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Training in conflict

Why we need to deal with conflict and how to do it through training


Training staff in conflict management can foster a more harmonious culture and add value to the business, says Jane Gunn.

16th Feb 2022
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Conflict is an everyday occurrence in our lives and workplaces, yet we often lack the skills and tools to handle it well. This creates unnecessary losses in terms of stress, staff absence or retention, and a toxic culture. Training staff to accept, acknowledge and actively manage conflict rather than ignore it, is key to turning potential loss into added value and creating a more harmonious culture. 

Fear of conflict

Conflict often arises when our expectations about a situation, event or someone else’s behaviour are not met. Instead of being aligned or in harmony with the other person, there will be a variety of outcomes, including differing expectations, competing goals, conflicting interests, confusing communications and unsatisfactory relationships. So why don’t we act earlier? Fear.

I’ve learned that people may forget what you say, they may forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel,” Dr Maya Angelou

Our ability to collaborate with others to avoid or resolve conflict is based on how our brain reacts in any given situation. Many people fear dealing with conflict and therefore avoid or delay dealing with it for a significant length of time. Alternatively, they may resort to adversarial or aggressive behaviour that causes the situation to escalate. Creating a staff training programme with ongoing support can help staff to overcome this instinctive fear and manage conflict at a much earlier stage.

Designing and structuring conflict management training around the wants and needs of the organisation, using memorable methods and models, and in ways that increase knowledge retention will make such training both more attractive and create a higher return on investment.

The challenge: wants v needs

In training, it is important to give people not only what they need but also what they want. The challenge is that very often those who request training in conflict management do not know exactly what they want and so it’s important to learn about and understand the background and context to their request.  

When dealing with conflict, the most important question to start with is always 'What are people struggling with?' Discovering problems that are experienced at different levels of the organisation is key to designing effective training. Employee surveys and discovery calls can help uncover the key issues and encourage the organisation to participate in designing the training so that it is bespoke to them. So what are the solutions?

1. Memorable methods and models

Making training memorable and fun is one of the key challenges and especially for a topic that people may be inclined to avoid such as conflict. Using models to explain key principles often helps.

As with any new skill, whether it be riding a bicycle, learning to sing, practising sky diving, when you first begin there is so much to remember

For example, I have models that explain and explore the P.I.N. principle – Positions, Interests and Needs – and I also use a Compass Method to give a framework to resolution and a Map to help participants to visualise and describe their own journey with conflict.

2. Belief, commitment and practise

Books often inspire us and training frequently motivates us to change the way we do things or think about things, but statistics and personal experience show that changing is not easy. There are three things needed to achieve positive, lasting change: belief, commitment and practise. Participants must believe that the change is worthwhile and can bring benefits for themselves and others. They must commit to doing what it takes to turn that belief into a reality. They must practise, practise, practise.

3. Sharing and personal responsibility

When participants are encouraged to share their belief and commitment with another person or persons – a friend, colleague, mentor, coach or mastermind group – and take personal responsibility for following through with the required exercises and practice, it will significantly increase their chances of success.

As with any new skill, whether it be riding a bicycle, learning to sing, practising sky diving, when you first begin there is so much to remember. But the traits that lead to mastery are persistence, collaboration, and concentrated, reflective practice. Each person must be encouraged and enabled to share their belief and commitment, then persist with the task and reflect on their learning and then repeat the process again.

Having at least one supporter but preferably a network of supporters makes it all so much easier and more fun, and participatory learning is known to be the best way to enhance retention of training. Teaching others is the very best way to enhance retention of training. Designing these elements into the training programme will vastly increase its value over time.

4. Outer journey v inner journey

Most training happens on two levels, the outer and the inner journey. Where training has the potential to trigger emotions such as those related to conflicts past and present, it must enable participants to explore how they feel and thus to understand how other people may feel in challenging situations.

A one-off workshop may deliver knowledge and information but is unlikely to create lasting change

This is at the core but is an often overlooked element of conflict management training by teaching participants in a way that encourages self-exploration and sharing what was experienced by the people involved. Role play and re-enactments can give people a sense of how it was lived and felt by the people involved.

5. It's a marathon or relay not a sprint

At the end of the day, learning to deal with conflict and doing that through effective training is not a sprint. A one-off workshop may deliver knowledge and information but is unlikely to create lasting change. Understanding that such training is much more like a marathon or a relay, embedding personal as well as organisational change over time with support and encouragement as well as a clear and bespoke design is the key to long-lasting success.

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