It is an understatement to say that executives, managers and other leaders are faced with many challenges on a day to day basis – challenges that can be daunting and stressful. As a consequence, many people in senior roles are increasingly turning to executive coaching. Coaching is defined in many ways and essentially, it is a task-oriented alliance between a person who wants to change or improve certain aspects of his/her personal and/or professional life and a coach who helps the person reach those goals.
Some common coaching objectives of leaders include: aligning their energies and goals with those of their organizations, obtaining balance between their personal and professional lives, reducing stress, changing counterproductive habits, improving negotiating and other skills and so on. One of the areas with which leaders often require help is conflict management. Executives and people in managerial positions typically view conflict as inevitable, but do not always realize how their workplaces and their strength as leaders may be improved with increased competency in conflict management. Neither may they fully appreciate that effective conflict management saves money.
Conflict is costly to organizations. Low morale and productivity, stress, illness, absenteeism, litigation due to unnecessary disputes and so on, all contribute to workplaces that breed destructive interactions. Besides the adverse impact these situations have on the bottom line, they reflect poorly on the organization and on leaders whose responsibilities include managing conflict. Many organizations tend to react to conflict, rather than consider preventative measures and other ways to shift their culture to be conflict competent. In this regard, conflict coaching is emerging as a viable and proactive mechanism.
Conflict coaching is a unique niche which marries the fields of coaching and dispute resolution. Its premise is essentially that it is possible to remove the toxic effects of conflict and to create opportunities to prevent and resolve disputes, while also improving work environments and relationships. The main objectives of this specialized process then, are to coach participants to:
One-on-one conflict coaching is a powerful tool. Coaching sessions average one hour per week for whatever duration may be needed and are conducted by telephone, face-to-face or electronically. During these sessions, the focus is on each leader’s conflict management goals and needs. For instance, conflict coaching may be used in a general way to help people replace counterproductive behaviours with constructive skills and approaches. These clients examine the patterns, themes and elements of conflict that adversely affect them and learn how to increase empathy and understanding for ‘the other person’. This form of conflict coaching is especially important for those who find themselves constantly engaged in unproductive conflict – not as a ‘mediator’ but rather ‘doing battle’ with others, to no avail or at a high emotional price.
Conflict coaching may also be dispute specific. In these instances, the participants focus on a particular dispute that is affecting their job and working relationship. Coaching in these cases, guides the person to conduct a structured analysis of the dispute and to engage in a problem-solving dialogue with the ‘other person’. For both general and dispute-specific coaching, various tools and techniques are incorporated, including the use of conflict assessment instruments. One of these tools is the Conflict Dynamics Profile™. Among other things, this unique developmental tool helps people to understand how they respond to conflict and how they are perceived to do so, by their peers, direct reports and boss. The results provide a basis for coaching people to shift negative reactions to conflict, to positive responses and other aspects related to improving conflict management.
Negotiation and Mediation Coaching
Other types of conflict coaching include negotiation coaching and mediation coaching. Like the other forms of conflict coaching, a combination of coaching principles and concepts from transformative, narrative and interest-based mediation are used. Negotiation coaching prepares executives and other leaders to effectively participate in negotiation. Mediation coaching helps people prepare for and participate in mediation. Like negotiation coaching, mediation coaching facilitates peoples’ participation in the process by for instance, coaching them to analyze issues and evaluate options for mutually acceptable outcomes. Anticipating the other party’s perspectives on these matters and considering appropriate responses are also included in both of these processes.
In addition to one-on-one coaching, many organizations also integrate other mechanisms for enhancing their conflict management systems. Examples include communication workshops, mediation training, negotiation training, team coaching, etc. The combined use of a range of approaches not only conveys a strong organizational message of the importance of effective conflict management. It also provides a variety of venues to appeal to the variety of ways people learn and change.
Conflict coaching provides leaders with an individualized approach that achieves a number of important objectives. Among other things, it provides a practical forum for those whose effectiveness suffers due to the lack of conflict competence. Besides the personal and professional gains for leaders, modelling effective conflict management has an important impact not only on other staff and the organization. Clients of course, also benefit from organizations whose staff are conflict competent and whose culture conveys this attribute.
Waiting for conflict to escalate into unnecessary disputes and then reacting does not present a positive or collaborative model consistent with the vision and mission of progressive organizations. Developing integrative conflict management systems that include conflict coaching on the other hand, reflects a commitment to respectful workplaces and relationships.