Written by G. Eric Allenbaugh, Ph.D.
Think of a time when you experienced significant conflict with another person – at work or at home. Considering how the situation evolved, to what extent do you and the other party feel satisfied with the result? Following the conflict, did the relationship stay the same, improve, or deteriorate? When you think of that past conflict, do you notice any gain or loss of body energy? What unfinished business, if any, do you have with that person as a result of how that conflict experience was handled?
Conflict comes with the territory of life, and how you handle conflict often determines the quality of your relationships, whether personal or professional. Developing skill in handling difficult or sensitive conflict situations, therefore, is an essential life skill that has far reaching implications.
Virtually every conflict situation has two key elements requiring careful attention: 1) the issue, and 2) the relationship. For example, assume that your next-door-neighbor rescues a dog from the pound. You enjoy a friendly relationship with the neighbor, but are suddenly confronted with their new dog barking all day and night. If you elect
This article explores The 12 Win-Win Conflict Management Strategies that will assist in working through interpersonal conflict issues while preserving or perhaps even enhancing the relation- ship. Applying these pragmatic tools at work and at home will likely make a positive and significant difference in how you travel through life.
Look for the 3rd great idea
A hospital vice president retained me to coach her regarding one of her problematic department directors. I asked her to describe the situation and how she proposed to handle it. After sharing her approach, she asked me: “What do you think?”
I responded: “I think that is a great idea.” Obviously pleased that she was on course, she stood up and prepared to leave the conference room. I asked: “Where are you going?” to which she responded: “I thought you said this was a great idea.” “Yes,” I said, “that is a great approach.
Now, sit down and give me a second great idea. Approach it differently.”
After sitting down and talking me through a second great approach, she asked: “Do you like this approach?” After responding affirmatively, she went further: “Do you like it better?” “Yes,” I replied. Somewhat relieved and with a confident smile on her face, she again started to leave. As you probably predicted, I asked her to stay and give me a third great idea in handling this situation. A little frustrated at this point, she walked me through a third great idea. I then challenged her to compare and contrast the three approaches and to select the one that would produce the best results. She ultimately selected the third idea.
Especially when in conflict, people have a tendency to come to premature closure and lock on to a particular position. By so doing, optimal solutions are often thwarted. Looking for the“3rd Great Idea,” on the other hand, promotes exploration of viable options. Engaging conflicting parties in exploring options facilitates communication, encourages creative thinking, and likewise discourages people from locking onto a given approach too soon. While the first or second idea might well be the best, continuing the process until at least three are explored encourages conflicting parties to work together in finding a win-win solution.
Let go of old baggage
While facilitating change in a large client organization, an individual approached me about how he had been inappropriately treated by his manager. I encouraged him to share his experience with me and was mystified that I did not know about his significant situation– especially considering that I had been consulting with this client for a year. I asked him: “When did this happen?” With narrowing eyes and clenched jaw, he said: “Fifteen years ago!” Fifteen years ago? Good grief.
This man had harbored negative feelings for years, and the situation had likely drained significant emotional energy from him over that period. Unresolved conflict will typically arise again and again if people do not have the courage or skill to effectively address it. In this case, the individual certainly had difficulty of letting go of old baggage, found it hard to forgive, and likely had neither the skill nor the courage to address the issue.
We know that we are carrying old baggage when, whenever we think of the situation or person involved, we actually experience a drain of emotional energy. This is our body’s way of telling us that we have unresolved conflict or unfinished business with another person. When this condition arises, we have three options:
1) take appropriate, positive, constructive action to bring it to closure, 2) let it go, or 3) continue carrying the baggage. To assist in making a decision about what to do with old baggage, ask yourself these three questions:
- What is the worst that could happen if
I elected to deal directly with this situation? (Can I handle the worst? If not, what external resources could I pursue that would assist in effectively dealing with the situation?)
- What is the best that could happen if I elected to deal with this situation?
- What if I elected to maintain the status quo and did nothing about the situation?
(In the long run, which will consume more energy – dealing with the situation or not dealing with it?)
Having worked with thousands of people over the years in addressing conflict issues, a vast majority conclude that not dealing with an unresolved issue drains considerably more energy over the long term than experiencing the worst if they were to actually deal with the issue. What old baggage or unfinished business might you have that requires attention?
