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How to manage conflict

Conflict management

Conflict is one of the defining features of human interaction. It’s something that you’ll find everywhere, from friends arguing over which restaurant to visit to nations negotiating over a strategically important slice of land.

Conflict is so central to our lives that we often manufacture it for the sake of entertainment. If you’ve ever read a novel or watched a film in which there was no conflict, then the chances are that you were fairly bored.

Conflict can often be destructive, especially if it occurs in the wrong environment. It’s a particular problem in the workplace, where it can cause destructive feelings and behaviours. In the worst cases, these can create a self-perpetuating cycle, where one disagreement feeds into the next.

Preventing conflict from arising in the first place is possible if the right measures and attitudes are cultivated. But sometimes, this isn’t practical — or desirable. Occasionally, disagreement can be healthy, even instructive. It might help to point us to potential solutions and problems that we wouldn’t otherwise have considered.

The right conflict management techniques help us get the best from our conflicts and cut out the worst.

What is conflict management?

Simply defined, conflict management is the art (and science) of dealing with conflicts. This doesn’t just mean settling them. Sometimes, it might be appropriate to deal with the effects of the conflict while the root cause is identified and dealt with.

Conflict management techniques

Conflicts have been around for as long as people have been around (arguably, it’s been around for substantially longer than that). So, it’s no surprise that plenty of techniques have been proposed for dealing with them. 

Among the more famous recent systems is the Thomas-Killman Instrument, which was first published by Xicom in 1974. The brainchild of behavioural scientists Ralph Kilmann and Kenneth Thomas of UCLA, the TKI has found favour with businesses across the world, and it’s still ubiquitous today.

TKI styles of conflict resolution

 According to the TKI conflict management model, there are five different styles of conflict. These can be plotted along two axes: assertiveness and cooperativeness. Once we figure out how we sit on these two axes, we can determine our conflict-resolution style.

 The five styles of conflict are:

  • Competing (assertive, uncooperative)
  • Avoiding (unassertive, uncooperative)
  • Accommodating (unassertive, cooperative)
  • Collaborating (assertive, cooperative)
  • Compromising (which sits right in the middle)

These tend to be plotted on a chart, like so.

Let’s run through the conflict management styles as proposed by the TKI.

Competing

People who compete will look to pursue their own interests at the expense of everyone else. Imagine a lawyer who advocates for a client’s well-being, exercising their power in the form of expertise and rhetorical skill. They’re not interested in being fair or looking at the case for the other side.

Competing personalities tend to view conflict as a contest to be won rather than a problem to be resolved. In management, this style might be seen as authoritarian and even stubborn — which can have its downsides if there is no room for disagreement or discussion.

Accommodating

On the opposite side of the chart, we have the accommodating style. This is the person who will put their own wishes aside to satisfy the other party, thereby bringing the conflict to a close. You might, if you were feeling less than charitable, think of this person as a ‘doormat’. On the other hand, you might think of them as easy going and approachable, therefore better suited to quickly handling minor difficulties. They might not always get their way, but sometimes it’s better to lose quickly and move on.

Avoiding

The avoiding personality will seek to sidestep conflict whenever it arises rather than getting involved. This might require diplomacy or simply kicking the problem down the line. An appropriate time to avoid might be when two members of a team are butting heads over a minor, unimportant issue. By removing them from the project rather than dealing with the issue could provide the time necessary for the conflict to fizzle out. On the other hand, it might worsen the disagreement by allowing it to boil over.

Collaboration

This style favours examining the wants and needs of everyone involved in a dispute and arriving at a solution that suits everyone — a ‘win-win’ fix. This tends to be time-consuming and requires a little bit of skill and insight, but the results are often worth the effort. Most of us would view this approach as an ideal and work to develop the skills necessary to take this approach.

Compromising

Finally, there’s the middle-ground solution, where no one gets what they want because both parties are asked to make concessions. This is quicker than the collaborative approach because it doesn’t require the same degree of analysis into the root causes of the problems involved.

So, which of the five are you? In many ways, it’s a misleading question. You might feel that you’re more comfortable with one style than the others but this need not define the approach you take. You might find it appropriate to favour a different tact in some situations, even if your temperament isn’t suited to that style.

The TKI places a heavy emphasis on what we can actually do to deal with conflict. It allows us to broaden our approach from what comes easily and assess other ways of doing things. If you’re inclined to accommodate or avoid the problem, then you might find that developing the skills necessary to collaborate will help you to do what’s right rather than what comes easily.

What are the alternatives?

While the TKI is probably the most popular way to think about conflict resolution, it’s far from the only model available. The early 2000s saw many influential researchers come out with their own models. Like Thomas and Killman, they broadly agreed that styles could be described according to two dimensions but disagreed as to what those dimensions should be. 

You might therefore see reference to Activeness vs Agreeableness, Distributive vs Integrative, Self-concern vs Concern for Others, and Goals vs Relationships.

