“By bringing conflicts out into the open and overcoming them, we develop honest, forthright, and loving relationships with ourselves and others. We turn heat into light.”

Robert Bramson, ‘Blaming isn’t changing’, in Jimmy Calano & Jeff Slazman, CareerTracking, Gower, Aldershot, 1988.

Gender battle.Here’s an idea

During a confrontation, if you reach an impasse, consider calling in a third party, depending on the seriousness of the conflict:

  • Experts are neutral third parties. Their responsibility is simple: to provide data, facts, and information that may help the involved parties improve their understanding of the objective issues in a dispute.
  • Mediation is a process in which a third person helps the parties in conflict to collaborate. Mediators do this by listening, asking questions, and creating a supportive and constructive environment.
  • Arbitration rulings may be binding or voluntary. You get an answer but since the involved parties don’t participate in the solution, they may be less committed to implementing it.
  • Litigation is the process of going to court to get a ruling on an issue. The main benefit is that the solution is binding. Litigation, however, is a final solution, and it’s costly, time consuming, and creates a very competitive situation.

Don’t forget

Advice for a confrontation:

If you’re caught in a confrontation, here’s how you can handle yourself more effectively:

  • Never leave the problem simmering – the situation may only deteriorate over time. Schedule time to speak with the other party as soon as possible.
  • Be clear about the issue. Sometimes it’s helpful to write down what you think is the problem. This will enable you to stick to the point, and it can be especially useful if it is an emotion-charged issue. Seek an opportunity for the other side to say what they perceive to be the issue.
  • Show respect for the other person and seek respect in return. Refrain from name-calling and bringing up previous conflicts or non-related grievances.
  • If the conflict is heated, try to remain calm and politely remove yourself from the situation, or have an agreed ‘time-out’. Regain composure before returning to the issue at stake.
  • Brainstorm solutions together and look for a resolution that provides satisfaction for both parties.

Adrift on a sea of conflict

It was George Bernard Shaw who said that the test of people’s breeding is how they behave in a quarrel.

It might also be argued that the test of a manager’s virtuosity is how well he or she handles conflict.

Richard Wynn in ‘The Practitioner’ elaborates: ‘Just as the great test of a ship captain’s skill occurs in stormy rather than calm waters, so managers face their most bracing tests and their greatest opportunities in times of conflict.’

‘The work of a manager,’ writes Wynn, ‘is an almost never ending sequence of conflicts, some trivial and some very consequential. The challenge is not to eliminate conflict, but to minimise its destructive impact and make it a positive force in the organisation.’


Wise words

Never answer an angry word with an angry word. It’s the second one that turns anger into confrontation.

Nothing can keep an argument going like two persons who aren’t sure what they’re arguing about.

Confrontations would not last for long if the fault were on one side only.

To disagree is one thing; to be disagreeable is another.

One way to avoid a confrontation is to be a good listener.

A long dispute means that both parties are wrong.


On getting emotional

Erik Van Slyke, in ‘Listening to Conflict’, advises us to ‘think first’.

He says that, whenever we’re confronted with a conflict situation, we can process the available information in two ways – rationally and emotionally.

Rational processing is thoughtful, analytical, and reflective. Emotional processing is quick, impulsive, and powerful. It takes in big chunks of information and acts immediately.

Too often people react to conflicts emotionally rather than rationally.

In order to respond to conflict rationally instead of emotionally, we must be aware of what we are feeling and why. The key to this self-awareness lies in identifying our core interpersonal zones.

According to Van Slyke, we have five interpersonal zones:

  • In the comfort zone, our emotions and behaviour are cool, calm and collected. We’re at your best and we know it.
  • In our hot zone, we feel uncomfortable. We unconsciously associate a current situation or event with a negative memory, which causes us to feel frustrated, agitated, and defensive. This keeps us from resolving conflicts peacefully and successfully.
  • The value zone houses our attitudes. Our definition of right and wrong spring from this zone.
  • Our social zone affects how we interact with others and how we generally behave towards them. Some people, for example, are energized by people, activities, and things. Others get their energy from the world of ideas, emotions, and impressions.
  • Our cognitive zone represents the way we gather, evaluate, and act on the information we receive.

Any time someone invades one of these zones, it may trigger an emotional response from us.


Explosive conflict

When one person concludes that the other is a jerk or is incompetent, the potential for an emotional explosion is great. For example, if one party gets up the nerve to tell the other that he or she has serious personality problems, the result is fairly predictable. The person on the receiving end is going to be defensive – and the conflict escalates from there, getting louder and more bitter. Once unleashed, emotions always do more damage to the sender than the receiver.

Then, when teammates discover that open hostility doesn’t work, they often go to the other extreme. Instead of dealing with conflict rationally and professionally, they bottle up their resentment and anger. However, nothing kills relationships more surely than issues left unspoken.

The bottom line is that, as a manager, you must teach your team that issues can, and must, be discussed without resorting to explosive behaviour.


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