Conflict at work, at home, caused by differences of opinion is an inevitable part of lives. Each of us has a different way of managing conflicts. In business conflicts are an important part of creativity, solving problems and overall business growth. It could be said that the same applies to our personal relationships.
At an intellectual level it’s easy to see why differences of opinion can lead to great harms or benefits. The majority of people would prefer the latter. Yet, when conflicts arise the latter, typically does not occur Most people rely on the built “fight or flight” mechanism and neither is beneficial to those involved. So how do you prevent this built in mechanism from rearing its ugly behind?
Differences and arguments are uncomfortable affairs, and if conducted poorly can lead to damaged relationships, massive productivity loss and psychological harm. There are reasons to be optimistic though, as by using an outcome driven process, and creating an environment where the meaning associated to conflict and disagreements is changed, fights can be avoided and productive solutions, arrived at.
Most people would rather not discuss differences. This happens to be a cultural bias in the United States, where Americans would prefer not tell the truth for risk of hurting someone’s feelings, than share their true viewpoint. In Israel, for example, talking straight and seeing and saying how things really are, is part of the cultural makeup. Neither is a satisfactory solution as the U.S. approach leads to far too little being said, and the Israeli approach to far too much.
The challenge for most businesses and relationships is that conflicts and disagreements rarely go well, and the majority of conflicts get resolved either by power decision or a negotiated settlement, where we split the differences.
In both cases, the result is damage to the relationship, the organization and to the individuals involved. To improve any area of one’s life requires focus, commitment and the consistent drive to practice to improve. Turning conflicts into positive outcomes requires nothing more.
To create productive debates starts with clear focus and outcomes. That outcome is to focus on a higher purpose. A higher purpose means that you plan and openly share with others, in your organization, that a disagreement is not necessarily a negative event. In fact, it is a positive event, that is expected and leads to benefits for those involved and the organization.
The negative event, the one that does harm to individuals, relationships and organizations is the failure to share what a person is thinking. When a thought isn’t shared because of fear of conflict, or fear of dismissal or judgment, it does harm to the person who doesn’t share, as well as to the organization; because that very thought may well be the catalytic one that leads to your break-through solution.
How do you begin to create a comfortable environment where people feel to speak their minds without fear of punishment or chastisement or embarrassment? Step one is changing what disagreement means to everyone involved. Changing the meaning of conflict is not an easy task, as conflict’s meaning is practically hardwired into our nervous systems. To change it’s meaning requires you to change it in your own mind as well as changing it’s meaning in the minds of everyone in your organization. It requires patience, persistence and a mantra-like repetition.
Ultimately, it’s about changing the meaning of conflict within the organization, from something negative, with negative consequences, to something that is encouraged because it is good for everyone involved.
To support this change, requires a change in the values of the organization. This change needs to be at all levels. Like the change in meaning, it too requires focus and commitment. Talk alone will not create the change you need to create an environment where people are much better equipped to work with and through conflicts.
Take on the value of “listening” as an action that is of highest priority to your organization. Listen as with anxious anticipation, that at any moment, someone may say something that may change your life. Teach those around to listen in that same state. When you observe the value not being respected, emphasize that listening is of highest value to everyone in the organization.
This will free the mind from being shut, and the higher purpose will be one of learning. It will free those who are afraid of sharing their opinions, the space they need to do so.
There are bound to be heated debates, where emotions are involved. As Keith Cunningham, Author of “Keys to the Vault,” says, “business is an intellectual sport, if you want to get your behind handed to you play with your emotions.”
Some insight that may help:
It will not happen over night. Anything of real value rarely does. Patience is key. G_d’s delays are not G_d’s denials.
Emotions can be negative or positive. When negative emotions creep into a discussion, it is a good idea to take a time-out. When you reconvene, define what outcome you are each after. See where the common ground lies. Come up with an outcome that everyone can agree on. Then focus on ways to accomplish that outcome.
Have a sense of humor and use it. This will break people’s states, and change the conversation.
Remind yourself that the issue being debated, while important, is never usually as important as it seems in the moment. Steven Covey’s, Habit 3, Put First Things First, in his book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” will provide you with the skill necessary to evaluate the importance of the issue being discussed. This alone, will give a clear perspective on how to effectively resolve the conflict.
The area of dispute and conflict resolution is rich with advice and guidance. This conflicts we face are likely to be part of the human experience until we are able to reach a different level of consciousness.
The odds of this occurring during our lifetimes do not appear to be in our favor. Therefore, a plan, open discussions about what conflict and disagreement means, placing a high value on, and a commitment to these change will dramatically and positively impact your relationships and the success of your organization and the happiness of the people within it.