Which of these systems is most effective will depend on the circumstances out of which the conflict arises, and the style preferred by management. In other words, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to become so distracted by systems for understanding conflict resolution that we lose sight of what’s practical and applicable to the conflicts we actually encounter.

Managing conflict in the workplace

While the ability to manage and dissipate conflict will come in handy across a range of situations, it’s especially useful in the workplace. Members of a team won’t always think alike, which in some cases is going to lead to friction. Dealing with this is essential for the team to function as a single unit.

How to manage conflict in a team

Before we can resolve conflict, we need to work out exactly where it’s coming from. That means asking the right questions and, ideally, engaging in an open dialogue with the parties of a particular dispute. If you’ve maintained an open-door culture in which employees feel free to voice their concerns, then you might have an easier time getting input and understanding exactly what’s at the root of those concerns.

Effective conflict resolution often hinges on setting aside our preconceptions and focussing on the actual actions and behaviours causing the conflict, rather than the personalities involved.

In instances when two members of the team are regularly butting heads, it might be worth taking the time to sit them down and clarify exactly what the problem is. Chronic miscommunication issues can hamper productivity and lead to avoidable stress. It might be that an impartial mediator can identify differences in how the parties characterise the problem and what can realistically be done about it.

Conflict management strategies

Let’s consider how to manage conflict at work.

Speaking to people in private

When you speak to a team member in private, you can get a comprehensive understanding of their concerns – provided that they’re willing to speak with you. Getting people to open up in private is easier than getting them to do it publicly.

Bringing people together

Sometimes, you might find that parties to a dispute are a lot less vocal when they’re faced with one another than when you speak with them in isolation. By sitting them down at the same time, you’ll be able to present all sides of an argument so that everyone is happy. That way, no one can later argue that they’ve been misrepresented.

Moreover, since these arguments come from an impartial third party, they are less likely to be coloured by grudges and biases. Human nature is such that if someone you don’t get along with criticises you, you might be tempted to dismiss them as badly motivated or just plain mean. If someone with whom you have no real history says the same thing, you’ll often be more inclined to take them seriously.

Of course, if you’ve got too close to your team members, or played favourites, then this air of impartiality might well be undermined, and with it your attempts at reconciliation.

If you have a good understanding of your team members, then you might pick up on more subtle differences in their behaviour from when you were speaking to them alone. Their body language might change — they might be more inclined to fold their arms, sigh, or contemplate their shoelaces.

Do something!

Obviously, it’s rarely wise to simply ignore a conflict in the hope that it will go away. But that doesn’t always mean that ‘something must be done’. Doing the wrong thing can, in fact, be worse than doing nothing. If you lack the skills to resolve a conflict, or implement the wrong solution, you might make things worse. The ‘something must be done’ instinct is known as the politician’s fallacy.

This isn’t to argue that doing nothing is often desirable, but that you should pre-arm yourself with the techniques necessary to take the right action, ideally before the dispute arises.

Reviewing progress later

Whatever strategy you decide to implement, you’ll want to follow up on it to see whether it’s actually proven effective. This means conducting an assessment after the fact and determining whether the conflict is actually still there. If it is, then you might go back to the drawing board. 

If you’ve made partial progress, then you might try to analyse where you’ve gone wrong and what you’ve done right. Has one party to a dispute held up their end of the bargain, while the other has been reluctant?

When you’ve made progress, on the other hand, it’s important to recognise — and perhaps even reward yourselves. The feedback that you garner during this review can be used to inform future conflict resolutions.

Conflict management training

Conflict management, much like every other kind of management, requires a diverse range of skills. You may need to listen to other people, understand where they’re coming from, formulate a solution and propose it.

These skills can be learned, and the fastest and most effective way to learn them is often through a conflict management course.

Conflict management courses

There are many courses that can play a role in dissipating conflict and the sources of conflict. Many of them are only indirectly related to the conflict itself. For example, courses in team leadership, project management and people management tend, by necessity, to involve dispute resolution of some kind.

Mindfulness meditation is an increasingly popular practice, both inside and outside the workplace. It provides the tools necessary to be aware (or mindful) of the contents of your own consciousness and the thoughts and feelings that emerge from it. It’s a skill that takes practice but can be applied to a range of conflicts. 

Sometimes, disputes can arise because of cultural dissonance. One person thinks a certain way because of their upbringing, which is foreign to another. This is the primary advantage of a diverse workplace — viewpoint diversity can eliminate blind spots, groupthink and institutional biases. But it can only do so if everyone has been effectively integrated.

When management is aware of what’s involved in the cultures in question, they can have an easier time drawing everyone’s attention toward (or away from) the true source of the dispute, creating harmony within a modern, culturally diverse workplace.

Emotional intelligence is an umbrella term used to cover a range of social aptitudes, many of which are invaluable when cooperating with others in a work environment. It is something that’s been an object of intense study over recent years, and is attribute that can be developed with the right course.

The time and energy that you invest in dealing with conflict can often pay for itself in the long term.

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