Managing Consultant Uncommon Leaders Ltd
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Conflict management: how to be generative rather than destructive

Where there’s a diverse range of people and opinions, there will always be conflict. The success of any organisation hinges not on trying to get rid of conflict, but instead on learning how to manage it better.  

30th Aug 2019
Managing Consultant Uncommon Leaders Ltd
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two colleagues arguing
iStock/fizkes

There’s only one organisation that I have worked with, where people had physical altercations in the office. That doesn’t mean that the other organisations don’t have conflict - it just means that they enact that conflict differently, often in ways that are equally destructive.

What I more often see is weaponised gossip, arguments about technical details that go nowhere (because the real conflict is beneath the surface), rivalry and competition driving a range of behaviours with senior leaders, and inter-team competition and rivalry.

In order to better handle conflict where it arises, we first need to understand the source of it - it is, after all, one of the core leadership skills required in the modern workplace.

Task versus relationship conflict

There’s a distinction that is often used in the field of conflict, which is of the difference between task and relationship conflict.

Task conflict is the simple disagreement between two people on a technical answer, whereas relationship conflict is that which relates to how we feel about each other. These two are inseparable.

What makes a task conflict simple is if you and I have a good relationship. What makes it tricky is where we have a difficult relationship, and both believe each other to be pursuing political agendas.

The relationship shapes the conflict and when the relationship is difficult then the conflict is difficult.

The task and relationship distinction is incomplete, however, in addressing the range of influences on conflict.

Environmental pressures also play a significant role to inflame and encourage conflict.

A working example

Imagine yourself as a senior manager in an industrial business.

You are responsible for a new product launch that will attract national attention, and has the focus of the CEO and the great and the good in your company.

Imagine also that the company has had a series of high profile missed deadlines in previous years that have attracted press and public attention, and many in the company are pinning their hopes on this new launch.

You are in a meeting to discuss the project, and at a late stage an engineer shares some worrying data on the product safety.

It’s inconclusive at this stage and could be nothing – more data is needed – but getting this data will delay the launch.

We default to our historic patterns for how we engage in conflict – whatever flight or fight response we learned on the playground when someone pushed us, or that we learnt at home.

Then imagine that you have relationship issues with this engineer.

There are historical issues of competition, promotions, attitudes to risk etc. that have resulted in a relationship where neither fully trusts the motives and intentions of the other.

Here we have the perfect storm for a conflict: environmental pressures and relationship issues, but the ensuing conflict will appear to be about data and its validity or otherwise (the task conflict).

The relationship issues and environmental pressures will rarely be mentioned, except perhaps as weaponised barbs walking out of a room, e.g. “you’ve always had a grudge against me because of my promotion,” or “you’re only pushing for this because your bonus rests on getting it done on time”.

Your move

In these situations most of us have limited moves we can make.

We default to our historic patterns for how we engage in conflict – whatever flight or fight response we learned on the playground when someone pushed us, or that we learnt at home.

During our fight or flight response, the blood drains away from our neo-cortex (the bit of our brain responsible for rational thought) and goes to the muscles to prepare for the fight or flight.

This means that our capacity for thoughtful responses is diminished and we engage in an historic pattern we have embodied.

There would be other moves available to us if we could only get beyond this, but that requires relaxing and staying relaxed in the repeatedly triggering situation of conflict, which is hard.

How do we learn this?

A common approach to working with conflict in leadership and management development is to do a questionnaire to determine our preferred way of approaching conflict.

Unfortunately, we tend to fill this in when we are calm and relaxed, and so we respond with the thoughtful responses that we would have if we weren’t triggered by conflict.

If we cannot manage our state, then we are engaging in conflict without the resources of our full intellect. 

Another approach is that old familiar exercise of role-plays.

You set up a scenario with a colleague or an actor of a conflict you face and play it out and receive feedback.

This can, if engaged with well by both parties, give a clear sense of patterns at play under conflict.

The challenge is how to take that feedback and learn to respond differently under pressure.

State management

If we are to be successful in responding to conflict, we need to both know our patterns under the stress and pressure of conflict, and learn how to manage our internal state, so that we can de-trigger ourselves and respond effectively in the moment.

State management is an embodied phenomenon. It involves relaxing, breathing, and what we call ‘centering’ ourselves, so that we are able to connect to a wider purpose, to the other person as a human being rather than opponent, and so that we can have our emotions rather than being ‘had by them’.

This allows us to see other possibilities and other moves we can make in the conversation.

If we cannot manage our state, then we are engaging in conflict without the resources of our full intellect – for a physical metaphor it’s the equivalent of engaging in a fight with our arms tied behind our back.

Then we need to learn to new moves. For some of us, connecting and empathising with the other party in a conflict situation will be a new move.

For others, it involves curiosity and asking questions, whilst others will need to learn to hold their ground on issues they care about.

The new moves we need to make will be different for each of us and will require us to do something tricky – manage our state in conflict (centering, and continually re-centering as we are triggered) and trying out a new move.

To learn this we need to be able to practise and we need to practise when we are triggered.

Examining responses

In my embodied work we do this with gentle stimulation to evoke our responses to the stress of conflict.

We spend time just examining and getting to know these responses first – how do we experience them in our thoughts, emotions and sensations.

How do we contract (clenched fists, raised shoulders, tightened diaphragm, etc.) in response to this pressure?

As we become more familiar with this response, we get to see how it takes form.

For example it could look like:

  • Thoughts – they’re wrong for doing this to me.
  • Emotions – anger and resentment.
  • Sensations – heat in the chest, face flushed, upsurge of pressure.
  • Contractions – fists clenched, stomach tight and holding breath. 

Each of us has our habitual shape in conflict and we need to know it, get familiar with it, and then learn to bring ourselves back from this into a centered place, where blood returns to our neo-cortex and we can choose our response. Then we add the new move.

Through engagement in repeated practise we can develop the capacity to see and experience our responses, center and take new actions.  

Practicing conflict responses

One client I worked with was a senior partner in a professional services firm, who was conflict averse. His key client was a bully and he was unable to hold his ground.

After working through such a process he then began to practise holding his ground in various situations in life.

He would take a lot of black taxis in London, and there the drivers will often start a conversation about politics.

It is the experience of moving through a conflict, without that destroying the relationship that gives us permission to relax and fully be ourselves.

He began to practise disagreeing with the taxi driver, whilst centering, and practising holding his ground for the duration of the taxi ride – not something he would previously have been able to do.

This was a consequence-free place to practise some new behaviours in conflict.

This enabled him to generate a different approach to his client and a different relationship – one in which the client had much more respect for him and was willing to trust him more.

This is what I mean by generative conflict.

A skill for life

We know that we can never truly relax and trust someone until we have been in conflict with them.

It is the experience of moving through a conflict, without that destroying the relationship that gives us permission to relax and fully be ourselves.

This is why children who grow up in a healthy environment will test these boundaries to ensure that they are loved, accepted, safe and have innate dignity and value.

Our challenge is to learn to manage our state and to learn the moves that will enable us to deal with conflict generatively and produce the results we desire.

That is relevant for our work, our families and our wider communities and societies.

Interested in this topic? Read Complex diplomacy: how to deal with conflicting demands and information overload.

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