Effectively dealing with conflict is not as easy as seizing the opportunity and choosing an appropriate approach. If it were we would all be more successful in doing so. Some people seem to naturally manage disagreements with confidence and tact while others become locked in fear or lash out with anger. Our often unconscious personal reaction to the stress associated with conflict puts us into a "fight or flight" response which primes our body with energy for this experience and causes us to either compete or withdraw. Constructive efforts to manage interpersonal issues require the ability to control impulses, engage our cognitive skills and direct our energy toward a positive outcome.
The foundation for our typical reaction and approach, or attitude, in dealing with conflict is formed by our personality and life experiences. Genetic makeup and childhood experiences affect the development of our personality and orientation toward conflict. Role modeling by parents, family members, teachers and other significant people is an important factor in how we learn to handle feelings and solve problems. Sometimes this is constructive and sometimes it is not. A person’s cultural characteristics will also influence their approach to conflict management. We bring into our adult family and work life the values, beliefs, and methods of dealing with conflict that we learned in our youth - be they constructive or destructive. Our education and experiences as an adult may reinforce these dynamics or begin to alter them. We can gain an understanding of our conflict related personality characteristics through use of assessment tools such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® or the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. Once we begin to understand our personal approach to conflict we can make more mature and informed choices about ways to deal with problems and concerns.
Although we may be aware of the productive results that effective conflict management can bring most of us still have an aversion to it and prefer not to engage in trying to resolve conflict with others. We typically want to avoid the stress and emotional responses that conflict causes. We may perceive conflict as something risky with the potential for escalation. Some of these reactions are based on the uncertainty of how the other party will deal with the problem or issue. We also may fear that things will get worse instead of better. Sometimes we tell ourselves that we are just too busy to take the time to address the issue as a way of rationalizing our choice not to get involved. It is often easier to avoid a problem hoping that it will go away or that someone else will deal with it. Our perception of conflict as negative, coupled with our lack of experience in successfully managing conflict, may lead us in this direction.
Despite our genetics, personality, and life experiences we can “learn new tricks” and develop the attitude, knowledge, and skills needed to deal with conflict in a positive manner. However it is important to be mindful of when, where, and how to engage another in addressing a difference, or whether to do it at all. Choices regarding how and when to deal with an issue should be based on the nature, prevalence, and impact of the conflict.
- Prevention – Pay attention to situations and patterns that seem to cause negative feelings or behaviors at home and at work. Clarifying misperceptions and feelings usually helps. Making changes in processes involving organizing, planning, communication and inclusion can also have a positive effect on preventing conflict. Being proactive can prevent a lot of the difficulties that must be faced when we fail to act on a situation and are forced to become reactive.
- Irritants – These types of incidents happen routinely to each of us. They may be the result of differences in personality styles or lack of awareness about the impact of a choice or behavior on another person. These events are often situational and not a pattern. They can be ignored or tolerated in some cases. In other circumstances they can be addressed with an assertive statement describing the situation, the impact, and a request to have the situation handled differently in the future. If you are the person causing the irritation an apology and efforts to modify your behavior may be sufficient to resolve the dissonance. When irritants become problematic and have a negative impact on decisions or relationships they may need to be handled more formally.
- Pervasive Patterns – Situations that repeatedly result in annoyance, confusion, arguments and anger or that routinely result in disputes with poor outcomes need to be addressed more formally. Dysfunctional patterns of relating and decision-making have a negative impact on the social environment and success of the organization (or family). Issues develop over trust and parties begin to blame each other for the problems they are experiencing. Conflict at this level presents a financial and relationship cost to the organization. Sometimes the parties can work out the problems if at least one of them is skilled in counseling or conflict management techniques. However resolution of conflict involving pervasive patterns may require a third party to facilitate informal mediation or problem-solving meetings. Coaching or training within the organization may be needed.
- Significant Events – Occasionally the nature of the conflict is so significant that the outcome is likely to have a major impact on business outcomes or inter-personal relationships. Examples may include the potential loss of a contract, filing of a grievance or law-suit, threats of aggression/violence or separation/divorce in a family. Conflict at this level requires a neutral and skilled third party mediator if efforts are to be made to resolve the dispute. In some situations a person of authority may need to make a decision regarding the need to dissolve the relationship and separate the parties in dispute.
As you can see, there are many levels of conflict and a variety of ways in which conflict can be addressed. Understanding and managing our personal feelings and reactions to conflict is an important first step if we are committed to improving our conflict management skills. Then we must take the opportunity and make the choice to address conflict constructively. Developing the personality, knowledge and skills to effectively address conflict, or utilizing someone who has this ability, is an investment worth making.