve our ability to manage
    conflict. Most conflict is triggered or exacerbated by a lack of
    awareness of why we feel what we feel and how to manage those emotions
    more constructively.  
  • Ineffective Communication Skills.  Lots of conflict
    results from lazy or unclear communication.  In the blizzard of contact
    that happens in today’s world, it is easy for misunderstandings to
    happen.  Only about 1/3 of our audiences rate their listening skills as very good. We ALL need to get better at listening and practicing empathy towards others.  
  • Care.  Seems simple, doesn’t it?  You have to care.
    An alarming number of people we encounter in today’s workplace tell us
    they really don’t care about their co-workers!  These people often see
    workplace relationships as a means to an end – and that end is getting
    things done. If you see people at work as tasks – and not as people
    (with their own needs and feelings) you’re likely to have much more
    conflict. This gets even more challenging when you don’t like someone or
    they are “poor performers.”  

It’s our experience that concentrating and applying even one of these principles in responding to conflict will
shift your outcomes. You will feel and see the difference, even if it
is, at times, subtle.   While you may not get instant or total
resolution to every conflict, understand that you are creating a new
process – and shedding a life long pattern of habits that keep producing
the same outcomes and results.

Whether you are a manager, a co-worker, parent, friend, partner or
spouse, becoming more familiar with what drives your responses to
conflict will serve you and those around you  – well!  Ultimately, it is
about how you respond to the many events that are outside of your
control to “fix” that shapes conflict. The big fix is inside – HOW you think, feel and respond to those events is always your choice.

 Your Turn

What do you believe about conflict?

What have been the most productive ways you have found to manage it? 

Are workplace conflicts more challenging – if so, why?

We love to hear from you.  Please share your comments and
questions. Be sure to subscribe so you’ll receive notice whenever we

Thanks for joining the conversation,

Louise & George Altman, Intentional Communication Partners

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