Resolving Conflicts at Work - Book Review
1 December 2017
Dr. Moria Levy
The book "Resolving Conflicts at Work: Ten Strategies for Everyone on the Job" was authored by Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith, both esteemed consultants holding PhDs and renowned experts in mediation and organizational consulting. Initially published in 2000, the book's success led to multiple subsequent editions.
The book explores various topics, encompassing both emotional and functional dimensions:
- Empathetic and responsive listening
- Recognition of emotions
- Uncovering hidden meanings
- Focusing on behaviors
- Distinguishing issues from obstacles
- Developing collaborative and creative solutions
- Addressing situations where no resolution is reached
- Exercising leadership in conflict resolution
While the authors strongly emphasize the emotional aspects and occasionally take on the role of psychologists, many of the tools presented are universally applicable. Despite the book's workplace-centric perspective, drawing from the authors' experiences and examples, it's evident that the principles can be applied to various facets of life, albeit with adjustments to suit specific individuals and circumstances. This skill can be acquired, and the book offers valuable insights and knowledge, making it worthwhile.
Here's to hoping for fewer but more constructive conflicts for all of us!
Empathetic and responsive listening
Effective listening constitutes a fundamental element in the art of resolving conflicts constructively. The stages of active listening encompass the following:
1. Considering various factors that can impact a person's communication, such as gender, age, race, cultural background, existing tensions, external pressures, and position within the organizational hierarchy. Simultaneously, being self-aware of the factors influencing your listening approach is crucial.
2. Removing obstacles to attentive listening may include time constraints, distracting influences, personal thoughts, and pre-existing biases.
3. Creating an environment that fosters empathetic listening, characterized by an absence of hierarchy and an atmosphere of openness.
4. Cultivating genuine curiosity to understand what others have to say.
5. Prioritizing listening over speaking, emphasizing the importance of letting others express themselves.
6. Engaging in active listening by sincerely attempting to comprehend the speaker's intentions and expectations. This involves encouraging the speaker, asking clarifying questions to ensure accurate understanding, reflecting on their thoughts and feelings, and summarizing their points.
7. During the listening process, refrain from judgment, avoid the projection of personal biases, and acknowledge the emotions expressed by others.
8. Participating in respectful, empathetic, and responsive dialogue, demonstrating active listening through appropriate gestures and non-verbal cues.
Effective listening demands a high level of mental concentration, but listening with genuine empathy and emotional engagement is equally important.
Recognition of emotions
In many workplaces, the conventional approach is to suppress emotions, relegating them to the background. We're often instructed that emotions have no place in the professional realm. However, the authors of this book firmly reject this notion. Emotions don't simply disappear when left unspoken; they can exacerbate conflicts and must be acknowledged and addressed.
So, how can emotions impact us? They can:
- Trigger automatic responses.
- Modify our tone of speech.
- Bring up memories.
- Influence our perception of the situation.
- Elicit discomfort, silence, depression, anger, sadness, and more.
The recommended approach is to recognize these emotions and redirect them constructively, following these steps:
1. Acknowledge and accept your feelings, isolating and understanding your sensations.
2. Identify the emotions of others and acknowledge how these feelings affect communication.
3. Thoughtfully consider what others are going through.
4. Channel your emotions, transitioning from venting and negative emotions to more constructive forms of responsibility and understanding emotions, all while receiving empathy from others regarding these feelings.
Various tools can be employed:
- Discussing issues and people in terms of shared problems.
- Focusing on discussions oriented toward the future rather than dwelling on the past or present.
- Communicating in a way that neutralizes threats.
- Exploring a range of potential action alternatives.
- Offering apologies and taking personal responsibility for any role in misunderstandings, conflicts, or mistakes, among other things.
Lastly, it's essential to remember that aggression can often serve as a defense mechanism; insults may stem from jealousy, and anger might be an expression of care or a plea for listening and assistance.
Uncovering hidden meanings
When encountering conflicts, it's crucial to realize that the apparent issues often represent just the surface of the problem. Beneath this visible layer, many elements lie hidden, including personality traits, emotions, interests, needs, desires, self-concepts, concealed expectations, and unresolved past issues.
So, how can we delve into these deeper levels effectively?
1. Employ open-ended questions while engaging in empathetic and responsive listening.
2. Take a calculated risk by sharing your vulnerabilities. This fosters openness, honesty, and authenticity in others.
3. Establish a human connection by seeking permission for the ongoing process. Ask questions that you would feel comfortable answering yourself if posed to you.
