A Four-Step Process to Manage and Resolve Conflict
A man at the airport was very emotional, actually, quite livid. He was shouting about missing his plane because the monitors were wrong in giving the gate information. He was big, tall and angry as he ran up to the counter. My wife and I were sitting by one of our clients at an airport watching as he ran up to where two female agents stood behind the counter. He slammed his books down on the counter top and began furiously ranting about missing his flight. His voice loud, his body shaking, and his fists were clenched. The two women were obviously frightened. We could see them physically shrink from this aggressive man. They were in conflict.
I got up and began to walk the thirty feet into the scene. Within approximately thirty seconds after engaging with this man, he was calmed into dealing with the situation more rationally. Using the principles in this article a furious, ranting, rather childish man, in aggressive conflict with two ticket agents, was changed back into a rational adult, able to come to resolution over the conflict. Magic? Yes, by just following some natural principles and laws that promote effective conflict resolution, if, indeed, it is conflict.
A surgery team in a Northern California hospital was in conflict with their supervisor and thus with the hospital administrator. The conflict was over storage space for equipment that had to be wheeled in and out of the operating rooms. There simply wasn’t enough room to store the equipment conveniently. Every time a piece of equipment was needed other items had to be moved around, jockeying the unwanted pieces into and out of the hall, around each other, until the wanted item was found. This was a constant source of conflict, or was it?
Unwanted Reality vs. True Conflict
Before we can effectively deal with conflict we need to determine if it is conflict or just, what we call, unwanted reality. We’ve seen so much energy wasted on unwanted reality. Unwanted reality differs from conflict in that it is something that is unlikely to change. Or, if it does change, it takes a lot of time and energy from an upper leadership or management level. Building expansion for more storage space, regulatory issues, managed care limitations, which floor a certain unit works on, hours that need to be covered on a certain shift, all can be unwanted reality. It’s possible to change them but change is unlikely in the near future. So it is simply unwanted reality. And dealing with an unwanted reality is different than dealing with conflict.
We make hierarchical decisions throughout our life. Each decision, at each level of hierarchy, comes with parameters, limitations, and certain givens that are unwanted realities. If we decide to live in America we pay taxes and drive on the right side of the road. Realities; “givens” that could change but are unlikely to. At the next level of hierarchy, the decision to work in health care for example, there are more parameters and limitations. The next level, to work in a certain field of health care, provides us with more limitations. At each next level of hierarchy, (to practice in a certain state, in a particular city, in a given hospital, within a specific unit), there are more parameters and givens that may be unwanted realities.
In our seminars on conflict management we will ask people early on to estimate the type and amount of conflict that exists within their hospital in any given week. The numbers are usually quite high. After a definition and discussion about unwanted reality, the numbers representing the amount of conflict present are much lower. The amount of true conflict that occurs from these same people’s perspective is relatively small when we weed out their necessary, but unwanted, reality.
So, how do you deal with unwanted reality? A part of conflict management is to differentiate between true conflict and unwanted reality. That’s the first step of dealing with unwanted reality. The second step is quite simple. So simple, in fact, that it is hard. (Simple is not always equated with easy). When there is true unwanted reality you simply accept it. Unless you are willing to take on the cause of changing corporate culture, you must accept the unwanted reality and put your energy into things that you can influence or change. When we’ve seen people do this there is an incredible freeing that occurs, an increase in energy, and greater ability to engage in conflict resolution. The reason is twofold: 1) People aren’t discouraged by repeatedly experiencing the lack of success when complaining about and trying change what is seen as conflict, but is really unwanted reality; and 2) There can be more focus on what can truly be changed or resolved, that which is true conflict.
What is Conflict?
What is conflict, then? There are a variety of definitions in print today. Our working definition is this: A need for resolution between two people that needs to be resolved before you can move forward, where there is threat, or perceived threat, about something that is happening or about to happen that causes you fear or frustration.
We believe that at the core of all conflict is threat. When one is in conflict with another, the idea, position, or perspective is being challenged. That challenge is a threat. And at the core of all threat is fear, and this sets up the two types of responses we see in conflict; 1) Aggressively try to resolve the conflict or 2) Withdraw from the conflict, hoping it will resolve itself or go away. This is a natural outcome of our inner psychology.
The Threat at the Core of Conflict
When we perceive threat we naturally respond with the fight or flight syndrome. The intensity of the response is in direct proportion to our perception of the threat. The “fight” response is to aggressively attack any perceived threat or conflict and attempt to resolve it in any way we can. The “flight” response is to run away from the conflict, to ignore it until it, hopefully, doesn’t exist anymore.
We’ve asked people in our seminars which type of response they naturally use. It’s interesting to watch people raise their hands when asked if they fall into the “fight” type of response. Their hands and arms shoot up, quickly and high. When we ask, “Who of you find it more natural to do the ‘flight’ response?” the hands go up more slowly and only make it to about the shoulder height. The people’s body language speaks clearly of their particular style.
