Dealing with workplace conflicts is not a task many people enjoy, as conflict is typically associated with negative emotions. Conflict management skills provide managers with the ability to resolve conflicts equitably and turn disagreements into opportunities.
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To better understand conflict management, it’s important to have a clear notion of what conflict actually entails. At the heart of any conflict is a disagreement over values, beliefs, and ideas. These factors can trigger strong emotions, especially if one or both parties in the conflict feel their needs are not being met. Often, the issue that seems to generate conflict is secondary to the root cause of such emotions.
Conflict management skills help people take a step back from their emotional responses so they can examine problems both objectively and emphatically. Learning to recognize conflicting needs and a willingness to examine those needs with empathy and understanding leads to creative problem solving and improved relationships.
People respond to conflict in many different ways. Some become guarded and self-defensive, while others become angry and argumentative. Avoiding the conflict is also a common strategy, but ultimately an unhelpful one–unless addressed, conflicts grow and fester, worsening the problem.
Learning to recognize your own emotional reaction to conflict is one of the first steps in developing conflict management skills. Often such responses stem from early life experiences: an extreme example would be a survivor of childhood abuse, who associates conflict with pain, fear, and anger and therefore avoids it whenever possible.
Early life experiences don’t have to be so traumatic to affect how you respond to conflict. A manager whose parents were strict authoritarians will have a very different view of conflict than one whose role models ignored or denied disagreements.
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An inability to control emotional responses makes communication difficult during a conflict.Once you understand your typical emotional reactions to disagreements, it becomes easier to take a step back from those emotions. Learn to evaluate a conflict objectively while understanding the other person’s emotions and concerns.
Conflict management skills
Conflict management skills boil down to two specific skills: in the moment stress relief and emotional awareness.
Stress relief helps individuals control the stressors triggered by conflict. Stress limits the ability to read verbal and nonverbal communication, and may manifest as agitation, anger, or defensiveness, all of which increase the perception of a conflict as a personal attack.
Relieving stress during a conflict is as simple as controlling your emotional state, and it’s here that emotional awareness comes into play.
Emotional awareness describes a person’s moment-to-moment understanding of their emotional state and the ability to manage those emotions in an appropriate manner.
An awareness of your own emotional state helps you understand what other people feel, and increases your motivation to resolve the conflict in an amicable manner. Healthy responses to conflicts include.
- Empathizing with others.
- Remaining calm, respectful, and nonthreatening.
- Displaying an willingness to move past the conflict without holding a grudge.
- Expressing the firm belief that facing and resolving conflicts is the best course for everyone involved.
Words rarely tell the whole story in any face-to-face conversation. In a groundbreaking study back in 1967, UCLA professors Albert Mehrabian and Susan R. Ferris determined nonverbal communication, or body language, accounts for 93 percent of communication.
What people say during a conflict often conflicts with their nonverbal language. By remaining calm and emotionally aware, managers can better read body language to understand what the other person intends, and respond in ways that build trust.
It takes time to master conflict management skills, but the result is well worth the effort. Every day is filled with minor conflicts, offering countless opportunities to practice emotional awareness.
Practical conflict resolution tips
A number of conflict resolution tips can help managers seeking to improve their conflict resolution skills. Such tips include:
- Avoid focusing on past conflicts or grudges. Concentrate on what’s needed in the present.
- Avoid the urge to punish or override the other party. Confront the problem, not the person.
- Can the conflict be transformed into an opportunity?
- If needed, reach out to a third party who can act as a mediator.
- View the conflict as an problem that requires the cooperation of all parties, transforming the issue from adversarial confrontation to a teamwork opportunity.
- Watch for nonverbal communication–an employee may agree with you verbally while her body language indicates she remains unconvinced.
- Winning the conflict is not the goal–resolving the conflict in a way all parties agree on is.
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