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We Grow through Adversity and Become Better Leaders

By: John Devitt, CAE

“There are three sides to the story; your opinion, my opinion, and the truth. And no one is lying.”
- Robert Evans

Conflict is a natural component of life. Without conflict, one cannot have growth. Through conflict we learn and generate new, often better ways of doing things. Relationships grow as we learn to better communicate. As individuals, we grow through adversity and become more effective leaders. And so, the value of conflict must be appreciated and managed effectively to allow for growth opportunities.

In our personal lives, we can be selective with whom we choose to build relationships. However, in our professional lives, we do not have this luxury. Given the range of activities, stressors and personality types that come together, it is no surprise that conflict exists. We must all manage conflict at some time or another and there should be no expectation that all work relationships will be smooth and perfect. After all, we are human beings, not a delicious chocolaty spread like Nutella.

A 2008 report on workplace conflict published by CPP Global Inc found American employees on average spent 2.8 hours a week dealing with conflict; or, at an average wage of $17.95 per hour, an estimated $2613.52 per year, per employee. That's a lot of time spent gossiping, protecting turf, retaliating, recruiting people to one side or the other, planning defenses and navigating office drama. More importantly, that's time not spent engaging clients, advancing new ideas, or doing the job they were hired to do.

Despite the uniqueness of individuals and the myriad of factors in complicated human relationships, many experts would have us believe that all conflict can be resolved. Conflict resolution theory ferments a belief that win-win scenarios can be achieved at all times. Yet conflict is far too dynamic to always be resolved cleanly. Forcing such an outcome can often cause more conflict, more stress. However most conflict can be managed and we can all strive to do this more effectively.

Conflict management is the ability to be able to identify and handle conflicts sensibly, fairly, and efficiently. Since we can benefit from conflict, conflict management seeks to minimize the negative impacts of conflict, while promoting positive impacts and does not imply resolution of conflict. The goal of successful conflict management is to improve learning in an organization, and encourage us to challenge the status quo, thus generating new ideas and improved ways of doing things.

Conflict Management Basics

These six rules are the bedrock to help teammates manage conflict collaboratively. Mutually agreeing to these rules is more likely to build trust and respect while achieving as close to a win-win scenario as possible. When all participants follow the following rules, most contentious discussions remain positive and constructive. This prevents the antagonism and dislike that sometimes cause conflicts to spin out of control.

  1. Good relationships are the first priority. As much as possible, make sure to treat the other person calmly and maintain mutual respect. Remain courteous and constructive even under pressure.
  2. Keep people and problems separate. We must recognize that in most cases, the other person is not being difficult for the sake of being difficult. Real and valid differences can lie behind conflicting positions. Reacting to someone’s differing view by saying they are being ‘defensive’ can damage working relationships and prevent the discovery of new solutions. By separating the person from the problem, the issue can be debated far more constructively.
  3. Pay attention to individual interests that are being presented. Through active listening, you are more likely to understand why the other person is taking a specific position. Active listening develops respect during a conflict scenario as the other person feels their position is being valued.
  4. Listen first and talk second. To effectively solve a problem you need to understand where the other person is coming from before defending your own position. 
  5. Agree to the facts. Mutually establish the objective and the observable elements that will have an impact on decision-making.
  6. Explore options together. Be open to the idea that a third option may exist and that you can arrive at this solution together.

Interest Based Relational Approach

Step One: Set the Scene
Begin by ensuring everyone understands the conflict may be a mutual problem with potential positive outcomes and that it may be best resolved through discussion and negotiation rather than raw aggression. Emphasize that you are only presenting your perception of the problem and use active listening skills to ensure you are hearing and understanding the other person’s perception. Remember, these are individual perspectives, not facts. By restating the other person’s words through paraphrasing and summarizing, both parties are sure to feel heard, understood and respected.

Step Two: Gather Information
Confirm that you respect your teammate’s viewpoint and opinion and that you need their cooperation to solve the problem. Attempt to better understand their motivations and goals and how you may be impacting these, try to understand it objectively. Do your best to listen with empathy and experience the conflict from the other person’s point of view. Clarify feelings and use “I” statements. Remain flexible in discovering new options and outcomes.

Step Three: Agree to the Problem
Oftentimes, differing needs and interests can cause people to perceive problems in vastly different ways. You will both need to agree what each of you sees as the problem before moving on.

Step Four: Brainstorm Possible Solutions
Be open to all ideas, even ones never considered before. Make sure everyone has the opportunity to fairly contribute input so as to feel engaged and satisfied with the resolution.

Step Five: Negotiate a Solution
By this point, a conflict may already be resolved simply through the expression of perspectives, active listening and the building of mutual respect and understanding. However, in instances with real differences between positions repeating step four until a suitable resolution can be found is useful. Regardless, remain committed to the six rules and be calm, patient and respectful.

Party Directed Mediation

If after frequent brainstorming and negotiation the conflict is not managed, or if the initial situation is too out of control to use the Interest Based Relational Approach, then escalating to the Party Directed Mediation practice is the next step.

This approach seeks to empower each individual involved in conflict, enabling everyone to have more direct influence in the resolution. Again, this involves engaging teammates and working from a position of trust and effective communication. Additionally, this process directly improves the negotiation skills of those involved, leading to increased ability to manage future conflicts. Party Directed Mediation is of greatest value when those involved will continue to interact with each other after the conflict situation, or when there are significant interpersonal issues involved. In those situations, a more delicate approach is necessary to ensure conflict management remains neutral and eliminates any risk of workplace bullying.

An objective, neutral mediator is required and begins with two essential elements; a pre-mediation meeting between the mediator and each individual involved in the conflict, and a joint session where everyone faces each other and speaks directly to one another rather than through the mediator. The mediator remains during the joint session in order to provide safety and objectivity.

During a pre-mediation meeting, the mediator meets with each individual separately away from everyone else, allowing the individual an opportunity to release pent up frustrations and emotions in a safe environment, thus enabling them to be more open to other perspectives.

In the joint session, individuals are situated face to face so they can address each other directly, rather than using the mediator as a go-between or filter. The mediator sits at a distance to assure the individuals they must address each other. It may be necessary to remind the individuals that the mediator is there only to help others take responsibility in managing the conflict themselves, rather than to pass judgment on the merits of the differing positions presented.

When conflict grows beyond manageable levels, professional counseling can be a helpful antidote. Most organizations may be able to provide access to counseling services at low cost; however non-directive counseling can also be an effective solution.

Non-directive counseling means ‘listening to understand’. Practicing active and empathetic listening is something every good leader should do. Often, simply providing someone a safe opportunity to vent their feelings is enough to relieve frustration and help them advance to problem solving. This approach requires no formal training and has helped many cope with problems that were interfering or preventing job effectiveness. No one has ever been harmed by being listened to with sympathy, empathy and trust.

Workplace Conflict and How Businesses can Harness it to Thrive

Conflict Resolution   

Party Directed Meditation