Conflict as Opportunity: Three Myths that Give Conflict a Bad Name

JoAnne Donner, MS, CDFA, CDC, CDPC
Mediator/Mediation Coach/Divorce Coach
Donner Mediation and Coaching, LLC

The workplace can be a hotbed of disagreement, interpersonal tension, and opposing opinion. Yet, as prevalent as conflict is, few people are adept at managing it. In fact, avoiding conflict at all costs is a common strategy.

Often overlooked is the fact that conflict can be an opportunity for growth and progress, opening doors to increased self-awareness, innovative ideas, creative solutions, and new, more effective ways to interact with co-workers, supervisors, and subordinates.

Why does the hint of conflict motivate so many people to run for cover behind a closed door or schedule a strategic day out of the office to escape confrontation? How did conflict get such a bad rap when it can hold the promise of so much potential?

One reason may be that even those who face conflict head-on frequently encounter dead-ends including frustrating, failed attempts at conciliatory communication and interactions that escalate the conflict rather than resolve it. Contributing to these roadblocks are three common myths that sabotage well-meaning attempts at conflict resolution:

  • Single Solution Syndrom It’s not a unique thought that there’s more than one way to solve a problem, yet people typically approach conflict conversations with one, clear answer to the issue at hand – their answer. It’s the classic “either or” ultimatum – my way or no way at all. Conflict is most constructive, however, when those engaged respect the power of multiple options and the necessity for flexibility and compromise. Successful conflict resolution is a dance between two motivated parties who realize that the key to a satisfactory conclusion is the willingness to bend their positions and give in to some old-fashioned give-and-take. “I Did It My Way” is gratifying for some, but for those who value productivity, profits, and peace in the workplace, stepping back and strategizing more than one successful outcome is the smart move.
  • Skilled Communication Conquers All. You can have the gift of gab or be considered a cracker-jack communicator, but if you’re talking about the wrong things, you’re missing the target and wasting time. The secret of conflict resolution is not picture-perfect dialogue; it is uncovering needs and interests. Yet, as Dr. Rick Voyles points out in his book “Understanding Conflict,” the importance of needs exploration is commonly overlooked, misunderstood, and misused.   The key to discovery depends on one, three-letter word: why. Identifying why someone wants something or thinks something points the way to what is motivating that person’s behavior and perspective. That knowledge can propel a conflict conversation from the realm of one-sided, entrenched positions to authentic, meaningful inquiry that can influence even the most resistant negotiator.

For instance, conflict frequently emerges during office renovations. Imagine that in one company, two highly-valued executives, Jim and Ellen, are demanding the same corner office. Identifying why that office is important to each of them can be the key to derailing a potentially divisive clash over competing needs and interests. Do they relish the view? Do they seek the prestige? Or is it close to the support staff office and they think it will be more convenient? Upon inquiry, it was discovered that a view of the woods surrounding the building was important to Ellen and that a larger office down the hall with a more picturesque view actually met her needs more successfully. Whether an issue is simple or complex, understanding motivation is critical to combatting the erosive effects of poorly-managed conflict.

  • No Conflict = No Problem. A no-conflict zone is generally not a positive indicator. It suggests a climate of complacency, apathy, and even fear – a negative, energy-draining environment rather than a workplace where personnel are involved and passionate about what they do. The price? A suppressed work setting where bitterness is allowed to fester and cookie-cutter thinking stifles creativity and innovative problem-solving. Squashing differences and opposing opinions may keep things quiet, but consider the cost: a lost opportunity to create a positive workplace energized by fresh ideas, mutual respect, and a renewed sense of purpose.

JoAnne Donner MS, CDFA, CDC, CDPC, is president of Donner Mediation and Coaching, LLC. She has a Master’s Degree in Conflict Management and addresses conflict in the workplace as both a mediator and a conflict coach.

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Creating a Conflict-Conscious Workplace

JoAnne Donner, MS, CDFA, CDC, CDPC
Mediator/Mediation Coach/Divorce Coach
Donner Mediation and Coaching, LLC

Conflict comes in all sizes and shapes. It can be both constructive and destructive, productive and unproductive. But one thing is certain: where there are people, there is the potential for disagreements, disputes and interpersonal flare-ups that can undermine the health and well-being of any environment.

Being aware of the different types of conflict and knowing how to manage them are quickly becoming core competencies in today’s workplace. Whether encouraging healthy conflict by fostering the exchange of opinions and viewpoints or mediating an escalating dispute between co-workers, mastering the language and nuances of conflict is critical to success.

Constructive Conflict

Conflict of any kind makes most people uncomfortable. The majority of us want to get along and have things go smoothly. The hidden danger in conflict-avoidance is that an open exchange of dissenting opinions can uncover valuable insights that inform decision-making and cast a new, bright light on problem-solving. A team of “yes-men” can rob a company of an effective check and balance system and stifle innovative thought and idea-generation.

Organizational experts Lyn and Bob Turknett of Atlanta-based Turknett Leadership Group point out that one of the signs of maturity in individuals and in organizations is the willingness to speak up and disagree constructively. They stress that the best leadership teams feel free to debate behind closed doors, but present a united front once a decision is made. And the best leaders encourage dissenting ideas throughout the company. Leaders who see disagreement as a challenge to their leadership can seriously stifle a company’s growth and competitiveness in the marketplace.

Blips, Clashes and Crises

When interpersonal tensions are allowed to fester, undesirable consequences can result. What starts out as a garden-variety disagreement between two people who basically like and respect each other can twist and turn into something big, bad and ugly if not addressed early on. Early intervention, in fact, is a fundamental tool in the art and science of conflict management.

One way to ensure that early intervention is practiced in your workplace is to train employees and managers in mediation techniques that address low-to-mid level conflict. Low-level conflict, or a blip, can be described as a disagreement between two people where some emotion has been triggered but the people involved have a history of trust and compatibility. A clash is more serious than a blip, but the dispute has not reached the crisis level. In a conflict crisis, repercussions can be significant and the stakes are high. An unaddressed conflict at the crisis level can lead to theft, vandalism and even violence. All forms of destructive conflict can carry the cost of poor decision-making, absenteeism, lack of cooperation and poor job performance.

Research and experience show that employees, when properly trained, can deal successfully with interpersonal conflict on their own without the intervention or time investment of managers. This employee-level training is called self-mediation and involves a four-step process that empowers people to recognize and handle simple interpersonal disagreements and disputes. Managerial training, as the name implies, is taught to managers and prepares them to intercede when necessary in a dispute between subordinates. Employee and managerial mediation training can each be completed in one day. The result is a conflict-conscious workplace where people know how to recognize conflict behavior and are able to handle it before it escalates.

The Power of Being Pro-Active

Tension and employee dissatisfaction can erode profits and productivity. Promoting pro-active conflict management fosters workplace cooperation, improved communication and financial well-being.

Lyn and Bob Turknett point out that companies that get caught up in unresolved relationship conflicts waste tremendous resources. They’ve seen conflicts between departmental leaders explode into interdepartmental warfare, severely damaging their companies’ ability to compete and succeed. They’ve also seen conflict between team members sap the energy of an entire team, sabotaging efforts to produce good results and meet deadlines. Giving people the skills to solve conflicts can prevent this type of destructive escalation and help a company create a healthy, dynamic workplace with a solid bottom line.

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