4. Use metaphors to transform conflict into a shared journey if necessary.
5. Embrace empathy and honesty, despite its potential vulnerability, to effectively address the conflict.
It's important to note that honesty and empathy yield numerous benefits beyond conflict resolution, making them valuable in specific situations and in a broader context.
Focusing on behaviors
Conflict can sometimes arise due to challenging personalities. However, while possibly accurate, labeling or diagnosing individuals often fails to guide us toward a solution; in fact, it can hinder progress. In such cases, the recommendation is to shift the focus of conflict resolution away from the individual's personality and onto their observable behaviors and the underlying causes. Changing behaviors proves to be a more practical approach.
Here are some strategies for addressing behaviors that contribute to conflict:
- Distinguish the Person from the Behavior: Recognize that people and their personalities are multifaceted, and concentrate on modifying behavior alone.
- Root Cause Analysis: Strive to understand the origins of these behaviors, often rooted in past personal or familial difficulties. Address the underlying needs driving these behaviors.
- Collaborative Solutions: Propose collaborative efforts to effect change through your example or as part of a team. This may involve training and constructive feedback.
- Withholding Rewards: Ensure that inappropriate behaviors are not rewarded or reinforced.
- Consider involving an external consultant or mediator.
- If the unwanted behavior is pervasive within the organization, explore the possibility of implementing comprehensive cultural changes (discussed in the prevention chapter).
In all cases, it's advisable to self-examine before attempting to correct others.
Distinguishing issues from obstacles
A common misconception that frequently fuels conflicts, shared by both sides, includes the beliefs that:
- We are unequivocally correct.
- There exists only one absolute truth.
To facilitate conflict resolution and promote progress, it is crucial to disentangle issues from obstacles. This approach involves:
1. Shifting from Positions to Interests: Breaking down the positions presented by ourselves and our counterparts into underlying interests. This paves the way for win-win solutions since interests need not inherently conflict.
2. Separating People from Problems: Focusing discussions on "what" rather than "who" reduces emotional intensity and enhances the likelihood of reaching a solution (as we cannot change who we are).
3. Distinguishing Problems from Solutions: This facilitates an understanding of needs and creates room for solutions, fostering the exploration of various actionable alternatives.
4. Isolating Agreements from Differences: Emphasizing existing agreements while minimizing conflict.
5. Separating the Future from the Past: Encouraging energy allocation toward problem-solving rather than dwelling on past grievances.
6. Decoupling Emotions from Negotiations: Not implying emotionless negotiations, but ensuring that individual feelings are not the subjects of bargaining.
7. Separating Content from Process: Processes tend to be more flexible in people's eyes. First, establish agreement on the process, then address content and its accuracy.
8. Divorcing Solution Alternatives from the Selection: Exploring creative alternatives without prematurely committing to a single option, allowing for a broader creative space and the development of better alternatives.
9. Severing the Decision Process from the Decision Itself: Facilitating agreement on a decision-making process and easing the path to a thoughtful and well-considered decision.
10. Distinguishing Oneself from Others: Assuming personal responsibility for one's role, followed by a reevaluation of the conflict.
By implementing these strategies, conflict resolution becomes more achievable and effective, fostering collaboration and understanding among conflicting parties.
Developing collaborative and creative solutions
Key considerations for fostering creative solutions include:
- Embracing a Positive and Curious Approach: Adopting a positive and inquisitive mindset when approaching conflict resolution.
- Viewing Collaboration as a Process: Recognizing collaborative teamwork as a process for uncovering innovative solutions.
- Utilizing a Learning-Oriented Methodology for Conflict Resolution:
- Identifying shared responsibilities for defining problems and solutions.
- Encouraging open exchanges of ideas and thoughts among individuals.
- Experimenting offline with alternative solutions and engaging in shared discussions to learn from the results.
- Prioritizing Collaboration, Pilots, Values, and Innovation in the Search Process.
The steps for achieving creative solutions through collaboration are as follows:
1. Recognizing the Problem and the Need for Resolution.
2. Defining the Components and Characteristics of the Problem.
3. Conducting Investigation, Analysis, Classification, and Prioritization.
4. Generating Solutions that Satisfy the Interests of All Parties.
5. Taking Action Following Solution Selection, Analyzing Outcomes, Acknowledging Efforts, and Celebrating Success.
It's important to note that conflicts may sometimes signify deeper underlying issues related to organizational work culture. In such cases, addressing the cultural problem should be a separate endeavor (covered in the Prevention-Culture chapter).
