Rules of Engagement
Before we blame conflict on others, we must look at ourselves to see if we have what it takes to address conflict. Conflict is not for the faint of heart. Some of the attributes of good conflict handler include:
*Courage – Conflict always involves potential misinterpretation and hurt feelings. It takes courage to walk calmly and deliberately through the ambiguity and try to resolve it
*Balancing your interests and others – Ultimately you must care about the person and their point of view to resolve conflict. Too much focus on yourself and you are inflexible. However, too much focus on them means you overlook your needs. It takes a balanced view.
*Thinking on your feet – Being prepared is important. However, don’t expect that you can have your conflict plan all worked out and be able to stick with it. Humans are unpredictable, even the ones we know the best. So plan on adjusting your plan.
*Letting go of the ‘resolution’ – To be effective in conflict we must adopt the mindset of living in the state of ambiguity. Many times we have to live with an on-going subtext of disagreement until sometime in the future when the issue may be resolved. It may never be resolved. Or it may be resolved to satisfaction of the other person but not you. The bottom line is that we must accept that conflict will always exist, and a completely satisfying resolution may not.
Know When to Give In, When to Hold your Ground
A simple way to avoid unnecessary conflicts and only fight for your point of view when necessary is to think about how much interest you have in the outcome vs. how much interest the other party has. Using 2 dimensions – interest to me and interest to them – you can easily decide how to approach the conflict. Specifically:
Low Interest to me, Low Interest to them – Forget it. This is not worth debating.
Low Interest to me, High Interest to them – Friend. In these cases, you can be a friend and give in. Why turn it into a fight if you don’t really care about it?
High Interest to me, Low Interest to them – Fight. In situations where the outcome affects you more than the other person, be strong and advocate your position.
High Interest to me, High Interest to them – Face. The only way to come up with a productive solution is to work together. These are also the situations which can be the most contentious because both parties care so much about the results.
Balance Cooperation and Advocacy / How Direct Should I be?
The central art of handling conflict is balancing being cooperative while at the same time advocating for your point of view.
Sometimes we are too passive, meaning we focus too much on making the other party happy at our expense or at the expense of the business issue . Other times we may be too aggressive, focusing more on getting our way than on the other’s feelings and point of view. When we are aggressive, we can also be blaming the other person for the problem. The challenge is to find a middle ground: being assertive. This means to encourage and support the other person’s openness while advocating your point of view. It means taking both your and the other person’s thoughts and feelings into account.
Some phrases which illustrate which approach you are taking:
“Whatever you do is OK with me”
“It doesn’t matter”
“You always ____
“You never ____
“What is the matter with you?”
“I hear you saying that _______. However what I want / need is ______. The reasons I need this is _______. Does that make sense? Let’s see if we can come up with a mutually workable solution”
“I understand that you are having a problem with _______. I would like to make a request. The next time this happens, could we ______”
“This doesn’t seem to be working for either of us. It is not working for me because_______. What would work better for me is _______. Would that work for you?”
Be direct and avoid triangulation
Talk to the person who you have the issue with. You may decide to speak to someone who is not involved for advice on how to handle a situation. However, asking them to take sides or intervene for you creates more interpersonal problems. It erodes trust, and reduces the chance of future issues being resolved. However, this is a Western point of view. See the section on cultural aspects for further discussion. .
Static is anything inside people or an environment that interferes with clear communication. It is like on the radio when you try to tune in and don’t get the exact station you want. The static and noise is a distraction to the song you want to hear.
It can be in our environment as well as in our head. Some common static is.
*Noise in the background
*Pains in our body / hunger / fatigue
*Solutions – Sometimes we are too quick to solve the other person’s problem when they come to us with a question, before we hear the whole situation
*Questions – How can questions be static? How can they get in the way of communication?
*Answer – if you are asking them all the time and interrupting the listener. Be mindful of not overtaking the conversation with too many questions
*Interrupter – What do you do about those people who walk in, interrupt and suck up your time? They are static too. First, find out what they are looking for! Is it an emergency? Do they want advice? You can say something like “Did you want any advice or did you just want someone to talk ? If they say just talk, then ask them to come back another time because you are busy”. If they want advice: “Could we talk at lunch, I have some other things I have to do….”
*Our mind – We can think much faster than we can speak!! Our mind has extra bandwidth and naturally wanders away. So what can we do to help with that extra bandwidth? You need interactivity. The longer you talk the sooner you lose a listener. Pause. Ask for their input. Check-in if they have any questions.
When discussing contentious issues, it will take many skills. To ensure success setup a time and place when you and your colleague can give the discussion your full attention. This will let both of you focus your mind and energy on the conversation.
This was first published in our book Perfect Phrases for Conflict Resolution (McGraw-Hill)