Dealing With Conflict

Before we start talking about dealing with conflict, we should make sure that it is a conflict we are dealing with.  It may in fact be a negotiation, which is anything but conflict since the whole point of negotiation is to find the common ground necessary to make a deal.  If you think this is about negotiation, click here.

"I Hate Conflict" The first thing I have observed regarding conflict is that that many people who profess to "hate conflict" seem to have a very strong personal value of "harmony".  Someone who values harmony wants (and to some degree, needs) to create and live in a world where everyone just "gets along". Any situation or circumstance with the potential to disrupt the state of "harmony" is therefore best avoided or dealt with as quickly as possible - even if by false agreement.

If you do not have harmony as a strong personal value, you may wonder what all the fuss is about. You may even see people with this value as lacking in courage or being unwilling to stand up for their beliefs. Neither of these assumptions is true however people with a powerful harmony value may deal with such things in a different way.  To get an idea of what is going on with people who value harmony, let's see if we can't share the feeling a bit.  

If you have a strong value of responsibility, how do feel when you let someone down? If you have a strong value of personal integrity, how do you feel when you break your word?  If you have a strong value of courage, how does it feel to behave in a cowardly manner? If you have a strong value of respect, how do you feel when you are disrespected?  Obviously, I am just picking up on some common values that people hold very strongly so that you can appreciate what someone who values "harmony" feels like when faced with a potential disagreement, difference of opinion or argument. They literally can feel ill. 

As is the case with a lot of coaching work, the path in helping people with a value for harmony deal with or engage in conflict lies in honoring their value internally rather than externally.  Thus instead of attempting to "restore" or even impose harmony on the outside world by avoidance, acquiescence or false acceptance, the idea is to understand your internal conflict and work to harmonize that. The internal conflict is often a result of other values being trampled such as inclusivity, respect, compassion, integrity etc. To understand this and act in a manner that honors these values reduces the internal conflict and enables a far less stressful participation in the external situation or circumstance. 

Another approach is to see conflict as the opportunity to create a greater degree of harmony by exposing and resolving those things that stand in the way of harmonious existence.  In essence, conflict becomes a useful tool to create greater harmony. This can be seen as difficult work that yields a highly desirable outcome while honoring an important value in the process.  One thing about this sort of exercise remains true.  The answer is never about wishing to be someone you are not or attempting to impose who you are on another. It is about finding a way to honor the person you are - values of harmony included! 

Self Confidence The second thing I have noticed is a strong link between a dislike of conflict and a low level of self confidence.  In these circumstances, conflict is seen as a situation that invariably will lead to:

  • A diminution in status, stature or loss in credibility, 
  • A loss of control regarding the process and/or the outcome,
  • A feeling of isolation, loneliness and/or disconnectedness,
  • A sense of guilt about causing another pain or discomfort, 
  • A sense of frustration, anger and regret that the conflict occurred or how one "performed" in the interaction.

With only these significantly negative outcomes apparent, the individual who lacks a strong sense of self worth will clearly avoid these situations at all cost and when unavoidable, will feel a sense of failure at having engaged in the conflict at all. 

In working with people who approach conflict from this perspective it is fascinating to witness how things can shift for them by making a few distinctions.  

The first of these distinctions is to separate the situation from the personal.  To a person with low self confidence, conflict is often seen as a personal attack based on the specific anticipation of the possible outcomes listed above.  To assist people in discovering the distinction between the situation and the person, I spend time asking the client what is being contested. What is the conflict? Where is it coming from? Digging deep into this often allows clients to see beyond the apparent attack e.g. "He thinks I am stupid", to being able to articulate his position on the actual issue, e.g. "His understanding is different than mine". In short, objectifying the source of the conflict can turn a personal attack into a debate of principle - a far less negative and intimidating exercise. 

A second distinction to be made is to identify what was said relative to what was heard. Our minds are adept at filling in the blanks and emotions are always the product of a story that our minds make up, so it is useful to have a client examine what was said in the situation, verbatim.  What is interesting in this exercise is that the words themselves are often completely benign at which point the client discovers that it was "how things were said" or "the body language that was demonstrated" that indicated the apparent acrimony.  

Just as an example, I have seen amazing things "interpreted" from emails (and by my own admission, have done similar and often incorrect, interpretations).  Once we take accountability for our interpretation of what was stated, and how we heard it, it is similarly possible for us to re-interpret it in a different way based on a different context. What if instead of angry, the other individual was frightened?  What if instead of dogmatic, the other individual felt unheard or incorrectly heard? How would the words used be interpreted differently if you viewed the sender from a place of compassion rather than fear? 

This approach can be practiced on virtually any email of significance.  Try asking yourself, what you would take from the message if you thought the sender was angry and then follow that interpretation with what you would take from the message if you thought the sender was concerned? Chances are you will discover the same words leave significantly different impression on you depending on how you think the sender was feeling. This same process occurs in verbal interactions, just at a much faster pace.  The key here is to notice the assumptions you are making about the speaker's intentions and state of mind. And...when in doubt, ask.  You may be surprised! 

"She Doesn't Like Me"A third situation that often acts as a catalyst for conflict occurs when, for whatever reason, the other person just doesn't like us. This triggers all sorts of negative emotions about fairness, feeling valued, feeling a sense of belonging and being somehow unworthy. Ripe ground for misunderstanding and conflict!  

I recall an instructor in an ethics class stating that in his experience, we as human beings will just naturally dislike 20% of the people we will meet without a valid or rational reason for doing so.  Often this is called "poor chemistry" or our intuition tells us that "something is not right with that guy".  In any case, I have found it very helpful at times to just acknowledge that:a) not everyone will like me and b) I won't like everyone and that both circumstances are okay. It is allowed and normal so just acknowledge, accept and release it - and then - with that understanding in place, start to work together to produce what it is you want to produce.  

In short - this acknowledgement allows us to shortcut this idea that we need to "be friends" with everyone at all times.  Respectful yes.  Professional? Absolutely.  Best buddies? Nope and nothing either of you will do will change the chemistry so just accept it and move on. 

A Few Bad Apples I also want to acknowledge that not everyone in the world is as wonderful as you and I obviously are. There are people that are immoral, unethical, self absorbed, despotic bullies. Conflict with such people is almost inevitable and while regrettable - sometimes, often perhaps, these people do "win" in the sense that they get what they want or get their own way while creating an environment where those around them feel diminished.  At the end of the day - this is not going to be about "fixing them" - we all recognize the improbability of that happening - but rather to accept the gift they give us - the gift of choice.  Do you really want to spend your life in the company of someone so bereft of merit? Your choice is to move on, to bypass furthering the experience (taking any legal remedies that might be appropriate of course) and to get on with your life.  Were everyone to have the courage to make such a choice, the bully would soon find himself with no one left to intimidate. Wishing your circumstances were different is completely inadequate. You must empower yourself to choose a path that is right for you. 

A Final Thought Avoidance can be a good conflict management strategy especially when emotions are high and communication has effectively stopped. In such cases, I have found it quite powerful to acknowledge my emotional state (even if I am not the one putting the most energy into the space) and then adjourn the meeting until another and very specific time.  This is not running away.  This is taking responsibility for creating an environment where good conflicted discussion can take place and the landscape of truth and possibility explored in a safe way, respectful and mutually beneficial way.