How to deal ef­fec­tively with con­flict Un­der­stand­ing the psy­chol­ogy be­hind con­flict will help you man­age such sit­u­a­tions to the ben­e­fit of your or­gan­i­sa­tion.

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Adam and Eve, hu­man­ity has strug­gled to deal with con­flict. We typ­i­cally ei­ther try to avoid it at all costs or tackle it in­com­pe­tently and let it spi­ral out of con­trol. Re­search shows that con­flict is cost­ing us dearly. A re­cent study, which polled 5 000 em­ploy­ees in Europe and the Amer­i­cas and 660 HR prac­ti­tion­ers in the UK, found that the av­er­age em­ployee spends 2.1 hours a week deal­ing with con­flict. In the UK alone, “work­place dis­agree­ment that dis­rupts the flow of work” trans­lates to 370m work­ing days lost ev­ery year.

So if we can­not avoid con­flict, how can we be­come more com­pe­tent at deal­ing with con­flict and save our or­gan­i­sa­tions mil­lions?

Dis­tin­guish be­tween healthy and un­healthy con­flict

Con­flict is of­ten thought of as some­thing that is neg­a­tive per se – some­thing to be avoided like an in­tru­sive virus. But is it?

It is through ex­plor­ing con­flict­ing views of re­al­ity, through chal­leng­ing set opin­ions and en­gag­ing in ro­bust de­bate that civil­i­sa­tions progress, so­ci­eties grow, in­no­va­tion flour­ishes and or­gan­i­sa­tions pros­per. Yet, con­flict that spins out of con­trol has cost civil­i­sa­tion dearly, in lives and money.

When build­ing con­flict-com­pe­tent re­la­tion­ships and teams, to use a term coined by Craig Runde and Tim Flana­gan, au­thors of Be­com­ing a Con­flict Com­pe­tent Leader, one should dis­tin­guish be­tween task con­flict (con­struc­tive) and per­sonal con­flict (de­struc­tive).

Task con­flict is es­sen­tially when we dis­agree about some­thing out­side our­selves. This is ab­so­lutely needed and is as­so­ci­ated with a process of healthy, ro­bust de­bate that al­lows the ex­plor­ing of op­tions, such as a strat­egy, a process, a way of do­ing some­thing.

Al­low­ing our­selves to be chal­lenged by others’ opin­ions, views and ap­proaches is an es­sen­tial el­e­ment of creativ­ity and in­no­va­tion, and coun­ters the brain’s nat­u­ral drive to­wards pat­tern mak­ing (where we fig­ure it out, then stop con­sciously think­ing about it and shift it to the habit or lim­bic brain).

Con­flict goes wrong when it shifts from be­ing task-fo­cused to be­ing per­son-fo­cused. Ev­i­dence of this is when we start blam­ing others and at­tribut­ing un­de­sir­able char­ac­ter­is­tics to the per­son with whom we are hav­ing the task con­flict. “You don’t lis­ten”, “You al­ways …”, “Can’t you un­der­stand/think…” are of­ten in­di­ca­tions that we have shifted to­wards un­healthy per­sonal con­flict, and this is where things of­ten get coun­ter­pro­duc­tive and

po­ten­tially de­struc­tive.

Know your hard­wired con­flict ap­proach

Ir­re­spec­tive of the level of lead­er­ship de­vel­op­ment work I do (per­sonal, team, strate­gic etc.), my ex­pe­ri­ence has been that a deep level of un­der­stand­ing of the blueprint of our own per­son­al­ity DNA, more com­monly called self-aware­ness, is one of the crit­i­cal keys to progress and suc­cess. An im­por­tant com­po­nent of such self-aware­ness is un­der­stand­ing our per­son­al­ity’s hard­wired re­sponse in con­flict.

A great tool that helps in­di­vid­u­als and teams to build self-aware­ness in con­flict was de­vel­oped by the psy­chol­o­gist Elias H. Porter. Porter found that con­flict typ­i­cally has three phases.

In Phase 1 con­flict still has the po­ten­tial to be pro­duc­tive and pos­i­tive as we re­main able to en­ter­tain the is­sue on which we dis­agree, our own in­ter­est and the in­ter­est of the other. This is the ter­ri­tory of ro­bust and con­struc­tive de­bate.

How­ever, in Phase 2 we stop con­sid­er­ing the in­ter­est and views of the other party and we lose some ob­jec­tiv­ity; and in Phase 3 we drop the is­sue un­der con­tention and ar­gue only for our own in­ter­est or point of view – in this phase the con­flict is likely to get out of con­trol and risks be­com­ing per­sonal.

A crit­i­cal el­e­ment of build­ing con­flict com­pe­tence is to learn to catch con­flict be­fore it goes be­yond Phase 1. To achieve this, we need to un­der­stand our own ap­proach to the first phase of con­flict, and iden­tify and re­spect others’ first phases of con­flict.

Ev­ery in­di­vid­ual deals with these three phases in a pre­dictable man­ner by fol­low­ing one of three ap­proaches in dif­fer­ent se­quences. Porter out­lines these ap­proaches as fol­lows (see op­po­site ta­ble): con­sid­er­ing ways of ac­com­mo­dat­ing the other (blue); de­bat­ing or en­gag­ing more force­fully (red); re­flect­ing and gath­er­ing more in­for­ma­tion (green). The se­quence with which we go through these strate­gies dif­fers from per­son to per­son. For ex­am­ple, in the

Danie Ek­steen Fac­ulty mem­ber at USB Ex­ec­u­tive De­vel­op­ment

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