Additionally, it's worth recognizing that discussing conflict may, in some instances, intensify it, potentially preventing it from naturally resolving on its own. Sensitivity is essential for distinguishing between situations where intervention is necessary, and allowing time and space may be the best approach.
Addressing situations where no resolution is reached
Finding a solution may prove challenging in certain conditions, even if one exists. In such cases, two recommended strategies can facilitate progress:
1. Uncovering Objections: This involves delving into the root causes of objections, moving beyond surface conflicts. The focus here is on understanding resistance, which may arise from unmet needs, a desire to be heard, fear of change, and more. The same resolution tools applicable to resolving the primary conflict can be used here, as the underlying issue revolves around the willingness to address the matter.
2. Collaborative Negotiation: The premise of this approach is the recognition that there isn't a single winning solution, and compromise is essential. Collective negotiation involves jointly constructing a settlement where both parties take responsibility for meeting each other's interests. This collaborative process includes:
o Establishing prior agreement on the negotiation process.
o Identifying issues and interests.
o Developing mutually beneficial alternatives in a respectful and informal setting.
Additionally, third-party assistance, either from within the organization or professional mediators, can be sought. Effective communication is crucial, as is avoiding surprises. Documentation is essential but should occur within a positive, solution-oriented atmosphere. After the process concludes, maintaining contact, striving for continuous improvement, honoring and adhering to the agreed-upon resolutions, and celebrating successful outcomes are essential to fostering a constructive resolution.
Prevention encompasses two essential components: actions within the organizational culture and activities within the context of corporate mechanisms.
Every organization and group possesses its unique culture, encompassing an intricate interplay of language, ideas, values, behaviors, and expectations. An organization's culture can either nurture or exacerbate conflicts. To prevent future conflicts, it is imperative to cultivate a culture characterized by:
- Fostering Belonging and Connection among members.
- Encouraging Decency, Honesty, and Openness in discussing complex issues and disagreements.
- Cultivating a genuine Desire to Understand Others.
- Promoting a spirit of Cooperation.
- Embracing a culture of continuous Learning.
- Encouraging self-criticism and self-improvement.
- Acknowledging the positive aspects in others, even when they may be perceived as opponents.
- Uniting employees around the organization's mission, vision, and goals.
- Viewing conflicts as opportunities for growth and improvement.
Analyzing the organizational culture, pinpointing factors that fuel conflicts, and addressing them using continuous improvement tools is advisable. A culture that disregards conflicts is insufficient, as it does not resolve them. Such cases also warrant attention, as discussed in the previous section.
Organizational mechanisms encompass structures, systems, processes, relationships, and culture. Practical organizational tools can help prevent or mitigate conflicts. Examples of these mechanisms include:
- Peer Consultations
- Team Building Initiatives
- Discourse Circles
- Constructive Feedback Systems
- Strategic Planning Processes
- Open Forums
By implementing these mechanisms, organizations can proactively work to prevent conflicts and promote a harmonious work environment.
Exercising leadership in conflict resolution
Conflict resolution is a crucial leadership responsibility, more so than in any other context. Effective leadership in managing conflicts encompasses the following attributes:
- Wholehearted Listening: A deep commitment to active listening.
- Guiding the Solution-Finding Process: Taking the lead in collaboratively identifying the best solutions and engaging employees in their achievement.
- Serving as a Personal Coach: Assisting individuals in conflict as a personal mentor and guide.
- Managing Change for Solution Implementation: Overseeing the change process for implementing the chosen solutions.
- Firm Commitment to Decision and Action: Demonstrating unwavering commitment to making decisions and taking action to resolve conflicts rather than allowing them to persist.
- Taking Responsibility for Addressing and Resolving Conflicts: Owning conflicts, addressing them, and actively working toward their resolution rather than ignoring or avoiding them.
Leaders may choose, when necessary, to seek the assistance of a mediator, an expert in conflict resolution. However, this does not absolve the leader of the responsibility for overseeing all stages of conflict resolution, as detailed above.
In conclusion, a concise guideline for conflict resolution can be summarized as follows:
1. Acknowledge Your Role in the Conflict.
2. Recognize the Humanity of Others and Show Empathy.
3. Practice Forgiveness, Both Towards Others and Yourself; Let Go and Move Forward.
4. Consider How You Can Prevent Others from Experiencing the Same Conflict.
I extend my best wishes for success in all conflict resolution endeavors!