Why How We Fight Matters Most

Analysis of business conversations inevitably reveals that they are chock full of misunderstanding, differences of opinion and inherent disagreement. Yet, it has been more than a dozen years since anything significant on managing conflict has been created. But in a recent and highly awarded study UVA’s Kristin Behfar and her colleagues have provided a new, very practical approach to conflict prediction and resolution.

Rather than focus on conflict types, such as task or relationship orientation, they found that by manipulating two dimensions—directness and intensity—they were able to predict conflict success or failure.

Directness is defined as how straightforward—or “direct”—measured by words and body language somebody communicates information to the other person. Intensity is seen as the emotional component. Is the information presented on almost a matter-of-fact basis—or does it involve an exchange moving in the direction of overt  anger, even shouting and fierceness?

In an enlightening interview with Strategy +Business, Behfar emphasizes her desire to change the conversation about conflict by focusing on expression rather than conflict type. The approach is similar to the very significant marriage conflict work done by John Gottman and his colleagues.

Because of my own work in the field, I’ve learned that the more “matter-of-fact” I can be with just a small of amount of non-verbal intensity, the more successful the debate and eventual resolution of the problem. Behfar and colleagues move far beyond my finding, developing a full-blown concept. What I especially appreciate about their process is its level of simplicity. Sure, controlling your emotions in a conflict can be tough. But it’s also a manageable process. They’ve actually limited the number of variables in their process. And by so doing, they’ve made what could be complex and difficult into a highly accessible communication technique. Furthermore, the techniques can be used for most any kind of conflict substance.

In sum, they’ve proven that high clarity of expression (directness) with low degree of expression (intensity) offers the keys to the kingdom. This is just great stuff.

Research report:  Laurie R. Weingart, Kristin Behfar, et al. The Directness and Oppositional Intensity of Conflict Expression. Academy of Management Review, April 2015, V. 40, #2.

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