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Managing conflict

Conflict is part of life in organisations, and it helps to take an objective, dispassioned and calm view of why, when and how it develops.  Anticipating conflict is even more effective, as you can be proactive in tackling it intelligently.

There are whole books written on this; we’re going to pick out a few key points here.

How do you know when you're in conflict?

One minute you think things are straightforward, and then suddenly you realise they’re not.  Either you or the other person are feeling uncomfortable, pressured, frustrated or even annoyed.  How does this happen?

Probably there were signs that you missed, either in your own responses or behaviour, or in the other person’s.  Being alert to the initial signs of conflict helps you to ensure that the situation doesn’t deteriorate.

Initial signs of conflict

Sometimes they’re quite subtle; e.g. someone going quiet, not being quite so friendly, less responsive.  On your part, it might be physical, e.g. feeling frustrated, butterflies, a headache or a gut feeling that something isn’t right.  These physical reactions are valid and very helpful.  Speaking about what’s happening at this stage can resolve difficulties early.  For example, to head off a potential misunderstanding: ‘I’m not sure about this, can we just go back a step?’, or ‘can I think about that and get back to you?’, or ‘can I just check what you’re saying, I want to make sure I understand.’  This can buy you a few seconds to calm your physical response and re-engage your brain.

How is conflict expressed?

It can still be quite subtle at this stage; passive behaviour can be as important to spot as a raised voice.  You might notice that someone starts copying in their boss – and then of course you do the same, and you’re heading for ‘entrenchment’.  This quite literally means that you’re digging your trench and they’re digging theirs, and it will become more and more difficult for either of you to see over the top and move closer together.

How do you manage conflict?

Here are some important steps to get you thinking and preparing:

  • Be clear about what you want, and why
  • Find out what the other person wants, and why
  • Avoid open personal conflict – it’s harder to come back from
  • Find common ground – this is always possible in organisations, because when you strip everything back you do both want an outcome that’s good for your organisation.  You just see it differently.  Start with the common ground and move out from there: ‘I realise that we’ve each got objectives that do seem like we want different things, but we both want what’s best for the customer/your team/employees,’ etc.
  • Test acceptance, ‘how would it be if …’
  • Be creative, and explore ideas that could work for both of you
  • Confirm agreement.

Styles of managing conflict

There are different ways of tackling conflict.  The work done by Thomas and Kilmann is well regarded, and their 5 conflict styles are Avoiding, Competing, Compromising, Accommodating and Collaborating.  Their website has far more information.  The most assertive approach is Collaborating, which takes work but is worth it when it’s an important decision or project.

Our own HR business partnering matrix helps you to map out how to move relationships to a point where you are collaborating and co-creating.  Working on building a trusting and productive relationship, where you can have robust discussions, is the most powerful way to manage and embrace conflict.

4 modes for HR business partnering

All modes here are valid in appropriate situations, and you will achieve more when you move towards the top right – explore more about the business, and move the conversation to the future.

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