Conflicts. Disputes. Disagreements. Arguments.
They have always been with us. And as long as we have other people to interact with, they will always be part of our lives. And we have always been finding ways and means to deal with them.
If left unresolved, they can cause massive disruption and damage to our lives. Bad feelings. Anger. Resentments. Broken relationships. Financial loss. They can even make you ill. Not just in our private lives, but in our working lives too. In the businesses we run. In the companies we work for. And in the company we keep: in our dealings with bosses, employees, colleagues, clients, customers, and bureaucrats. Conflict in the workplace does not stay there. We bring it home with us. It’s on our minds when we leave the office, and when we get ready for work in the morning. It spills over into our home life, into our family life, our private resting time.
You are aware of the kinds of conflict I mean. You live with them every day. And we all have our own ways of dealing with conflict. You may face it straight on – nip it in the bud by either crashing or crashing through – by confronting the – well – troublemakers or whingers – or by pouring oil on troubled waters – there are peacemakers and mediators and conciliators in every workplace. You may be the sort of person who hates to face up to conflict, to confront and resolve disputes and disagreements. You may want to simply ignore them and hope they go away, hope that things will settle down and resolve themselves. But life rarely works like that. Matters left unresolved tend to fester. Frustrations and resentments grow. A whisper can grow into a roar; a small argument can transform into a war.
There are many ways to resolve conflict.
There is the hard way. Confrontation and collision. Face-offs and walkouts. Sackings and resignations. And resort to legal action. These can all be costly, exacting an emotional and financial price, and damaging – to business, productivity, and profits – poisoning relationships and creating a toxic workplace. It presents in tension and stress, in workers’ comp claims, in absenteeism and high staff turnover. At its worst, it erupts into arguments, tantrums and fights.
Conflict, then, is costly!
But there is an easier way: managing, mitigating, and ideally, resolving disputes through better communication, consultation even, and improved cooperation. Yes. By talking to each other. That way, we can go to work and not go to war.
We might not completely resolve or eliminate discord in the workplace – this are as inevitable as night follows day. It is the nature of people and their organizations. But we can certainly contain it, work with it, limited its negative impact upon working relationships and work processes, and indeed, harness it’s beneficial effects too.
Yes, some say that conflict can be useful. It can challenge, energize, fire you and others up to do better, or, to use a sporting analogy, to go further, higher, faster.
You probably are very aware of the kinds of conflict I mean. You might even regard them as part of the process of running a business and dealing with different kinds of people every day.
You might have an ongoing dispute with a client or supplier that is hurting your business. You are unable to see eye to eye. But things must be sorted because it’s costing you money and you value the business relationship.
Running a business, you will be familiar with tensions and grumbling in your workplace that you can’t quite identity or resolve, or there are constant arguments and complaints. It’s like an itch you can’t scratch. You know that it is causing stress, and hurting morale and productivity, but you are not sure what to do about it.
You will no doubt be able to think of “difficult” people in your workplace or outside of it who make you want to tear your hair out. You just don’t know how to approach them, or respond to complaints about them from others. And that drives you spare too. I don’t just mean obstructive and obstreperous people. They may just have what you might call “unfortunate personalities”. They find it hard to get on with people, hard to work with others. They might be just unassertive and hard to motivate, and this is a drain on other people’s morale and a drag on team efforts.
And on a subject that is very much in the spotlight, these days: how do you respond if one of your mangers or colleagues bullies or has an unacceptable management style, or if there are allegations of sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour in your workplace? If these are left unresolved, you could end up in deep trouble. Maybe even before the courts or the Fair Work Commission, with the prospect of large legal bills, payouts, and penalties.
I too have faced these and similar problems over the years, and with the help of ADR, have endeavoured to manage them. And I have helped others to do likewise. There are ways and mean of working with the problems I have just described. And the key is conflict management skills.
And these skills are adaptable and very portable – you can take them home with you and use them in most other circumstances. You can use them with your family, friends, and relations. You can use them in the pub, club, or in your local association, in your volunteer or charity work, and in your dealings with Council, or with contractors and tradies.
So, what are these famous techniques, then? They are right in front of us. Here. Briefly, are a few of them.
Communication is the big one.
Saying and meaning. Hearing and understanding. Hearing what the other person is saying. Letting the other side know you are listening. This is called Active listening. Communicating effectively so that what you say is understood by the hearer. It is said that effective managers listen far more than they talk, they observe. Their radar is on, their antenna is up.
