How-To Recognize and Deal with Conflict

How-To Recognize and Deal with Conflict

Most of us get nervous in situations of conflict. We think of it as a sign that something is going wrong. People are not getting along. In self-governing organizations, a certain amount of conflict is natural and necessary. It’s a sign that the group is sharing leadership and decision-making. Being aware of this can help make conflict constructive rather than destructive.

conflict ˈkɒnflɪkt/
noun: conflict; plural noun: conflicts

A serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one.
A prolonged armed struggle.

Synonyms:
dispute, quarrel, disagreement, difference of opinion, dissension, friction, strife, antagonism, clash

Antonym:
agreement, peace

What is conflict?

We know that conflict is a disagreement between at least two parties. They may perceive that they have different goals and that the other is preventing them from achieving those goals.

Conflict can arise even when people agree and hold similar goals. It happens because information is not being shared. People acting on incomplete information may make assumptions that are incorrect. Information scarcity can cause arguments.

Conflict can occur when people view the actions of each other in a negative manner. They are used to judging each other negatively, and it has become a habit. This can make every action they take and every word they say seem negative even when that is not the case. This is often a marker of personal conflict.

People often have different assumptions, values, or ideals. They may hold these without even realizing it. They can cause people to make unconscious judgments about each other. Because these are so built into the way people think and behave, they are most difficult to address. First they have to be revealed. This can be painful. Revealing these unconsciously held judgments is a requirement for addressing values conflict. There are times when no resolution can be made.

Conflict is a normal part of democratic communication. So don’t be surprised when it occurs. Be ready with policies and procedures for engaging in difficult situations. tweet this

 

Conflict Leads to Collaboration

It turns out that the secret to effective teamwork isn’t engaging in team building exercises, but in learning how to deal with conflict. Conflict can be unpleasant and uncomfortable, but it’s a necessary part of collaboration. Conflict can help organizations become more effective, spot trends early on, and encourage collaboration.

This may seem counter-intuitive. Why would conflict bring people closer together? We can see from the definition that conflict implies disagreement. How can disagreement make us better at teamwork?

There are many ways. Disagreement and conflict can act as an early warning of larger problems ahead. It’s like the “check engine” light in the car. It alerts you that something can go wrong if it is not addressed early.

Conflict also helps to identify ways to do things better. We often experience conflict when there are multiple ways to achieve the same goal. The people involved may think they are being prevented from achieving those goals, which can cause conflict. At this point, conflict makes us aware of different ways to solve the same problem. This provides a great opportunity for innovation.

Don’t run from conflict

Conflict is a normal part of democratic communication. So don’t be surprised when it occurs. Be ready with policies and procedures for engaging in difficult situations.

Having procedures in place let’s your team know that you expect conflict. This is especially important when dealing with people and situations where conflict is seen as problematic. When people are used to working in a hierarchy, conflict can be especially scary.

Knowing that it is normal and expected helps everyone on the team.

1.       Know the difference between constructive and destructive conflict

Personal conflict can involve name-calling, talking bad about people, and focusing on winning an argument rather than on solving a problem. This kind of conflict needs to be addressed immediately, before it harms the group.

Constructive conflict is about solving a problem. It often involves different ways of seeing the issue at hand. Constructive conflict leads to innovation and collaboration.

Personal conflict is destructive. Conflict over processes and ideas can be constructive.

2.       Resist the urge to resolve conflict with an executive decision

It may seem easier to make an executive decision and solve conflict that arises on your team. Resist! There is nothing to learn from this. In the end it might turn out to actually increase personal conflict.

3.       Don’t allow one person to take the conflict to a manager or higher level

If the people involved cannot resolve the conflict, they need to take it to someone else for resolution together as a group. That way all sides get heard. The decision made will make more sense to everyone.

Mistrust leads to destructive conflict. Destructive conflict is a great way to make your organization ineffective.tweet this

4.       Create a method for making difficult decisions

Every group will have to make difficult decisions. Thinking about how those decisions are made in advance can help make the process easier for all involved. At the beginning of each project, sit down with the team and come up with criteria for making difficult decisions.

5.       Share information

Share as much information as you can without endangering individuals or the group. This can be difficult if you are working in a situation where personal safety and security is an issue. Your team will have to make decisions together about what kind of information to share. Discussing risks together contributes to the feeling of working in an open environment. This is true even when some things need to be kept private.

What you don’t want to do is keep your policy about what to keep private a secret.

6.       Share decision-making

As far as possible, make your decision making transparent. Let people on your team know how and why difficult decisions are made. This builds trust.

7.       Assume good will

It can be difficult to trust people and assume they are working towards the same goal. This is especially true when trusting the wrong person can be catastrophic. Yet, to be effective, people working together have to assume that they are all working for the best interests of the group and the objective.

Mistrust leads to destructive conflict. Destructive conflict is a great way to make your organization ineffective. Making people lose trust in each other is the best way to destroy a group. It is not unusual for people ideologically opposed to a group to try to cause in-fighting. Beware of rumors. Beware of personal attacks. Beware of outrageous statements that make you angry. The angrier you are, the more you need to ask yourself: “Is that really the truth? Did that person really say that? Did that really happen?”

Assume the people you are working share your goals. Do this, because you have had clear conversations about those goals. Do this, because you have all spoken about your process for dealing with conflict together.

Conflict can arise even when people agree and hold similar goals. It happens because information is not being shared. People acting on incomplete information may make assumptions that are incorrect. Information scarcity can cause arguments.tweet this

8.       Don’t just have a policy for dealing with conflict, talk about it

A policy that is hidden in some document somewhere is not really a policy. It’s a piece of text. You cannot depend on people to read all the policies of an organization. You have to make them live. To do this, discuss them regularly. Display them on the wall. Send out a weekly cartoon. Do everything you can to make the guidelines for dealing with conflict normal.

9.       Don’t expect agreements to be easy

If you want to build a strong organization or movement, don’t expect the process to be easy or fast. Expect emotions. Expect difficult discussions. Expect disagreement. Prepare yourself. Tell yourself that disagreement does not equal disrespect. Remind yourself that you are all trying to solve a problem together. When you get emotional, take a deep breath. Remind yourself that conflict leads to innovation.

10.   Don’t forget: democratic communication is filled with conflict

That’s the way it is. Don’t be scared.

 

Read How-To Build Democratic Groups

 

Recommended: Halleh Ghorashi: Reflections on Change and Revolution

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