Resolving Conflicts at Work and at Home
The legendary Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn was negotiating a contract with an actor who insisted that he was asking for $1,500 a week…
"No, you're not," said Goldwyn. "You're asking for $1,200 and I'm giving you $1,000." Unlike the bullied actor, you can more successfully work out clashes at home and work if you know and use a handful of techniques.
Why Not Just Have It Out?
The best conflict resolution is not slash-and-burn warfare, in which one party emerges as top dog. Rather, conflict resolution is the way mature people trade things of value in a civil fashion. The goal is not to win at any cost, but to succeed. And the best mechanisms for that? Collaboration, listening, and good negotiation skills. Moreover, using mature conflict resolution saves time, reduces stress, prevents continuing hassles and—at work—increases productivity.
What Are Some Strategies?
"Disagreements of all sorts are better smoothed if you practice active listening," says Steve Cohen, owner of The Negotiation Skills Company and author of How to Fight Fires Without Burning Bridges. "In too many discussions, many people are only waiting for the other person to finish speaking so they can flatten him with an overpowering response."
Adds Erik J. Van Slyke, author of Listening to Conflict: Finding Constructive Solutions to Workplace Disputes, "Don't use arguing, high-pressure persuading, cajoling, sulking, bullying, or foot stamping. In the midst of disagreement, these tactics fall on deaf ears. Nobody listens. And listening is the key to finding constructive resolutions."
Here are some techniques for improving your conflict resolution skills:
- Use your ears. Active listening involves body language, like leaning forward, nodding your head, and summarizing what you've heard with statements like, "As I see it, you are saying…" When others see you take them seriously and do not interrupt, they are likely to budge from rock-hard positions. "Good conflict management requires getting as much information as possible," says Patrick Williams, PhD, psychologist and personal business trainer in Palm Coast, Florida.
- Stay cool. In business negotiations, cooler heads usually prevail. For instance, if a usually obliging supplier seems stuck on an unusually high price, resist the urge to shout: "That's crazy!" or "You're nuts!" If you are angry, take time to cool down. Take some deep breaths and buy yourself some time by saying "I need some time to think about this." Defuse your anger by going for a walk, listening to music, or writing down your thoughts. Clear your mind to make room for some creative solutions.
- Don't take sides. Another way to neutralize difficult people is to move to the same side of the table, rather than to sit facing them. If you set up a chart or poster that you can both face, you'll make the point that you are two people with a common interest, trying to work out a mutually agreeable solution.
- Keep quiet. Sometimes silence is golden. If one person is opinionated or emotional, threatening or demanding, quiet can be unsettling. Many aggressive people are troubled by silence amid heated discussions and back off untenable positions just to break the silence.
- Take responsibility. A good way to reduce conflict is to decide what each person is responsible for. "We all make choices," says Sharon Keys Seal, a conflict resolution coach in Baltimore. "And when it comes to missing or making a deadline, delivering results or excuses, one makes a choice. Often, people are just in the habit of making excuses, but if you ask them to make better choices, you'll put him or her back on track."
- Try a little kindness. Seal suggests using kindness in business and at home. For instance, if you have a spare moment and see somebody in a hurry waiting for the copy machine, let him use it first. "In a dog-eat-dog business setting, kindness will put peace into your heart and create friends all around you," Seal explains. It also puts people off guard so that they temporarily forget whatever it was they were upset about in the first place.
- Avoid stumbling blocks. Peel Health in Brampton, Ontario has published some general guidelines for resolving conflict. They recommend that you watch out for communication blocks, such as arguing, withdrawing, blaming or accusing, not listening, or changing the subject. Try to avoid jumping to conclusions, mind reading, or having unrealistic expectations.
What's the Best Way to Solve Conflicts at Work?
Many conflicts in business happen because a manager knows little about leadership which, in turn, requires the best possible listening skills.
"Most new managers and many bosses adopt an egocentric attitude and insist: 'Do what I say. And if you don't like it, there's the door'," says Tom Bray, author of Change Your Attitude: Create Success One Thought at a Time. But the most skilled bosses and managers lessen divergence by doing twice as much listening as talking.
If you have a dictatorial supervisor, Bray suggests that you ask for some one-on-one time and explain that two-way communications are very important for getting the best possible job done. "If that doesn't create any headway, you should ask yourself why you are staying in that job," Bray says.
You'll also cope better with conflict if you realize that most things in business are in a constant state of change and flux. "We live in such a fast-paced world today, you should expect and embrace change as an opportunity for growth," says Seal.
What's the Best Way to Solve Conflicts at Home?
Using the same techniques, a family can increase the peace during, say, vacations with teens. Because parents and teens share few tastes in music, food, dress, movies, and sports, wiser parents do well by listening to teen needs before packing the family bus. By talking to travel agents, getting books and brochures, and surfing online travel sites, you'll find places that offer various activities for different age groups. Thus, everybody gets some of what they want and are more likely to be agreeable during the trip.
How Should You Handle a Conflict?
Resolving conflicts should be done in person, not via email; many work-related problems are caused by emails that are poorly understood. When this happens, it is better to discuss the problem in person rather than continue to discuss it through email. Here's how to set the stage for successful resolution:
- Choose the time and place.
- Agree on the topic to be solved.
- Agree not to interrupt each other.
- Describe the situation, how it affects you, and what outcome would please you the most.
- Paraphrase what your opponent says, both to buy yourself time to think and to make sure you understand exactly what's been said.
- Speak quietly; it gives the impression that you are in control of the situation and may give you a psychological edge.
Remember that conflict is part of the normal range of interactions that we have in day-to-day life. Resolving conflict often leads to stronger relationships because two sides working together to solve a problem often arrive at a better solution than each side working alone.
American Psychological Association
Mental Health America
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Canadian Psychological Association
Conflict Resolution/Peer Mediation Research Project website. Available at: http://www.coe.ufl.edu/CRPM/CRPMhome.html.
Last reviewed February 2008 by Ryan Estévez, MD, PhD, MPH
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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