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Main Street: How you handle conflict is more important than the issue itself

May 10, 2018 GMT

We all have experienced contentious bosses, co-workers and direct reports. Conflict often ensues, and it’s all too normal in daily interactions.

I have personally witnessed dissonant leaders who often encourage workplace conflict as a means of controlling others. These types of disparaging leaders often cause the organization to spiral into chaos and don’t care how destructive their negative leadership strategies are. Consequently, subcultures devolve, morale sinks, and the organization enters into a death spiral.

Former President Ronald Reagan said, “Peace is not the absence of conflict. It is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.”

My personal definition of conflict is, “the difference between what you want and what you get.”

Tony Belak, who authored the compelling article, “How to Handle Difficult Behavior in the Workplace,” offers some compelling strategies on how to handle workplace conflict. I will highlight some of his salient points and then make my comments in parentheses on how to add this to your leadership domain.

Additional evidence suggests conflicts invariably arise between individuals in an organization, between organizational components or between institutions. Belak said it has become part of our job duties; however, some studies suggest 30 to 40 percent of a manager’s daily activities are devoted to dealing with some form of interpersonal conflict.

A manager’s inability to effectively deal with anger and conflict in the workplace might result in a large loss of productivity and adversely impact others. In the workplace, there is either real or perceived unfair treatment, emotional abuse, discrimination, sexual harassment, disparate treatment, cultural diversity, anger, hostility or potential violence. Having to endure these conflicts without sufficient tools, resources, outlets or support, employees are destined to experience discomfort, and this distress can get out of control.

As a consequence, Belak offers the following dictums in dealing with organizational conflict:

• Use conflict as a natural resource: (Bring the conflict into the open and deal with it head-on. Admitting there is a conflict is the first step in developing better communication skills in dealing with the contentious issue or employee. Hiding the conflict or “putting your head in the sand” only exacerbates the conflict.)

• Don’t react: (Take some time to reflect on the conflict or the contentious issue. Do not immediately react; rather take time to reflect and gather your thoughts and let your emotions subside. Use that time to develop a strategy to deal with the conflict.)

• Deal with feelings: (Let those affected by the conflict share their feelings and emotions without fear of reprisal. Gather the facts and develop a deeper understanding of the issues affecting your employees and how they perceive the situation. Allow others the freedom to discuss their concerns instead of stifling their fears and anxieties.)

• Attack the problem not the person: (Understand the underlying conflict at hand. The real issue is the problem and not the person. Understand all points of view emanating from the conflict. Do not make assumptions but clarify and ask questions regarding the issues so you can deal with it effectively.)

• Practice direct communication: (Speaking directly to the person and using “I” statements help remove the bias emotions of attacking the person and not the problem. Ask questions for clarification; use positive body language and paraphrase what others are saying to ensure you understand the prevailing issues.)

• Look past positions to the underlying issues: A position is someone’s limited view of what solution is necessary to meet a particular need, wrote Belak. Until the needs and interests of each of you are ascertained, it is not possible to generate options that will be mutually beneficial and agreeable.

Try to identify the other person’s physical or psychological needs, along with your common interests. You can bring these interests to the surface or you can leave them submerged only to emerge in unmanageable ways later. (Understanding other’s world-view regarding the conflict enables you to develop effective strategies for dealing with the conflict and producing conflict resolution strategies.)

• Focus on the future: (Don’t sell your ideas or solutions at first. Let those involved in the conflict own it and deal with it from a joint problem-solving discussion. Review the issues factually and engage in discussions that promote dignity and respect for all parties. The key is to promote understanding and negate personal or hostile on-going feelings.)

Conflict in the organization is good. It is not necessary to degrade, disrespect or disparage others in the organization. Good conflict often is the result of contrasting viewpoints, experiences and dealing with other people’s feelings.

Finally, Belak argues “Holding onto the resentment of people you have to work with punishes you as much as it does them. You don’t change relationships by trying to control people’s behavior, but by changing yourself in relation to them. Listening to and showing respect for the people we work with do not have to be the same as becoming friends.

“When deeply felt, but unexpressed feelings take shape in the words that we share and come back clarified, the result is a reassuring sense of being understood and a grateful feeling of humanness with the one who understands. If listening fortifies our relationships by cementing a better connection with another, it also fortifies our sense of self. In the presence of a receptive listener, we are able to clarify what we think and discover what we feel.”

In the final analysis, how we handle conflict is more important than the conflict itself. If we utilize some of the conflict strategies as offered by Belak, we can navigate the turbulent waters of conflict and chaos into one of smooth sailing.