#559       Innovative Leader     Volume 11, Number 8        August 2002

Resolving Conflict the People-Smart Way

by Mel Silberman, Ph.D. and Freda Hansburg, Ph.D.

Drs. Silberman and Hansburg are professors of Adult and Organizational Development at Temple University and are President and Vice President, respectively, of Active Training (www.activetraining.com). Dr. Silberman is author of 101 Ways to Make Training Active, Active Training, and 101 Ways to Make Meetings Active (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1995, 1998, 1999). His latest book is PeopleSmart: Developing Your Interpersonal Intelligence (Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 2000).  

As long as there are differences among people, there will be conflicts and competing interests.  And who can say that this is bad?  Out of our conflicts have come our most enduring institutions, governments, and religions.  Nations have all been forged out of the struggle to express our needs, resolve our disputes, and accept our differences.  Like sun and rain or day and night, conflict is part of the rhythm of life.  Our challenge is to master it and grow through it.

Fortunately, most of us do handle conflict without resorting to violence.  Let’s consider a fairly typical case example.

In his work at an engineering firm, Jim is generally deferential, especially to his superiors, who perceive him as loyal and cooperative.  He accepts last-minute projects, sometimes venting his irritation with a sarcastic remark.  In fact, on the job, sarcasm is Jim’s weapon of choice when he’s dissatisfied.  He has a rapier wit, which others find amusing, but also disconcerting.  Colleagues aren’t always quite sure when Jim is seriously displeased. 

Last week, Jim had a rare burst of explicit anger at work when he learned that a female subordinate he himself had trained received the promotion he’d been hoping for.  Steaming, Jim dashed off an e-mail message to his boss that just dripped with venom.  He even included a crack about how his boss had obviously been “swayed by the curves” of the woman who got the promotion.  Now his boss has asked him to come to his office to discuss the situation, and Jim feels like a nervous wreck. 

Do you see any of yourself in Jim?  Or are you more people-smart about conflict, like Stu:

People usually know where they stand with Stu, a middle manager in a large communications company.  He’s direct with others, and likes them to treat him the same way.  He tries to deal with issues promptly, rather than push them under the rug.  Stu is observant with others and tends to pick up the signals when they’re upset or annoyed.  When he engages someone in discussing a conflict, he makes it a point to be calm and direct, even if he needs to talk himself down before he goes to confront the person.

Stu has a knack for setting the stage for dealing with conflict by inviting people to find solutions.  He’ll say something like “let’s sit down and see if we can figure out how to improve communication between our departments,” even if his first impulse was to say:  “what is it with your people, anyway?”  Before he goes to the negotiating table, Stu prepares himself by thinking through his own wants and needs and doing some detective work, whenever possible, to know where the other guy is coming from.  Experience has taught him not to try to win the battle at the expense of the war, so he tries to show respect for the other party.  He’s skillful at brainstorming possible solutions to conflicts that will allow everyone to walk away with something they want, even though this isn’t always easy.

Rather than shy away from conflict, people-smart individuals use these key behaviors to constructively navigate their differences with others:

  1. Creating a climate of mutual interest:  people who handle conflicts well know how to surface disagreements without being disagreeable.  They take a positive approach and elicit cooperation from others.
  2. Putting the real issues on the table:  good negotiators focus on the important needs and concerns, instead of bogging down or getting sidetracked.
  3. Negotiating win/win solutions:  people who are successful at negotiating resolutions to conflicts are creative and persistent about finding ways for all parties to meet at least some of their needs.  They know how to handle setbacks and deal with “curve balls” in the negotiating process.

If more of us approached conflict with this kind of interpersonal intelligence, the world would be a calmer, safer and more creative place.  You can at least use these abilities to make your own corner of the world more that way!

Here are four ways to enhance your abilities and your confidence in dealing with conflict.

  1. Identify a long-standing disagreement you have been having with someone in your life.  How have you been defining the problem?  See if you can state the problem in mutual terms, such as "the conflict we are having is...." or "our conflict is...."  Do the issues look different when you frame the conflict this way?  Decide what type of conflict you are having with this person.  Is it over facts, methods, purposes or values?  Are there any different approaches to the conflict you might take, based on your analysis?
  2. Select a current or recent conflict you have been dealing with.  Write down the positions taken by you and the other party.  Now brainstorm your own real interests in the situation, as well as those of the other party.  Have these issues been addressed at all in your efforts to resolve the conflict?  How might you put them on the table?
  3. For a current or recent conflict you have faced, identify your targets.  Write down your maximum position, goal and bottom line.  See if you can think of what the other party's targets would be and write these down, as well.  Decide whether you want to do some negotiating with the other party, based on your understanding of your respective targets.
  4. Choose a current conflict situation and brainstorm as many mutual gain options as you can.  Do you think any of these solutions might be workable?  Consider sharing your list with the other party and inviting him to add his own ideas.

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