Strategies to resolving conflicts in the workplace – part 2

Have you ever experienced conflict in the workplace? Regardless of the reason the conflict occurs, it’s likely that the parties involved still need to work productively together, therefore making workplace conflict essential to overcome.

It is important to understand what conflict is. Merriam-Webster defines conflict the following way: To be different, opposed or contradictory, to fail to be in agreement or accord. By looking at this definition, we can better understand why conflict, to some degree, would be considered normal in the workplace. There are many reasons that conflict occurs. Sometimes those reasons occur over and over again, causing the same type of conflict and the same outcome. Other times the reasons for conflict vary, causing differing degrees of conflict.

Regardless of the reason the conflict occurs, it’s likely that the parties involved still need to work productively together, therefore making workplace conflict essential to overcome. In in the book, Resolving Conflicts at Work by Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith, the authors suggest 10 different strategies for improving your personal ability to confront, embrace, struggle with and resolve disputes. This article is part of a series and will address the first two strategies outlined in the book.

Strategy 1: Understand the culture and dynamics of the conflict

Cloke and Goldsmith explain that each person that contributes to a culture, whether it is the culture of an organization, family, or society, is unique because of personal experiences. Every person can improve a culture in the way that we respond to conflicts. If collaboration is used in conflict, a transformation from reactiveness and destruction can change to pro-activeness and construction. Cloke and Goldsmith urge consideration of the following points when using collaboration and learning from conflicts:

  • Recognize that conflict can be positive
  • Use empathy to see a different point of view
  • Shift from holding power and defending your position to a focus of shared responsibility
  • Move from settlement to complete resolution of underlying issues in the dispute
  • Be honest with yourself and your opponent and give empathetic and timely feedback
  • Speak and act, from your heart and spirit, with integrity and clarity
  • Search for small scale collaborative alternatives that increase cooperation and focus on shared interests.

Strategy #2: Listen empathetically and responsively

In communicating through a conflict, there are hidden frameworks that need to be considered, according the Cloke and Goldsmith. These hidden frameworks include:

  1. Words, symbols, metaphors, tone of voice and body language used in communication.
  2. The process of communication which includes how respectfully, responsively, actively, empathetically, appropriately and reliably the message is communicated.
  3. The unspoken interests, needs, emotions, expectations and past conflicts between the speaker and the listener.

For example, choose a simple salutation such as “hello” or “good-bye” and then apply one or more of the hidden frameworks. The way a word is said or the emphasis that is put on a word in a phrase can change the intended meaning of a conversation. It’s important to lead by example when in conflict, which includes looking beyond hidden frameworks, practicing effective communication and connecting with others through techniques used for responsive listening.

Strategy #3: Search beneath the surface for hidden meanings

One way that Cloke and Goldsmith encourage readers to think about conflict is through an iceberg. Conflicts are often complex and full of layers, just like an iceberg. Remember that our personal experiences contribute to the overall culture of an organization or family. Likewise, our personal pasts can also contribute to conflict, whether we acknowledge or verbalize that occurrence. For example, personal pasts may:

  • Shield us from knowing what we are actually angry about
  • Mask emotions such as fear or pain
  • Divert attention from something in the past we aren’t ready to discuss

Resolving Conflicts at Work suggests that to look deeper into the layers of an iceberg conflict, you should:

  • Focus on understanding more about the content at each level in your iceberg conflict
  • Use a variety of techniques to probe beneath the surface such as responsive listening and open ended questions
  • Allow yourself to be honest and vulnerable as you dig deeper into the situation and in return you’ll be able to go deeper with others
  • Accept what you find in the layers of your iceberg conflict

Don’t forget that conflict shouldn’t always have a negative connotation. There are wonderful discoveries that can come from conflict – both personally and professionally.

At Michigan State University Extension, the Conflict Resource Team strives to build the capacity of all staff to constructively prevent and handle conflict situations that occur on their teams, with their volunteers and audiences and in their communities. The book, Resolving Conflicts at Work by Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith, is a resource that the Conflict Resource Team often utilizes.

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