Conflict is an almost daily event in organizational life. Wherever two or three are gathered, one is likely to disagree!
Most people choose one of two classic ways of handling conflict: management or resolution:
- Conflict management assumes that conflict is a constant feature of group life. The idea is to keep it within boundaries, not to eliminate it.
- Conflict resolution sees conflict as an interruption of normal life. The idea is to find a solution—usually a compromise—as quickly as possible.
In most cases, neither approach adequately deals with the issue. I learned that the hard way several years ago when dealing with a conflict between several employees in our church’s preschool and the school’s director. As pastor, I was called into help find a solution.
At first I tried conflict management, listening patiently to each party and coaching them individually on how to accept one another’s differences. But the complaints and ill will only increased.
Then I switched to conflict resolution mode, calling a meeting to identify a compromise. I asked everyone to listen non-defensively and state his or her grievances in a straightforward matter. We identified problems, named solutions, and by meeting’s end there seemed to be unanimity. I thought it was a perfect meeting.
Within three weeks, however, the director and a third of the staff had resigned, leaving the preschool in a tailspin. Obviously, the conflict had not been either managed or resolved. It simply went underground where it gained strength and then exploded.
Conflict Transformation is a third way to view conflict. It sees conflict not as a problem to be managed or resolved but as an opportunity to strengthen the common life of any group.
Here are six keys to moving from a management or resolution mind-set to conflict transformation.
- View conflict as opportunity. We usually see conflict as a problem and, therefore, dread dealing with it. Learn to see conflict for what it is, a valuable look beneath the surface of your organization.
- Respect your adversary. Pride is the primary obstacle to transforming conflict. When you are sure you’re right, the other person is wrong, and—even worse—see them as the problem, the conflict is sure to escalate or stalemate.
- Identify primary issues. Married couples don’t really fight about money. Control is the true concern. Always look beyond the presenting issue to name the real problem.
- Envision a shared future. Begin with the question “How can we create something better for both of us?” If you can’t envision your adversary as part of your future, you can’t transform your conflict.
- Know when to quit. A conflict cannot be transformed unless both parties are willing to negotiate in good faith. If the other party is committed to being contentious, you may need to walk away—or at least maintain a holding pattern. Conflict transformation is not the same as capitulation.
- Capture the learning. Conflicts are symptoms of underlying tension, so they are likely to resurface at some point. How will you capture—and communicate—the lessons from the current conflict so they help you navigate a future one?
Conflict is inevitable, but fallout from that conflict can often be avoided. By opening your mind to see possibilities other than either winning or losing, you may be able to transform your current conflict and the culture of your organization.
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