Language too is important.
The language you use can provoke conflict – but it can also encourage its resolution
As an example, a simple, almost elementary way of getting people on side, fostering cooperation and steering away from positions and positioning, and building mutual empathy and a sense of common purpose is to avoid using word like ‘I’ and ‘you’, substituting instead, the much more inclusive ‘we’ and ‘us’.
Think about the words you and others use, and body language. Did you know that some 65% of communication is non-verbal: in tone and voice, eye contact, gestures, smiles and facial expressions, posture, body orientation, and closeness of personal space.
To use an old saying.”It’s not what you say but how you say it” – and just as importantly, how you present when you are saying it in voice and form. For example, you can let the other person now you are listening and understanding by simply nodding your head. And if the conversation is getting excited, heated, even, speak clearly, calmly, and quietly. You will be surprised how the person you are speaking to mirrors your tone and behaviour.
So, listen to yourself. Think before you talk. Watch how you hold yourself. So, radar on. Antenna up. Eyes and ears alert. To quote that old song from XTC, “senses working overtime”.
So how can this help you?
Conflict management skills help you to prepare for and conducting that important meeting with your boss or your staff or with an important client. There are things to prepare and be prepared for, to be mindful of and to watch out for. All sorts of “dos” and “don’ts”.
Conflict management skills help you to prepare for and conduct that difficult conversation. You know – the one you are dreading – with your boss or with a colleague. You have to make a difficult demand or a request, you have a complaint to make, bad news to deliver, or a reprimand or ultimatum. The one where you have got to get your point across even though you know it is not going to be taken well and could well end up in anger or tears.
And conflict management skills help you, very importantly, to move from conflict to cooperative solutions, and to bring the other side with you.
And not just conflict situations. Indeed in any circumstances where cooperation and team work is required, where people from different backgrounds, with different personalities, and different objectives have to work together for a common purpose.
It was very useful also in managing projects – in bringing together a diverse team of individuals from all sectors and levels of an organization with different and often competing and conflicting needs, interests, expectations and agendas, and also with different personalities, outlooks, work practices and behaviours.
And in change management, communicating with managers and employees at all levels in preparing for, implementing and adjusting to organizational and technological changes, like a restructure or a new computer system, through communication, consultation, and training.
A simple exercise:
Before that meeting or conversation, write down what you want to achieve by it. Think about what will happen if you don’t get all or part of what you want? What would you settle for? What would be the best alternative outcome? What will be the worst? Then try and do the same thing for the other person. What will they be asking? What would be their best alternative if they didn’t get their way? And the worst? How do you think they will respond to what you are asking? Do you see a way through?
You are now ready to negotiate.
And indeed, interacting with people is all about negotiation. You mightn’t be aware of it, but we do it all the time.
The most important thing you can get out of learning about conflict management and acquiring the skills to do so is understanding that things are not always zero-sum, not always win-lose. Cooperative solutions can lead to outcomes where all parties benefit. By focusing on the issues rather than on personalities and positions, we can arrive at win-win outcomes that those involved can accept and live with. You mightn’t get all you want, but you might get enough to satisfy you and the other party.
For this is what Alternative Dispute Resolution is all about – the goal is to create, maintain or restore a harmonious, cooperative and productive workplace. Seeing as we spent much of our daily life in our work places, isn’t that what we all want?
But, you might say, if all I have said about managing and resolving conflict is no longer practicable? What if matters have come to a head?
You already have a dispute with a client or customer that is threatening your relationship and damaging your business. You have an employee who alleges that he or she has been bullied, sexually harassed, or exposed to what is perceived as inappropriate behaviour? What if they want to take it further and higher? They might even be threatening to resign or go public. There is a possibility that the matter could end up in court or with the fair work commission. You might lose a valuable employee or an important supplier or customer. There may be negative publicity that would threaten your business and your reputation. You might end up with large legal bills, even penalties, payouts, and higher workers’ compensation premiums.
What can you do to resolve these potential nightmares? How can you reach agreement or resolve differences, restore relationships, and obtain outcomes that you and others can live with? That is when you try mediation.
As neutral third parties, mediators bring people who have a dispute with each other together and assist them in working through the issues that divide them and in coming to an agreement that they can live with.