If you’re like most people, then you probably know that interpersonal conflicts cannot be avoided, and if you’ve given it any thought, then you probably also know that there is no personal, industrial or social progress without some modicum of struggle. If fact, I think it is safe to say that without conflict there would be no motivation for anyone to ever embrace change or consider doing anything differently. Conflict can prevent stagnation; stimulate creativity, curiosity, and interest. However, conflict is most important because without it, intimacy, team cohesion, and attunement cannot be achieved. Developmentally teams need to learn to engage conflict knowing that it is normal and if executed effectively can produce qualitatively better outcomes. Failure to engage conflict forces issues underground diverting precious energy from productive action while also inadvertently creating a culture of apathy.
That said it’s important to note that not all team conflicts are productive. Realistic or functional team conflicts are generally based on opposing needs, goals, means, values, or interests. Whereas, nonrealistic or dysfunctional team conflicts generally stem from ignorance, error, tradition, prejudice, ineffective organizational structures, win/lose type of competitions, or a need to release tension.
To ensure that your conflicts are productive, work to model respect for yourself through assertion (not aggression), show respect for others, and implement the following:
- First and foremost, manage your feelings and behavior effectively. You cannot manage a conflict well if you have not learned to manage yourself first.
- Practice active listening and empathy to address feelings first using open-ended questions (e.g., How did you interpret things?) This will help to de-escalate any difficult conversation.
- Seek first to understand the other’s feelings, thoughts, wants, and needs – understanding does not mean you have to agree. Then work to make self understood.
- Surrender the win/lose dynamic – instead work toward a win/win.
- Use “I” statements (e.g., I feel frustrated.). “You” statements tend to trigger defensiveness (e.g., Your frustrating me.).
- Remember that intent does not equal impact. Even when we have good intentions it is possible that others may feel hurt and visa versa.
- Define the conflict in terms of needs (i.e., the problem you are trying to solve), not solutions.
- Build on areas of agreement, before you address areas of difference.
About: Eugene Dilan, Psy.D. is the Founder and President of the Dilan Consulting Group. For more on negotiating team conflicts productively, go to our Conflict Management page or our facilitated team development page.