Employee Assistance Program Newsletter

Volume 19, Number 3

Conflict: Friend or Foe?

"To engage in [an attempt to address] conflict one does not bring a knife that cuts, but a needle that sews." Bahumbu People of the Congo

Perhaps you have adopted a "work-to-rule" attitude because you do not feel that your contributions to the team are appreciated or acknowledged? Or, maybe you are the manager attempting to supervise and support a seemingly underperforming employee?  Or, are the fiscal ambiguities within your Department making you feel undermined as a middle manager and causing you to lock horns with senior management?

Because we are all unique individuals, the reality is that conflict is a fact of life and is all around us. In and of itself, conflict is neither good nor bad; it simply is what it is: a divergence of goals, values and opinions among people. What is crucial is that conflict in the workplace (or in any context for that matter) needs to be addressed in order to mitigate its potentially negative effects; and in so doing, we might even discover that conflict can present opportunities for personal growth.

Conflict can sometimes be uncomfortable to deal with, but refusing to address it can be costly.  The human and financial costs associated with unaddressed conflict in the workplace include absenteeism, loss of productivity, grievances (with an approximate cost of $40, 000 per grievance to taxpayersFootnote 1), health problems and stress that can affect not only your work relationships, but also your personal relationships with friends and family.

Addressing conflict in a constructive manner requires a measure of goodwill coupled with a certain level of knowledge and skill. Interestingly, all three elements deal with our ability to communicate effectively, so it can be said that effective communication is at the core of conflict resolution.

Treating others the way you would like to be treated is a "golden rule" that is common to many religions, beliefs and cultures.  To an extent, this "rule" is the premise on which successful conflict resolution hinges.  Sometimes, however, treating others as we would like to be treated can be perceived and experienced differently than what we intend and can, itself, be the cause of the conflict.

As humans we have different views on many things: interests, needs, values, identity, rights. When we confront views that contradict our own, this can give rise to conflict. More often than not, the intensity of this "clash" is influenced by the lens through which we view situations.  Our lenses are made up of things like past experiences, desires and assumptions. The composition of our lens can be what stands in our way of addressing and/or resolving a conflict.

A simple way to engage and explore conflict when it arises is to ask: "Tell me more".Footnote 2 This means that exercising an attitude of openness, curiosity and empathy is key to defusing the intensity of a clash, and, arguably, the first step towards approaching conflict constructively.  For example, you can be curious about what you have assumed about the other person or group that you are in conflict with.  Or you can be open to explore what your personal conflict style might be. In a workplace setting, we may have patterned approaches to handling conflict such as competing ("My way or the highway."), collaborating ("Let's find what satisfies our interests."), accommodating ("OK whatever you say."), compromising ("I am extending the olive branch"), avoiding ("Can't we all just get along?"). Identifying your conflict management style is an important first step in preparing to tackle a conflictual issue.

When engaging in a difficult conversation, knowledge is power.  Many resources exist that can help you prepare for that initial conversation to address an existing conflict. A lot of this information, however, is powered by the best source of all: you.  Knowing yourself -your "hot" buttons, needs, wants, fears, etc. - will help to keep you mindful during a difficult conversation that a heightened emotional state might have more to do with "your story" that is being triggered, rather than your perception that the other is trying to attack you.  The shortlist of other important steps to prepare for a difficult conversation can include:

  • identifying what you are prepared to do to resolve the issue and what are your alternatives are to engaging in this conversation;
  •  identifying your interests, beliefs and needs relative to the conflict, and being prepared to present these to the other party;
  • preparing yourself to entertain the perspectives, interests and needs of the other and to brainstorm ways to resolve the conflict.

A yogi once said that we have two ears and one mouth so perhaps we should listen twice as much as we talk. Active listening - to listen attentively without judgement and with empathy - is an invaluable skill to conflict resolution that can be developed. A way to practice active listening is to use "I" statements and to summarize your understanding of what another has said. This technique can also help to prevent conflicts from escalating.

For example:
Statement: "I was assigned to manage this project and have spent weeks working on several iterations of an important briefing note to justify why it should be approved. I have yet to get any updates from either you or senior management on where it is in the approval process - much less any thanks for my efforts - so I find it hard that you  are now asking me to whip up a series of media lines to deal with potential fallout related to the upcoming launch of this project."
Summary: "If I understand you correctly, because you were neither given updates, nor thanked for your work on this project, you find it difficult that you are being asked to invest additional effort to the project. Is this correct?"

Furthermore, the use of language - both verbal and non-verbal/body language - is part and parcel of active listening skills. Carefully choosing our words and the body language that we use to deliver them can make the difference in how our message is received by the other.

In a very real sense conflict is not only unavoidable; it is also at the core of human existence with scores of examples relating to its positive impacts (e.g., Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, universal healthcare, employee assistance programs, etc.!J).  What's important to remember is that addressing a conflict does not have to be about identifying a winner nor a loser. Instead it can be about being open to exploring differences and solutions for working together so that conflicts become a blessing rather than a curse, all while developing some useful and transferable skills along the way.

For a confidential consultation, call your Employee Assistance Program at 1-800-268-7708 or for the hearing impaired at 1-800-567-5803, 24 hours a day.
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