Shovel while the piles are small
Some people, surely not you, procrastinate in dealing with sensitive issues – usually because of lack of courage or lack of skill. While postponing the inevitable, the unresolved situation typically intensifies. This “tender & tender” approach seems to be the method of choice during the “procrastination phase.” If the situation heats up due to inaction, emotions are often triggered – now typically resulting in a “tough & tough” reaction. Neither approach –“tender & tender” nor “tough & tough” – produces the desired results. There is another way.
Shovel while the piles are small. Commit to dealing with a situation close to the triggering event – usually now or within twenty-four hours. And when dealing with the situation, be tough on the issue and tender on the people in an effort to maintain or perhaps even enhance the relationship. A computer technician, who I have under contract to maintain my office computers, was servicing my equipment a while back. Being familiar with the nature of my consulting work, he offered a suggestion about how he and his wife keep things current between the two of them. They established a “Two Week Rule” regarding issues in their relationship. If either of them has an issue or concern involving the other, they agreed to address the situation within a two-week period. This time period provides ample opportunity to deal with any issue needing attention. If for some reason they do not deal with the situation within the two-week period, it is off limits –forever! Both agreed that old, unfinished business that is three weeks or three months old cannot be used as a battering ram to use against the other person. By “shoveling while the piles are small,” they keep their relationship current and free of old baggage.
Be trusting and trustworthy
Trust, like respect, is yet another key to developing quality relationships, whether personal- or professional. We are often taught to trust incrementally – meaning that we start out at a low level of trust. If the other person demonstrates trustworthiness, then we can incrementally increase our trust. Translated, this means that, on a scale of zero to ten, I might start out trusting at a two. If the person demonstrates trustworthiness, then I might increase that to a three – and so on. This makes sense – on the surface. Yet, this approach does not work particularly well.
If one trusts at a “two,” they are likely to receive a “two” in response. It’s the Law of Reciprocity-what we give out tends to come back. Think about it – if people are trusted at a low level, they tend to fulfill those low expectations. On the other hand, if someone trusts you at a high level, you are likely to rise to those elevated expectations.
One large corporation retained me to assist in transforming their culture. Up until then, they experienced low levels of trust and significant conflict between management and labor. In doing my preliminary focus group interviews and cultural assessments, I learned more about how they created their own predicament. Their new employee manual, prepared by a labor attorney and containing about 200 pages of “legalese,” listed a number of reasons why one could be fired-in the first few pages! So, what message did the employees receive? It’s “us against them” and “you cannot be trusted.” In the Law of Reciprocity, they got back just what they sent out.
At the Nordstrom department store, they too practice the Law of Reciprocity – in a very different way. Having met with Nordstrom executives on a number of occasions, I was interested to see their new employee manual. It’s barely one page in length and states “Rule Number One: Use your own judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.” Think about the message: “We trust you and have confidence that you will do the right thing.” Interestingly enough, people rise to that level of expectation.
At Southwest Airlines, the “We believe in you” and “do the right thing” philosophy is instilled in the minds of new hires through the “You, Southwest, and Success” (YSS) program. Like Nordstrom, they trust people to make sound decisions, and employees rise to this level of expectation.
So, what does all this have to do with handling conflict? By role modeling a principled approach, by being trustworthy, and by willing to trust others at a high level, the bar is raised to work through issues with greater confidence and clarity. I am not, however, suggesting blind trust. I do not, for example, leave my car – with the doors unlocked, the key in the ignition, and the seats filled with Christmas presents – parked for a week in a high crime section of town. Chances are good that the presents – and the car – will be gone after a short while. I am advocating, on the other hand, that you role model the high levels of trust you expect to come back from others. More often than not, you will find this principled approach to be contagious and others will likely follow your lead. When you treat others the way you want to be treated, the Law of Reciprocity will work to your mutual benefit.
Conflict comes with the territory of life, and The 12 Win-Win Conflict Management Strategies© will facilitate how you handle difficult or sensitive issues while maintaining or even building relationships in the process. While none of these strategies work all of the time, they have a good track record of achieving positive results when practiced with awareness and conviction. Applying these pragmatic tools at work and at home will likely make a positive and significant difference in the quality of your life and career journey.