One in four Irish employers face a conflict at work every year. This is according to data from the HR Barometer of Adare’s human resources management. And it says the average employee in Ireland spends 3.3 hours a week dealing with conflict in the workplace. Conflict in itself is not inherently negative, but when conflict becomes destructive it can have significant financial, emotional and physiological costs.
As a certified mediator, I have seen with my own eyes the results of destructive conflicts in the workplace. So what skills and techniques can help us tip this balance into a healthier and more useful form of conflict so that we can all work better with conflict?
Understand your conflict style
Do you like conflicts or will you do everything in your power to avoid them? There are tools that allow you to explore your own default responses to conflicts. And knowledge is useful for managers to enable them to define their own strategies.
It also helps people think about the style of conflict their staff or co-worker might have.
Our responses to most conflicts are directly related to both the nature of the relationship we have with the other person and, ultimately, what we want to get out of the interaction itself. How aware are you of your own conflict triggers?
Sit down for two minutes and list the things that trigger you the most in a professional work setting. These will change over time, depending on our level of emotional resilience and the particular context in which we find ourselves. However, the more aware we are of our own emotional triggers and our own responses to conflict, the more likely we are to be able to navigate to a more constructive response to conflict.
Enter the other person’s world map
We don’t see it as it is. Each of us sees things as we are. We can forget that in the heat of a workplace dispute. Perception is all in conflict. A key skill then is to meet people in their world map.
The next time you’re having trouble working with a colleague or staff member, take a few minutes and ask yourself: what’s wrong from their perspective? What could their intentions be? What could they be feeling? What is their perception of you?
Go to the balcony
William Ury first explored this concept in the early 1990s in his classic Getting Past No. It’s a technique that to me is comparable to first aid training.
This first thing we are trained in as a first aid worker is to take a step back when we encounter an accident (so that we do not become another victim of an accident ourselves). The same principle applies to conflict. Imagine being on a stage the next time you have a conflict at work or a difficult conversation, now imagine yourself climbing onto a balcony overlooking that stage.
The balcony is a metaphor for a mental attitude of detachment. How we do it will differ from person to person, but the more we do it the more part of our muscle memory becomes.
Our need for reciprocity is strong. When you do something physical for someone, like helping them with a task or loaning them money, they want to pay you back by trading in some way. We have a deep psychological need to be “equal” with others. If someone does something for you, we feel the need to take revenge by doing something kind in return.
The reverse is obviously also true in that if you do something that hurts other people, they will also feel the need to hurt you in return. Before sending that next email about a difficult personnel issue, keep the power of reciprocity in mind. A simple tip: If you’re using Gmail, turn on the ‘cancel send’ feature to give yourself 30 seconds to cancel any email, to give yourself a little more time to think about how that email. mail will be received and answered, especially when you’re upset.
The gap between impact and intention
The gap between what people wanted out of an action / email / phone call and the actual impact that action / email / phone call had on a co-worker is a key concept in helping us to better manage conflicts. The larger this gap, the more possibilities there are for a destructive conflict to escalate and develop.
Regularly checking your own assumptions is one of the concepts explored in detail in the Harvard Negotiation Project’s Excellent Challenging Conversation; How to discuss what matters most.
Don’t underestimate autonomy
Daniel Shapiro, founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program, speaks of autonomy as one of the five fundamental concerns of any negotiation. I have come to believe that the lack or denial of autonomy is one of the most common underlying causes of conflict in the workplace.
Adopt its simple ACBD model: always consult before deciding. Before you make a decision that really matters to someone else in your business, really consult with them. You can learn from their way of thinking, they now feel included and you still have the power to make the decision.
The power of little things
The old cliché is still true that people may forget what you say, but they will never forget how you made them feel. Think about the last time you really felt listened to by your boss or coworker. In the fast paced modern workplace, it’s the little things that can make or break a work environment.
Turning off your monitor when someone comes to your desk for advice, not having your cell phone on your table, and turning off the data connection in your smartwatch at your next management meeting can help you be truly there for your business. member of staff the next time they really need to speak with you. The ability to listen, even when we don’t want to, is a key conflict resolution skill that we can learn to better master.
The ability of managers to make their staff feel that they are genuinely listened to is one of the most overlooked, yet fundamental, ways of defusing conflict.
Enda Young is Program Director at WJ Clinton Institute at Queen’s University School of Management