Conflict varies in intensity. A minor form of conflict is when two people, have two different agendas, perspectives, ideas or desires. Two people in negotiation can fit into this category. Each person, not necessarily wanting the other person to lose, but certainly wanting their personal needs or desires met, will try to press for resolution in their favor. Even two good ideas can be a conflict situation. These conflicting ideas have at their core threat. One idea, if heeded, will threaten the existence of the other idea. At the other end of the spectrum in conflict intensity is conflict that seeks the annihilation of the other side’s perspective and people. War is an illustration of the kind of conflict that is at this end of the spectrum. The story of the man at the airport at the beginning of this article is another example of a conflict situation that is closer toward this end of the spectrum.
Conflict isn’t inherently bad, however. Conflict can bring about new ideas or awareness about the issue at hand. It can present an unvoiced concern that needs to be addressed. Conflict can actually unify people. Conflict isn’t bad in and of itself. It’s how we deal with conflict that brings good or bad results. Thus how we perform conflict resolution has long lasting effects.
We’ve worked with hospitals or other groups of people that are still living out the results of poorly managed conflict resolution in the past. And many times, the experiences people are remembering or reacting to are events that happened long ago. One hospital was caught up in living out the dynamics and injustices, or perceived injustices, of conflict that happened many years ago. It was where staff was in conflict with management. They were stuck in that moment. They couldn’t progress. They couldn’t grow. They were still living out the results of poorly managed conflict resolution, and thus carrying baggage.
Baggage Can Amplify Conflict
One of the magical components of conflict resolution is how its effects are so long lasting. A person can do a thousand things right, a million things wonderfully well, but that one, poorly managed conflict moment can have more effect than all the “right things” put together. When conflict is managed well, the results are greater trust and a more solid foundation to be more effective with conflict resolution the next time it occurs.
If there is a lot of this kind of baggage in your facility you may need to do some cleansing of the wound before you can heal. Leading people through a process of burying the hatchet, forgiving the people of the past, drawing a line in the sand and deciding to move forward together, treating every new experience as just that, and not an extension of the old, may be the powerful step necessary to begin doing present tense, effective conflict resolution. Confronting conflict while carrying baggage is very difficult. Our hands are already full.
A System for Conflict Management
So, if we’ve differentiated between unwanted reality and true conflict, if we know what conflict is, if we have buried our baggage, we can move on to conflict resolution; that is, with one more foundational perspective. Conflict resolution is a small part of conflict management. Understanding that bigger picture can bring about the real magic of conflict resolution. If you patiently follow a basic, six-step system, and not try to get resolution prematurely, you can magically reap win/win results.
Step One: Defuse emotion to prepare for the real issue.
It’s inevitable, most of the time we’re going to have emotion in conflict situations. Our position is not to eradicate emotion, but to control our emotions instead of our emotions being in control of us. How do you control emotions? How do you keep emotions from being the predominant force in a conflict episode?
Rarely does someone enter a conflict episode with you and express, “Listen, I’m in conflict with you and I’m the problem.” Instead it’s, “…you’re the problem,” and they say it with a generous portion of emotion stirred in. Rarely is there an issue-driven, solution-oriented process when it comes to conflict resolution. Instead it’s a blame-driven, self-protective process.
The major contributor to this mutual defensive posture is the emotion we, or the other person feels. One of your greatest friends in conflict resolution is objectivity. Your greatest enemy is a subjective defense of self. Emotion can reduce objectivity and increases defensiveness. Emotion is the fuel that perpetuates ineffective conflict resolution.
How do you control emotion? To control emotion in another person, we must match their intensity and deliver the message, “I hear you. I understand you are saying ‘X’ and I’m willing to work on it with you!” These are the two concepts people want to hear when in conflict with us, that we listen to them and are willing to do something about their issue. Our natural, default mode, however, is to defend our “self.” This is natural because of the threat that is perceived at the core of the conflict. Our natural defenses rise up. This self-preservation response causes the other person to defend him or herself, perpetuating a conflict against each other, instead of a conflict over a concept or issue. Controlling emotion is the first step toward getting away from focusing on accusing each other, to determining what the real conflict issue is.
Using meaningful phrases, spoken genuinely, that speak to understanding can control emotion in the other person. “I understand you feel this way,” or “I can see your point,” or “I can imagine myself feeling that way to,” are ways to genuinely portray understanding. This understanding and acceptance tends to diminish the other person’s emotion. If the other person is too emotional to communicate, however, you will need to back away from the moment and agree to talk later.
There are a variety of techniques we can use to control emotions in ourselves, all with the goal of getting to the real issue, the concern behind the conflict. One way is to take a time out. Distancing yourself from the issue with time and space can bring back objectivity and decrease emotion. Consciously putting aside the desire to defend self and seriously look for and focus on the core issue embedded in the frustrated communication coming from the other person is another way.
