Definition of conflict
The term ‘conflict’ describes a disagreement, clash or collision between groups or individuals that is disruptive.
There are many different causes of conflict. Whilst not an inherently negative thing, conflict can become destructive when it becomes emotional and brings up deep-seated tensions between people. It generally involves an extremely strong disagreement between two or more people. Because its effects can be so devastating, it needs to be addressed. If unmanaged in the extreme it can lead to violence.
The aim of conflict resolution is to name and accept that it is happening, note the effect and potential damage, and find ways to work through it. In other words:
- Name the problems or issues that are causing conflict
- Acknowledge that these things are causing angst
- Move on once resolutions are made, move on from the conflict so that other actions are not delayed
Within an organisation or group, examples of conflict include:
- Negotiations – when ‘defend/attack’ interactions occur.
- Meetings which become disruptive due to personalities and interpersonal relationships, often before crucial decisions are made.
- Between two or more people. For example, when one party feels undermined in their opinions.
- Cultural - different cultures may conflict with each other in terms of their respective interests and values.
- Leadership challenges or tensions.
Successful implementation of conflict resolution strategies involves:
- People skills
- Sensitive negotiation
- Ability to deal with aggression
- Ability to handle grievances.
How to manage conflict
1. Assess potential conflict and look at possible causes. These include:
- Competing group, family or personal interests. For example, unions or workers versus company interests, or an individual’s interests versus those of another.
- Conflict about values, goals, commitments.
- Conflict based on gender or culture.
- Power and control issues. For example, one personality might have a tendency to ‘bully’ others.
- Lack of communication. This can cause misunderstandings or ‘crossed wires’. It is important to say what we mean, and be honest.
- Personality clashes. Some people will just ‘push each other’s buttons’ or violently offend another’s values, priorities, or behave in an underhand way.
2. Strategies for preventing conflict:
- Have informal meetings to address concerns initially.
- Note disagreements between parties that may have the potential to become conflicts.
- In meetings, defer tricky subjects to later in the meeting to handle. Note where tensions between individuals appear to be developing.
- Document any concerns.
- Ask for feedback.
- Consult with conflicting parties in small meetings.
- Speak to individuals one-on-one in a casual setting.
- Encourage calm discussion of the particular problem in a nonconfrontational manner.
- Address and document each one’s primary issues and concerns. Try and make sure you understand each person’s perspective. Maintain a casual, informal attitude in these settings. Aim at friendly resolution.
- Listen and respect differing viewpoints – try to listen to others with an open mind and show respect even if you disagree.
- How serious is the conflict? Is it a passing disagreement or is it likely to become something serious? It may be a personality issue for example, that involves another personal agenda.
- Establish trust and confidentiality.
- Try to unravel the primary issues causing the conflict, state them and document them.
- Identify and document areas of agreement between the different positions.
- Try to find a ‘grain of truth’ in something said by the different positions that can be built upon. Emphasise these and encourage parties to focus on common ground; note the grey areas where there might be room for compromise.
- Observe respect for cultural protocols. These may vary.
- Develop resolution strategies bearing in mind what is more likely to work in practice rather than theory.
- Remind concerned parties of appropriate conduct. (This is particularly important if the various parties have a tendency to get aggressive).
- Memorandums of understanding. These may need to be documented well and given to each conflicting party, paying careful attention to dates and resolutions made.
- The subject causing the conflict may be deferred to be discussed at a later date. This is important in order to delay or minimise conflict in some cases. Also to stay focussed on more important tasks.
- Identify reflexive behaviours in the conflict that can obstruct joint problem solving. Seek skills to avoid defend/attack interactions. For example, if one issue arousing emotion keeps being aired during the conflict, highlight it, and resolve to stick to the issue at hand.
- Consult professional conflict resolution personnel or workplace counsellors if necessary. (For example, if the conflict is between two other parties, and I support one and not the other, how can I preserve my relationship with both? What is my personal responsibility in this situation?).
3. Goals in managing conflict:
- Seek a ‘win/win’ situation where the opposing parties can be satisfied and the organisation’s integrity not affected.
- Try to implement strategies that will help team building and foster interpersonal relationships. For example, when arguing points state your position carefully but respectfully towards the other person. Be fair and honest.
- Check understanding and summarise by documenting.
- Make sure you understand the situation, and make sure the conflicting parties understand the issues.
- Unravel the primary issue that appears to be causing the conflict it, state it, and document it.
- Identify situations or issues that may prevent dialogue or resolution of conflict.
- Interrupt the retaliatory cycle of conflict as much as possible. Reflect understanding of each person’s position. For example, ‘I hear what you are saying, and respect where you are coming from…’
- Encourage respectful exchange of ideas.
- In dialogue, continually focus attention on the issue that needs to resolved, and do not get too diverted.
- Identify conciliatory remarks naturally occurring between the various parties during arguments and note them. (See them as opportunities to help solve the conflict).
- Allow time for successful agreements that are helpful to both parties to be developed.
- Allow time for joint decision making.
- Allow time for any grievances to be healed, or ‘blow over’.
- Have agreements been reached at which are acceptable to both (or more) parties?
- Has there been an abuse of power, or has the conflict been handled professionally and equitably?
- Conflict can have a corrosive effect on organisations. What has been learnt from this conflict and what positive benefits and insights have been gained from it that will help the organisation in the long run?
- Has the position of the various parties been stated clearly so that everyone is aware what the issues are?
- Learn from mistakes and foster healthy communication.
- Promote conflict minimisation.
Source: Converge International, provider of the AVA Telephone Counselling Service