The typical manager spends 30-50% of his or her time dealing with workplace conflict (IML Australia). This equates to around 20 hours a week (and we don’t know if it’s being handled well or not), so if conflict is inevitable, what can we do to understand it better and make it as productive as possible?
1 Fact – Conflict is a Normal and Inevitable part of Relationships at Work
“Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional.” Max Lucado
We are all unique with differing values, beliefs and opinions, so conflict is bound to happen when we perceive that these are being challenged or threatened. When I was managing a multinational team, the majority of my time was spent managing conflict from a perspective of strong cultural and personality difference and I had absolutely no tools to hand save playing piggy in the middle!
Conflict can invoke strong emotions which then trigger different reactions in each of us. If we can understand how our brain deals with conflict and learn how to work with these emotions and behaviours, then conflict can be productive and contribute to, rather than detract from, performance.
2 Insights on the impact of Habitual Strategies
1. A common response to conflict is to avoid it, but when we do this we are suppressing the natural emotions that we are experiencing. We do this to avoid uncomfortable feelings and stay calm, yet research from James Gross of Stanford University shows that this approach has the opposite effect. Suppressing emotion activates the amygdala which drives our fight, flight or freeze response. When our amygdala is firing, we have little to no access to the prefrontal cortex which helps us stay calm and objective.
How often have you heard “You could cut the atmosphere with a knife” after meetings where someone has been suppressing emotions? What we are experiencing is the lack of congruence between the words being spoken and the body language we are seeing. Our ‘behind the scenes’ brains are communicating with each other and firing off strong ‘this isn’t safe’ signals and the message being perceived is that this person isn’t trustworthy.
2. Choosing to avoid conflict reduces trust and negatively impacts on the opportunity to use conflict for problem solving. It’s the classic case of leaving the elephant in the room to do its business when all around are in denial. If we fear conflict and its consequences, we don’t feel safe. We now know that psychological safety is a core social need (see our blog article ‘Counting on the Cost of Trust’) and when this need is not met or threatened, we close down to protect ourselves impacting on relationships and performance.
3 Tips for turning Destructive into Constructive Conflict
Understanding our brain helps us to see that although we cannot control how others deal with conflict, we can manage our emotions and thinking to create more productive responses which can positively influence others.
From Neuroscience we know that:
1. When faced with conflict we are highly influenced by automatic thoughts that are usually negative. Our personality preferences shape what approach we might take to deal with conflict and our thoughts determine whether our responses are aggressive, passive-aggressive or withdrawing. If we can learn to be mindful and catch our thoughts, we can then choose a considered response that will build, rather than break, understanding.
2. Remember the old saying ‘Name it to tame it’? Labelling our emotions at the time we are experiencing them can dampen down the instinctual emotional response and free us to be able to observe, rather than judge, ours and others’ emotions. “I’m feeling angry/frustrated/confused – isn’t that interesting?”is a powerful pattern interrupt that can set us back on a productive track.
3. If we can develop the ability to reframe what we are experiencing then we can meet people in their model of the world, genuinely understand where they are coming from and build empathy. Rather than fighting back, defending our position or trying to educate others in ‘the right way’, we can learn to step back and ask ourselves rational questions which are a step closer to arriving at ‘our way’ or ‘another way’:
• “Is what I’m thinking about this situation valid or true?”
• “Am I overreacting or exaggerating the problem?”
• “How else might I be able to look at this situation?”
To achieve a shift in thinking, feeling and behaviour around conflict, we recommend taking a 3 pronged WHAT, WHY, HOW approach.
1. WHAT – We identify what productive and destructive conflict is, increasing awareness of how we and those we work with approach conflict in differing ways. To achieve this we use the Everything DiSC® Productive Conflict Profile to build understanding.
2. WHY – Offering a WHY through neuroscience insights. Why do we respond the way we do? In conflict, our brain reacts at an unconscious level and we act in habitual, predictable ways which become our default way of handling conflict. If we can understand our own thought and response patterns and learn techniques to consciously modify our behaviour and manage these patterns, we can more confidently engage in healthy conflict.
3. HOW – Building the skills required to work with conflict productively and arrive at a win-win outcome. How can we step back and consider a different response? How can we move from avoidance to productive problem solving?
When it comes to dealing with conflict we have a choice of responses. We can argue, avoid, belittle, blame, exaggerate – the list is long! We can also step back, catch our thoughts and choose to respond rather than react and do so with consideration. We can choose to clarify, listen to understand and find common ground.
It’s not easy but it is possible. If you would like to know more we’d love to help.