Conflict Management: A Means for Transformation

Conflict is often a word associated with difficulty and contention. However, conflict by nature is not good or bad. It simply means a difference of opinion or interests that is inevitable in any workplace. An effective leader knows that, when handled in a productive way, conflict helps us grow and understand one another.


As M. Esther Harding says:

Conflict is the beginning of consciousness.

Conversely, ineffective conflict management leads to unhealthy working conditions, power games, customer dissatisfaction, and an increase in business costs.


Conflict occurs when an individual’s or group’s interests, needs, values, and/or identities are threatened, or there is a perception that they are being threatened.


How does Emotional Intelligence Play a Role in Conflict Management?


In a work environment, those who can remain calm no matter what emotional state they are in are more likely to be successful as a leader. This is because conflict management first requires you to be skilled in monitoring and controlling your own emotional state.


For instance, an individual with high emotional intelligence would be aware of their anger and regulate it to motivate their behavior constructively. On the other hand, an individual with low emotional intelligence may not be aware of their emotions or the source of these emotions and allow anger to consume their thoughts. Each of these emotional abilities has implications for how individuals perform in teams and, in particular, how they resolve conflict.


Once you develop emotional intelligence you can develop the skills to understand the emotions of others, guide others through emotional or tense situations, tactfully bring disagreements into the open, and define solutions that everyone can support.


Let’s look at how to develop your capacity for managing conflict in the workplace.


How Can You Become Effective at Conflict Management?




Compromise is the Goal


It is important that when you mediate a conflict between employees, you do so in a diplomatic way. The goal should be to help everyone feel heard and work to find a ‘win-win’ solution where both parties reach their objectives.


Rather than responding based on your perception of the situation first try taking a step back and take the time to understand each of the party’s perspectives. More often than not, simple miscommunications or differences in values can easily be identified and addressed in this way.


Leaders with effective conflict management skills seek collaboration and compromise, even if it means setting smaller milestones along the way.


Nonviolent Communication


Non-violent communication or NVC is a powerful tool that can help you navigate when conflict arises. Marshall Rosenthal, author of Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, developed tools for effectively listening and sharing feelings of discontent with empathy.


When we experience uncomfortable feelings, it is easy to blame another for those feelings. Yet, Rosenthal points out that you are the only one responsible for your feelings. No one can make you feel anything.


Nonviolent communication is about taking control of your emotions and expressing them without blaming someone else. He encourages the use of “I feel” statements when asking team members to describe their thoughts.


“I Feel” Statements

  • Instead of saying, “You made me feel angry when you shared my idea as your own.”

  • Say, “When you do not give me credit for my idea, I feel angry.”


  • Instead of saying, “You made me feel disappointed when you did not want to use my idea.”

  • Say, “I felt disappointed when you decided to go in another direction.”


Speaking like this to your boss or coworkers keeps you from sparking a visceral reaction in whom you are speaking. It allows for them to take in the information and will make them want to solve the issue because you are not pointing a finger at them, but simply making an observation.


Being Present


Mindfulness is another powerful tool that can help us respond to conflict in a non-reactive way. Paying attention to the present moment and doing one thing at a time is harder than it sounds, especially during conflict.


Yet, with present-moment awareness, we learn to identify our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensation, which in turn helps us respond intentionally instead of reacting emotionally. The following are ways that you can practice mindfulness in everyday situations:

  • Always pause. When a conflict arises, avoid reacting immediately. Take a moment to breathe slowly and notice the air coming into and going out of your lungs and belly. Allow the simple act of focusing on your breath to ground you in the present moment.

  • Active listening. Listen with intent and without judgment. Explain your point of view clearly and acknowledge the viewpoints of others.

  • Challenge your assumptions. Be open-minded to the views of others involved in the conflict. Don’t assume you know where people’s ideas come from or how other people are feeling. Ask open-ended questions so that you can truly understand their perspective.

Giving and Receiving Feedback


It’s natural to feel uncomfortable when giving constructive feedback as a leader. Yet, displaying empathy when providing constructive feedback creates an environment in which trust and collaboration can flourish. This includes the ability to consider employees’ feelings, show compassion, and provide feedback in a way that is useful to the receiver.


Likewise, it is not always comfortable to receive examples of our shortcomings. It can cause one to become unsettled and possibly combative. Yet, constructive feedback is necessary. If we don’t acknowledge the places we fall short, how are we expected to grow?


When receiving feedback, remain calm so that you are not overcome by a ‘knee-jerk’ emotional reaction. Rather than taking any criticism or praise instantly to heart, you can pause and think objectively about how it relates to the performance or task the feedback is about.


After the feedback, write a brief description of what you have learned and what you will do differently. This allows you to think about the feedback in an objective way. And you will remember what you have learned so that you can put it into practice.


An Example of Effective Conflict Management


Richard Branson is an excellent example of an effective conflict manager. He is one of the most influential and successful entrepreneurs as the leader of his brand, Virgin. He has seen many failures and has used feedback to become successful. He knows that building relationships and following your passion will get you far in your field.


In addition, one of Virgin’s core values is conflict resolution. The Virgin group listens to all parties involved in the conflict and then takes the steps that are beneficial to all. Obstacles are viewed as opportunities to bring the team together and work towards a common goal. Actively listening to the issues at hand creates a safe working environment. This forms a bond and a workplace that accepts and thrives upon feedback.


To launch a business means successfully solving problems. Solving problems means listening. - Richard Branson

Are you Skilled, Unskilled, or Overusing?




Conflict management requires that you are all ears to understanding where growth needs to happen within your organization. When you display high emotional intelligence, you will be able to diffuse conflict and use it to catapult you and your colleagues to new levels of productivity and growth. Balance is always key. Assess how you are using these skills.


Unskilled

  • Does not ask for feedback.

  • Reacts negatively when given feedback.

  • Does not effectively intervene when two separate parties have a conflict by taking a side.

  • Shies away from conflict of any kind.

  • Does not practice active listening.


Skilled

  • Uses “I feel” statements.

  • Asks for feedback to improve.

  • Intervenes when conflict arises between other parties diplomatically.

  • Empowers their team to solve conflicts.

  • Actively listens.


Overused Skill

  • Intervenes when it is unnecessary and does not let employees settle minor disputes on their own.

  • Gives too much feedback and micromanages.

  • Spends too much time resolving minor conflicts and fails to see the big picture issues within the company.


Transform Yourself from Manager to Leader


When you can take the skills of a manager and transform them into your leadership style, you can alter the workplace. You want to open the door for honest and transparent communication so all parties feel heard when conflict arises.


Remember, your aim is to produce change. You want to take your vision and set a direction for your team. You want to align people. You want to motivate and inspire them. The higher your emotional intelligence as you navigate rocky waters, the happier your team will be. Lead by example and manage conflict with an open heart and open ears.


Next Steps


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