The ability to emotionally engage with an individual or group is a significant factor in establishing a constructive and helpful relationship. It is often the difference in whether an experience is perceived as positive or negative, regardless of the outcome. Engagement should be a fundamental course of action taken by professionals when addressing conflict management in the process of mediation, coaching, or counseling.
Research done by The Gallup Organization, and presented in the book Follow This Path by Curt Coffman and Gabriel Gonzalez-Molina, indicates that emotional engagement is more important than rational reasoning in influencing people and winning their trust and cooperation. This is true in all types of business situations affecting customer or client relationships. Engagement is also an important driver in maximizing employee and organizational performance. In a world that has become driven by data and outcome measures we need to recognize that the way a person feels is as significant as what the person thinks. Conflict management is more than just problem solving. Ideally it also addresses the relationships and feelings of those involved in a dispute. Effective conflict management incorporates both a concrete solution and a sense of emotional resolve. Engagement is a way to integrate thinking and feeling – head and heart – and can play a important role in constructively resolving differences.
The Role of Engagement in Problem Resolution
Conflict management and interpersonal problem resolution is a stressful experience. A professional working as a third party facilitator in the role of mediator, coach or counselor is wise to acknowledge the emotions attached to the individuals and situation before proceeding to attempt to develop a well thought out solution to the problem. Engaging clients at the onset in a discussion that puts the emotional dynamics on the table and attempts to allay them will put the parties in a position where they can use a cognitive process more effectively.
Normal feelings of anger, fear, hurt and frustration are typically present in conflicts between individuals or groups. These feelings, and the circumstances of the threat presented by the conflict, cause our bodies to react in the “fight or flight” stress response. We instinctively prepare to protect ourselves, manage the situation, and compete with our adversary by taking an offensive or defensive stance. In situations where there is a power differential based on role, position, personality, or other factors the dynamics of this threat relationship are compounded.
A competitive position in dealing with a challenging threat does not promote the use of cooperation, collaboration and compromise, which are often the goals of the third party facilitator. However participants that are engaged in the resolution process will invest more into reaching productive outcomes that may have value for both sides and will be more inclined toward collaboration or compromise vs. competing. Competing results in a win/lose outcome. Collaboration and compromise result in both sides winning at some level and respecting the value in doing this. Engagement opens the door to mutual understanding, and empathy in some cases. Recognizing that each party cares about the problem or conflict and its impact helps move it toward resolution.
Facilitators who are able to develop an emotionally engaged relationship with their clients, and ideally foster engagement between the individuals/groups in dispute, will typically find a more productive and successful resolution to the problems that are being addressed. The mediator, coach, or counselor becomes the emotional engineer who guides the process of identifying and utilizing the emotional triggers that will result in constructive interactions and results. Engagement will help to reduce stressful feelings and raise a sense of awareness, trust, commitment and hope. The problem resolution process is better prepared to move from instinctive self protection to cooperation. A cooperative approach to conflict management shifts the dynamics from “me against you” to “us against the problem”. Failure to establish engagement may result in interactions that are driven by “every man for himself” and encourages the maintenance of a competitive stance.
Techniques for Eliciting Engagement
The following are some techniques that can be used to develop emotional engagement with clients in the course of conflict management. Facilitators will find that their personal comfort and style in managing stress will be a factor in how well they are able to accomplish this function.
Emotional engagement is a significant component of effective conflict management and problem resolution. The art of managing disagreement is driven by the ability to have the parties actively engaged with the facilitator and with each other around finding a mutually agreeable solution to the problem. They must trust the facilitator and the process. It is important to keep differences constructive and to work for collaborative discovery of solutions based on commitment, trust and cooperation. When parties are engaged disagreement opens the door to consideration of options that can result in integrated decision making and optimal outcomes.
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