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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