When there’s trouble at the Mill: 10 useful strategies

Bruce Cottrill, General Manager: Consulting

Relationships are one of the most difficult things we do, and life is all about relationships.

There is hardly an aspect of our lives that does not rely on an interdependent relationship with someone. And where there are people and interdependent relationships, there is bound to be conflict.

There is a good chance that a lot of that conflict will be with people at work, because there is plenty of opportunity. The statistics are consistent about how much of our life is spent at work, it’s a whopping 90,000 hours or one third of our entire awake working life!

Another universal truth is that we are far better at digging ourselves into conflict, than we are at digging ourselves out of it.

Workplace conflict can be usefully defined as being a dynamic between two or more people whose jobs are interdependent in some way, who feel angry, who perceive the other as being at fault and who act in ways that cause business problems. Unmanaged workplace conflict can quickly spiral into something far more serious, and that becomes a full blown dispute. Think of a dispute as high conflict that really, really matters in a particular point of time. And disputes have high transaction costs and can be debilitating for businesses.

Conflict need not be destructive though, and need not end up as a serious dispute. Managed conflict is what drives change in our businesses and community, so we all have a stake in ensuring that conflict adds value, rather than taking it away.

So, here are 10 tips on how to manage conflict so that it stays in that constructive place, rather than escalating into something damaging for both you and your organisation.

  1. Be unconditionally constructive

In every interaction there is an insult zone. When we dip below this we are being destructive and disempowering. When above it, we are the opposite. We can choose how we frame our words, the actions we take and the behaviours we exhibit. Being unconditionally constructive does not mean that we must agree all of the time, but it does mean that we can disagree nicely!

  1. Speak lower

When we are stressed, we are inclined to raise the tone of our voice, and turn the volume up. Be conscious of this, because not only are you winding yourself up, you are winding the other party up too because emotion is contagious.

  1. Speak slower

Slow down. In conflict situations we are inclined to speed up rather than slow down. It’s a time for cool heads. If you are feeling rattled, or that your thinking is emotional rather than rational, don’t be afraid to take a break from the situation.

  1. Question deeper

To break out of the cycle of blaming and justifying, rather than making statements, ask deep questions. Don’t say ‘I will never understand why you did this to me’, but ask ‘I really want to understand why this occurred and what we can do together to put things right’.

  1. Focus on them

People in conflict won’t listen to you, until you have listened to them. Ask them what is important them, what it has been like for them and what they would like out of the conversation. Step into their shoes.

  1. Focus on you

Then move the focus to you, tell them what’s important to you, what it has been like for you and what you would like out of the conversation. Invite them into your shoes.

  1. Focus on us

Now mutualise the problems. Talk about ‘us’, and ‘our’ problems, and what ‘we’ want, and what’s best for ‘our’ organisation. Problem solve collaboratively.

  1. Be the third person

Imagine yourself as a neutral person looking down on the conflict. Ask yourself what each of the parties’ have contributed to the conflict, what is motivating the parties and what might be a good outcome for both of them. Paint yourself an objective picture of the conflict. Invite the other person into the objective conversation. Ask’ ‘I wonder what a fair minded and objective person might make of all of this?’

  1. Make commitments

Commit to a constructive conversation early, and out-comes late. And at the outcome stage, commitment is different to a simple agreement. You will likely be more committed to an outcome when each of you are sure that there is enough detail in the agreement to ensure that it sticks.

  1. Reflect in action and on action

During conflict, reflect as you act and speak. Ask yourself ‘Should I say this, or Should I say that’. ‘Is this constructive’. ‘Am I listening’ ‘Am I acknowledging’. ‘What question should I ask’. ‘Have I explained what’s the most important to me?’

And later, reflect on the action. What happened, and what was said. What worked, and what we can do better!