The most effective way of controlling our emotions is to use a psychological technique of changing our perspective. It is actually quite simple and may not seem to have the power to control our emotions when you look at it initially. But we have had a multitude of reports of how well this simple tool works.
When you are in the moment reacting to the other person and the situation from the perspective of where you stand, your emotions will rise up because of inner conditioned responses. When we can change that perspective, the same conditioned responses don’t occur. Here is what I mean specifically: Imagine yourself watching yourself talking to the individual in conflict with you. In other words, move your perspective across the room to imagine what it would look like to watch yourself in this interaction. That simple shift in perspective will give you a more objective stance. You can try it right now as you’re reading this. Imagine yourself watching yourself reading these words. Notice how your perspective changes. When you’re emotional, your emotions will change too and you will become more objective.
When I encountered the man at the airport, who was emotional, angry, and livid, I matched his intensity and said, “I would be furious to have missed my plane because the monitors were wrong. If I were in your shoes I’d be upset too! You’re angry, and I would be too if I missed my plane because of that…” I kept saying phrases like that until he focused on me and saw that I was empathetic with his situation and could be a potential ally. This only took a few seconds then I added the phrase, “…but these two women don’t run the monitors. They’ll probably be the ones to help you if you let them.”
Instantly, he calmed down. Though he was still shaking he said, “I know they didn’t change the monitors but…” then he continued to talk about how he missed his flight and was mad about that. He spoke, however, with a much calmer voice and began to focus on his real concern. This is the essence of step one in our conflict management process. De-fuse the emotion to prepare for the issue. The real issue is usually masked under the emotional issues. To react to the emotion will sabotage our ability to get to the real issue. In fact, when we react to an emotional individual with more of our own emotion we can actually fuel the problem.
Step Two: Listen and accept the person’s perceived issue.
Acceptance is not synonymous with agreement. We may not agree with the issue the person is bringing up. If we don’t accept it, however, the person feels obligated to keep speaking about their issue until they’re convinced we’ve heard it, and accept it. Once the emotion has been controlled then it’s important to keep asking clarifying questions, with the attitude of genuine concern, to understand completely the core issue this person is speaking about. You must completely understand before you can go to the next step or resolve the conflict. Stephen Covey says, “Seek to understand before trying to be understood.” This is the second step in our conflict management process.
There is a subtle but profound difference between the phrases, “I agree on your concern of…” and “I agree with your concern of…” You can agree on the fact that this person has a concern and you can agree on what their concern is, but you don’t have to agree with the concern. To do effective conflict management the person must understand that we accept and understand. That is sufficient.
How do you do this? By doing step two fully before you go on to step three. Don’t state anything about your position or perspective until you’ve entered step three. Don’t try to rationalize, justify or defend self. Don’t try explaining your perspective or understanding. Just listen and clarify until you’ve heard all they have to say.
You do this by repeating the phrase, “What I’m hearing you say is ‘X’ and your core concern is ‘Y,’ is that it? Do I understand your perspective and concern completely?” until they say, “yes.” Then, and only then, can you go on to step three. By now the person should be calm and engaged, ready to hear what you have to say. And they are in that posture because you gave them genuine concern to listen to them completely without emotional defensiveness. Here is where the magic begins.
If you don’t do steps one and two, you have usually perpetuated a fight, the dynamics of which are determined by the intensity of the issue and the emotional ownership of the person in conflict with you. When you do steps one and two fully, you have caused the other person to be ready to listen to you. Once you have solicited agreement on the fact that you understand, restate your acceptance of their perspective, thank them for their willingness to speak so frankly to you, and restate your willingness to work with them toward resolution. This sets the stage for step three.
Step Three: Get permission, then speak what’s on your mind.
Say something like this, “Now that I’ve heard and accepted your issues, concerns and perspectives, may I tell you mine? I acknowledge, they are different from your perspectives and I’m not claiming mine to be right. But if we’re going to work together toward resolution, it’s important to get my issues on the table too. Do you agree?” If the person says yes, then you are free to speak what’s on your mind, complete with your perspectives, reasons, feelings and understandings. If the person says no, then you need to revisit step two, or you are at an impasse and need some facilitation, mediation or arbitration.
A basic rule of conflict management is this; don’t go where the other person isn’t. If their emotion re-flares, go back to defusing emotion. If they still need to speak their mind, you must go back to step two. You can’t resolve conflict unless you’re both on the same page. It’s a rule of conflict management. It’s actually a rule of life.
