Christine M. Wallace, Ph.D., M.Ed.
Vice President for Kettering Global
Let us start out with the most obvious: no one likes conflict. Yet you cannot go through a day without some kind of conflict intruding into your life. It could be as simple as a rude driver on the way home or as complicated as an employee who insists on not following company guidelines, but conflict is going to be part of our lives no matter how we try to avoid it.
Avoiding conflict is what most people do. Yet individuals who understand the value that conflict brings to a relationship or an organization and how to handle it effectively are true gems and important assets to an organization.
Conflict is a catalyst for change.
Conflict and Change
Without some sort of conflict- a missed sales opportunity, an unhappy customer, a budget shortfall, a poor evaluation- there is little impetus for change. If we can simply reframe our thinking to understand these are opportunities to help us grow, expand our way of doing things or welcome a new idea, then the idea of conflict is transformative.
It is human nature to react to conflict in a less than helpful way. We get angry, we retreat within, we determine it must be someone else’s fault. No one wants to take responsibility when something goes awry and yet it is exactly by taking responsibility that the greatest possibilities are created. This is understandable. Unless you are Warren Buffet or Bill Gates- you probably need your job, your relationship with your partner or children or with other people to continue to have a quality life.
Conflict can stand in the way of these opportunities.
Simple Things to Practice When Conflict Arises
Do not immediately react. Take some time to think and consider what is happening. That may mean counting to ten, or taking a breath, but the worst thing to do is to immediately react in a situation. Whether you are in traffic or dealing with an angry customer- take some time to think first.
Listen. This is one of the hardest skills in life. True listening is something that should be exhausting and it involves your whole body. If you are in a room with someone, lean in, look them in the eyes, nod your head to let them know you understand. One of the most annoying things I can think of is someone reading from a sales or customer service script after you have already told them the problem- asking you to repeat the information. Do your best to hear what is being said, and if it something very personal, write a note or two if possible.
Take time to consider a response. One of the best lessons I have learned after over 35 years in business is that not everything deserves or requires an immediate response. If you receive an angry email or phone call, or have a customer standing in front of you, it is okay to acknowledge you have heard them and will respond as soon as you look into the situation. Not every email demands an immediate response. Often I think a little differently after a good night’s sleep!
Think about what this conflict means for me personally. Consider that you might be part of the problem. Are you not doing your job to the best of your ability? Are you less focused than you should be? Are you bringing your best to every situation, and if not, what changes do you need to make?
Consider every conflict as an opportunity. Simply seeing a conflict as an opportunity takes practice and time, but if you can begin to think and act in this way, you will see change. You will feel less stressed about the conflict. Start by simply thanking people for bringing challenges to your attention.
Understand the conflict may not be about you personally. As a therapist for over 20 years there is one truth I have come to understand: rarely is a conflict about us, even if it is directed at us. Often it is about the individual who is bringing the conflict to light, especially if they are reacting or angry. The lesson is not to take it personally.
If we are the source of the conflict. This can happen in a personal relationship, employee/employer relationship or as a result of something we do or do not do. Consider the value of the relationship and the benefits of making personal changes to sustain the relationship. If the benefits outweigh the negatives, it is time to make personal changes.
De-escalate the situation. While it is often not easy to de-escalate situations where people become very angry, I have rarely seen a situation where some de-escalation is not possible if we have the time and have practiced the skills required.
When dealing with someone who is angry or yelling. Quiet and slow down your voice and responses. If in person, take a non-threatening stance (step back slightly, arms in front of you, hands open), RESPOND that you “hear” the individual and want to make things better for them.
Focus on Positive Behavior
In the years I was employed in a behavioral health hospital working with teenagers whose behavior had often led to severe dysfunction in their own lives, I found that focusing on the positive behavior made all the difference. I call it, “catch them being good” instead of the easier “identify what they are doing wrong.”
All of us could learn a lot from those ideas and practices using the phrase, “thanks for bringing this to my attention (notes you were listening), I was unaware of this level of the problem (notes you are taking responsibility, even if it is NOT your personal responsibility), can I get back to you in XXXX hours, days, weeks (notes you really want to help). Then actually get back to the individual later. Even if the conflict has not been completely resolved, a response is always appropriate.
The development of these skills can bring great benefits to your company and life. Want to learn more about how Kettering-GlobalX can bring conflict resolution skills to your organization? Contact Ms. Janie Stewart Kettering-GlobalX Corporate Training Manager at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Christine M. Wallace is responsible for the activities of Kettering’s online offerings including Graduate and Undergraduate Education, Corporate Training, Continuing Education and Professional Certification Training. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in Psychology, a M.Ed. in Community Counseling from Georgia Regents University and a Ph.D. in Public Administration from Western Michigan University.