Handling conflict

Carl Jung said: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”

As you have probably noticed, people each have a different way of looking at the world, and conflict is inevitable. So, this month, we look at ways to handle conflict in the workplace. I hope you find these ideas and tips useful.

Handling conflict

Conflict is a broad term that typically describes a disagreement where people feel a negative emotional reaction. By identifying the core issue and the needs of ourselves and the other person, we are likely to diffuse the tension and achieve a positive outcome.

There are many opportunities where conflict can arise, such as a difficult relationship between a boss and subordinate, or with a stakeholder whose expectations differ from your own. It can also apply to customer complaints, organisational restructuring and in situations where a decision has to be made and the individuals fundamentally disagree – these are just a few examples.

Introducing the Thomas-Kilmann model

The Thomas-Kilmann model (published by CPP, Inc) helps you determine your most likely behaviour in a conflict situation. It was created in the 1970s, and I find their five simple styles of dealing with conflict are still valid today.

Assertive and unco-operative

A power-oriented mode when you pursue your own concerns at the other person’s expense, using whatever power seems appropriate to win your own position.  Competing might mean “standing up for your rights”, defending a position which you believe is correct, or simply trying to win.

Use this mode:

  • When quick, decisive action is vital e.g. emergencies
  • On important issues where unpopular courses of action need implementing e.g. cost-cutting, enforcing unpopular rules, discipline
  • To protect yourself against people who take advantage of non-competitive behaviour

“I’m not prepared to change my position…”
“I must make my position quite clear…”

Unassertive and co-operative, the opposite of competing

When you neglect your own concerns to satisfy the concerns of the other person, with an element of self-sacrifice. It might take the form of selfless generosity or charity, obeying an order when you would prefer not to, or yielding to another’s point of view.

Use this mode:

  • When the issue is much more important to the other person than to you – to satisfy the needs of others, and as a goodwill gesture to help maintain a co-operative relationship
  • When preserving harmony and avoiding disruption are especially important
  • To aid in the managerial development of subordinates by allowing them to experiment and learn from their own mistakes

“I agree with you there…”
“You have convinced me…”

Unassertive and unco-operative

When you do not immediately pursue your own concerns or those of the other person – you do not address the conflict. It might take the form of diplomatically sidestepping an issue, postponing an issue until a better time or simply withdrawing from a threatening situation.

Use this mode:

  • When you perceive no chance of satisfying your concerns e.g. when you have low power or you are frustrated by something which would be very difficult to change (company policies, someone’s personality structure, etc.).
  • When the potential damage of confronting a conflict outweighs the benefits of its resolution
  • To let people cool down – to reduce tensions to a productive level and to regain perspective and composure

“Let’s talk about this later…”
“That is outside my brief…”

Both assertive and co-operative, the opposite of avoiding

When you try to work with the other person to dig into an issue, identify the underlying concerns and find some solution that fully satisfies you both. It might take the form of exploring a disagreement to learn from each other’s insights, concluding to resolve some condition which would otherwise mean competing for resources, or trying to find a creative solution to an interpersonal problem.

Use this mode:

  • To find an integrative solution when both sets of concerns are too important to be compromised
  • To merge insights from people with different perspectives on a problem
  • To gain commitment by incorporating other’s concerns into a consensual decision

“Let’s work together on this…”
“Let’s find some common ground…”  

Intermediate in both assertiveness and co-operativeness

The objective is to find some expedient, mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both parties. Compromising might mean splitting the difference, exchanging concessions, or seeking a quick middle-ground position.

Use this mode:

  • When goals are moderately important but not worth the effort or potential disruption of more assertive modes
  • When two opponents with equal power are strongly committed to mutually exclusive goals
  • To arrive at expedient solutions under time pressure

“Let’s find a quick solution…”
“I suggest we meet halfway…” 

Process for resolving conflict

This process is published by CPP, Inc and inspired by Myers-Briggs – a model that’s based on Jungian psychology. If you are familiar with Myers-Briggs, you may remember it comprises four dimensions. The two dimensions where conflict is most likely to occur are judging:perceiving and thinking:feeling.

“Judging types often have difficulty appreciating the spontaneity, need-to-keep-things-open and different timeframes of perceiving types, while perceiving types tend to dislike making decisions quickly, and may feel constrained by the judging type’s orderly approach, or their perceived inflexibility. Meanwhile, the thinking types want to fix what’s wrong, and the feeling types want to ensure that everyone is heard or respected.”

If you’d like to send me your own Myers-Briggs type, I can provide you with a one-page description of how you are most likely to handle conflict, including the value you bring and the possible areas for development.

This four-step process outlines how to handle conflict:

1. Create space
Location – Make sure it’s neutral and private
Active listening – This is critical to understanding the other person’s views. Be curious, which will also help you avoid being defensive.
Take breaks – This helps to diffuse tension and provide breathing space. It can also lead to a breakthrough in your thinking and enable people to avoid becoming entrenched in their views. The break can be five minutes, a few hours or overnight, whatever timeframe is most appropriate. (Note that this is different from avoidance.)
Mediator – Not always needed, but it can help ensure neutrality, professionalism and good process, and that everyone has the chance to share their view.

2. Add value
In this stage of the process, each person gives their view and these are debated.
Thinking types (in Myers-Briggs terms) will use this stage to generate options.
Feeling types will use this stage to focus on everyone’s needs.

3. Seek closure
Agree your decision-making principles and criteria
Take one step at a time – Acknowledge milestones and agreements along the way, and help create common ground
Define ‘next steps’ – To maintain the momentum, it’s important to agree the steps and timeline for implementation. Also, define the time when you will both / all review the effectiveness of your mutual decision or plan.

4. Close
Acknowledge that the conflict has been resolved, to reassure and enable people to get back to their day-to-day activities, with their emotional levels back in balance.

Tips on handling conflict

I’ve compiled these tips from my years of experience in helping clients to handle conflict:

  • Assume positive intent – have the belief that the other person (like you) wants to do a good job
  • Start with what you both / all agree on
  • Be ego-less; don’t let your ego get in the way
  • Suspend your judgement and be curious about the other person’s view, as advised by Stephen Covey in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek to understand before being understood”
  • Reflect back what you think you heard to show you are listening and ensure your interpretation is correct (This links to my previous article on How to create time to think)
  • Appreciate and respect the differences in other people’s views and approaches
  • Maintain emotional control at all times
  • Be trustworthy – honest, authentic, reliable and responsive
  • Address issues early on; delaying usually makes things worse
  • Don’t take conflict personally – just see it as something to be worked through. When you see conflict as a positive thing, you will be better able to harness the differences in opinion and achieve a more creative and effective outcome.
  • Finally; be professional and courteous at all times.

If you’d like to learn more, please contact me for a questionnaire.

I hope you find this information useful. As always, I welcome your feedback. Please let me know if you’d like help to handle conflict within your organisation.

Next month, we look at effective team working where team members are geographically dispersed.