When you are able to speak what’s on your mind, do so in an objective, non-threatening, non-judgmental way. Avoid trying to defend self. Stay on the issue. A tool that is helpful to maintain both of your objectivity is to write down the other person’s core issue and concern. You can then write down yours too. That makes both of them have equal weight in the discussion. If the person starts to argue with your words gently remind them that you heard them and you’d appreciate it if you could fully speak what’s on your mind too. The following words can help, “Thanks for jumping in and being willing to solve this but I think it might be helpful for both of us if we heard my issues and concerns too. Your issue was ‘X’ and your concern was ‘Y.’ Let me tell you mine then I’d like to hear what your response is.” Step three is speaking what’s on your mind completely, which sets you up for step four.
Step Four: Solicit agreement on your issues and concerns.
Once you’ve spoken, solicit agreement on the fact that the other person has heard your complete message. Say something like this, “Now that I’ve given you my perspectives on this, do you accept that, though they differ from yours, these are my issues and concerns?” If the person does not, ask them what part don’t they understand. Remind them you are not trying to convince them of your perspectives, just to state them, with the goal of both of you understanding all of the perspectives, issues and concerns. Usually, helping the other person see they are not to do anything at this point but listen and agree that you have these issues and concerns allows them to come to acceptance of your issues as your issues. And here is where the magic really occurs.
We are trying to come to resolution. We’ve said resolution is a part of conflict management and doesn’t effectively stand alone. If you’ve genuinely and completely done steps one through four, step five almost happens spontaneously. In effect, step five is a natural outcome of the previous steps. Sometimes you have to really work at doing steps one through four, especially if the issue is a hot one and emotions are running high. Once you’ve done those steps though, step five almost magically occurs. We’ve seen it happen over and over.
Step Five: Work together toward resolution.
When both individuals in a conflict episode truly understand each other’s perspectives, issues and concerns there is generally a willingness to work together toward a win/win solution. To begin step five you review the issues and concerns of both parties to ensure clarity and understanding. Then you ask the other person if they are willing to work with you to do some possibility thinking so you can both get what you want. This puts your energy together in a positive direction, working together on the same team.
Sometimes it’s helpful to take some time before completing step five. You may need to gather more data. Or, if you are at an impasse, you may need to solicit help from more people, or invite the participation of a facilitator, mediator or arbitrator. Sometimes just letting some time go by before seeking solution can enable greater objectivity, less emotions, and more creativity toward a win/win solution. In any case, stay in step five to work with whatever aid you need, and continue to work together toward an agreed upon solution.
Step Six: Close and agree to let go.
People usually view conflict in episodic events when, in reality, most of the time, the conflict of the moment is ridding on the dynamics of previous conflict episodes. How a previous conflict resolution went usually determines the beginning of the dynamics for the next one. The feelings and issues that come from previous incomplete or unfulfilled conflict resolution is stored and unleashed on the next conflict episode. It’s extremely important, therefore, that you agree to have closure on the current conflict issue and agree to let it go as you move forward.
Sometimes this is easier said than done. If two parties can agree to have completion and closure, however, it is easier to let go of the dynamics of this current episode and not let baggage build. This kind of conflict resolution helps you to have better conflict management. In fact, you can use the current episode as a learning moment. You can discuss the dynamics of how it came to be in the first place and agree on ways to not let it happen again in the future. This is a great component of conflict management. Prevention.
Conflict management is greater than conflict resolution. Conflict management is magical because, at each step, there is agreement to move on to the next step, together. Other helpful conflict management tools include:
- Be proactive about it so as not to let rumors or false perceptions build.
- Learn and practice good communication skills, especially clarity of communication. Be sure to have clear accountability trails; i.e. have a “What, by whom, by when?” set of expectations for everything. This prevents conflict that comes from misunderstandings and unclear expectations.
- Create a culture that doesn’t allow third party communication or rumors. Instead each person goes to the source to bring clarity and closure immediately. When someone comes to you with rumors or gossip, politely ask that individual to go to the person in question so as to solve the problem.
- Teach conflict skills and agree on a conflict resolution process before it’s needed.
- Create trained facilitators to help people or groups in conflict.
- Encourage and promote issue-oriented discussions, not blame based finger pointing.
Conflict is inevitable so let’s capture the most important benefit of conflict, which, if understood and practiced, helps you through each of the six steps in our conflict management process. That is, at the core of every conflict is a legitimate concern. When a person has a concern, it should be considered because it has at least a 50% chance of being a valid concern. There are countless stories where the concern at the core of conflict was ignored causing great pain and loss to the people involved. From the Challenger explosion to Mt. Everest expeditions, sadly, there are too many stories where the concern was squelched because the conflict was too uncomfortable. The result? Great loss.
Conflict is inevitable. But when you find the concern behind the conflict, the person in conflict with you actually becomes an ally, a person working with you toward the greater good. So, here’s to you…you objective conflict “resoluter” with emotions in check, finding the core concern behind the conflict, and enabling the conflict episode to be a learning moment where both parties reach win/win solutions.