Conflict is central to the human experience. There is some degree of conflict in most areas of life, and particularly in work situations and in meetings. In general we tend to want to avoid conflict, but in fact it is unavoidable – and often the more you avoid a situation, the worse it can become. There are ways that we can use conflict to progress through a situation instead of trying to avoid it. Dealing with conflict is a skill, and one that you can get better at the more you meet conflict with strategic intervention.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
A universal truth about conflict is that it is uncomfortable. The first step to overcoming conflict aversion is to make peace with this fact. Acknowledging that you will not be in your comfort zone while dealing with a particular conflict can actually help steel your nerves against the tension that results when you deal with it. Conflict is messy, but we have to learn to love the messiness of it.
Know your conflicts when you see them
Not all conflicts are created equal. There are different types of conflicts and arguments, and the type will determine how you should handle it.
Pseudoconflict: We’ve all been in an “argument” with someone thinking that there was a disagreement, where in the end, it turns out we were on the same page all along. These types of conflicts are called pseudoconflicts because there isn’t really a conflict – it’s all in your head. Perceptions and misunderstanding lead to pseudoconflict. In this type of conflict, it’s important to keep your cool and look at the big picture.
Simple conflict: This is just as it sounds: a simple conflict is a direct conflict surrounding a particular issue or idea. It’s not personal, and can usually be resolved if each party stays as logical and clear in stating their case as possible. Listening is also key. If not handled well it can lead to the next kind of conflict – ego conflict.
Ego conflict: This one is personal. Everyone has an ego – some are bigger than others. Ego comes into play when personalities clash, one person doesn’t like what another person did, or people just decide not to get along. In an ego conflict, one or more parties feels personally attacked, and the situation is emotionally charged. Without care, it can quickly escalate to full-fledged drama.
Approach each conflict with the appropriate style
When it comes to facing conflict, there’s not necessarily one wrong or a right way to approach it – it all depends on the situation. Consider the different styles in which we can respond to conflict – each has its own merits, but can be detrimental if applied to the wrong situation.
Avoidance: Yes, we were just saying that it’s best not to avoid conflict. However, sometimes it can be beneficial – for example, if you’re not directly involved in a conflict but rather are on the sidelines, avoiding the conflict keeps you from getting wrapped up in it. You have to choose whether or not the problem is yours to deal with.
Domination: Domination involves pulling rank or expertise over another person in the interest of ending a conflict. In a work situation, managers can use domination to get things done when it’s not prudent to discuss it. This isn’t the ideal solution, but sometimes it must be done for the sake of time.
Accommodation: This is one for the pacifists. Have you ever seen a mother with a toddler in public that won’t stop crying, and eventually she just gives it candy to shut it up? Accommodation in conflict with two or more adults means that one person will give what the other wants so they can both move on. Leaders should take extra care in using accommodation so that they don’t appear weak or seem like a pushover.
Compromise: Essentially, compromise is negotiation. No one leaves the conflict completely satisfied, but a resolution is found in giving everyone at least part of what they wanted. The upside of using compromise is that people can be mostly content with the outcome. Sometimes, though, people say they’re OK with a compromise but they really aren’t, and feel like they got the short end of the stick. Compromise usually leaves one or more people feeling disappointed to a degree.
Consensus: When possible, consensus is really the best way to manage a conflict. Everyone works together to select an option that everyone can live with. Not everyone has to agree with the outcome wholeheartedly, but they can at least agree to it. Consensus is great for small groups and meetings, but gets harder to achieve the larger the group becomes. This is why big company decisions are not made with consensus but rather from the top (domination).
Don’t be in conflict about conflict
Avoiding conflict is an inner struggle – should I deal with this now or later? – and one that can cause a lot of anxiety. It’s better to accept that conflict will happen and that sooner or later, you’ll need to fact it. Don’t rush into it, but don’t put it off, either: consider carefully the type of conflict and how best to manage it. The sooner and more skilfully you can handle the conflict, the less anxiety you’ll have over it.