Sunday, August 28, 2011

Conflict: Tips to Come Out Looking Good.

Picture from Wikipedia Commons
This month, the stars seem misaligned.  Conflict and fighting seem suddenly rampant - between friends and within organizations - not just among nations.  I'm not an astrology person, but so it feels in my gut.

For example, last month I ended a Facebook friendship because - even though it wasn't aimed at me - I couldn't face any more of this person's hurtful modus operandi - attack first and ask questions later.  A couple of weeks ago, I heard a tale about a set of organizations, coming together to work toward a greater good, that dissolved, instead, into a back-biting conflict, undermining the work of the collaboration.  Now, before they can apply their time to good works, they will first have to spend many hours rebuilding trust.

I'm not immune, either.  This week, I had a raw, unexpected fight with a woman who is both a colleague and a close friend.

And I've been attempting all week, more or less unsuccessfully, to dodge a second battle raging among another set of friends.

If there truly was an Athena, the Greek Goddess of War but also of Philosophy, she would be shaking her head sadly.  Athena, unlike her brother Ares, is not associated with the violence of war, but instead with the discipline of strategy.  Despite filling the occasional role of "warrior maiden," she preferred to settle disputes with wisdom.  She encouraged fighting only as a tool of last resort.

Here's another popular local theory:   "It's the heat."   

I don't buy that any more than I buy the astrology explanation.  What I do believe is that we are in difficult times.  People's work and life situations are in economic and therefore social crisis.  The three pillars of skill, experience and relationship are no longer enough to ensure a secure stool upon which to rest your life.  Competition for jobs, resources and opportunity has become fierce.  If you're an organization, the change-up in the funding game is frightening.  Nerves - at every level - are frayed.  Tattered nerves equal short fuses, bad judgment, strained relationships.  Conflict.

I've had somewhere between four and five hundred hours - I eventually stopped counting - of conflict training.  I train others in conflict management, believe I handle conflict fairly well, and, like Athena, am not afraid to face conflict when necessary.

But, as this week proves, I don't always avail myself of my own skill set.  It is more difficult to step back and strategize when the conflict becomes personal, or when I find myself unexpectedly in the middle of the fracas.

When that happens, I feel as icky, messy, unwashed as someone without any training whatsoever.

Poorly handled conflict - especially when public - can be downright humiliating.  It has ramifications beyond the immediate issue because it sends a message to the community about our ability to handle ourselves.  

We all want to be seen as someone who has their act together.

Self-reflection is a great growth tool.  After discussing all this recent conflict with the same friend I fought this week - talking it out safely is a great thing about true friendship - I decided to sit back and review some conflict skills.

And, because the pressure of these times ramps up the heat for personal and professional conflict, I thought I might share.

First, recognize your conflict style.  There are different ways of dealing with conflict:  avoidance, accommodation, competition, compromise, and collaboration.  Perhaps you recognize yourself or a frequent protagonist in one of the descriptions below.  Second, you can learn skills to enable you to acquit yourself honorably in a conflict.  I've given a few tips below for each style.

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Avoidance:   Usually, the root cause is actual discomfort with conflict.  Other times, you may look the other way when something goes down against your wishes because of a power imbalance.  Like when the person on the other side of the disagreement is your boss or has control of something you want. Either way - discomfort with conflict or fear of losing leverage - avoidance almost never works out well.  While there are times to pick and times to avoid a battle, if an issue is important, it pays to learn techniques for wading out into conflict without tipping the boat completely over.

Here is a strategy I use when fear is pushing me to avoid but I know I shouldn't:

Move toward the conflict with an open mind, asking questions.   Instead of coming at it with your point of disagreement, start by saying something like, "Help me to understand your thinking on this approach to...."  Then really listen before jumping in.  Maybe their approach solves a problem you didn't realize existed.  If so, you can say something like, "Well, I didn't realize that such-and-such was a problem.  I can see where your idea addresses it.  I'm wondering if we can find a way to address that problem without causing... [some other negative ramification you perceive in their approach]."

Now you're on the same team, problem-solving together.  You've become collaborators instead of opponents.

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Accommodation:   Do you try so hard to respect the views of others that you - or others -  wonder whether you have a view point of your own?   Peace and being liked are excellent outcomes, but sometimes accommodation comes at the result of personal credibility or loss of something that really matters to you.  If you're a constant accommodator, a likely outcome over time is resentment.

Accommodation was exactly what led to the fight with my pal.  I chose to look the other way when she proposed something not in my personal best interest, because she's my friend and I simply wanted her to be happy.  Later, despite my intellectual decision, I discovered I was hurting because she hadn't taken my needs into consideration.

      Of course, how could she have known my needs?  I failed to express them.

Chris Argyris and Don Schon, authors of a set of theories on organizational behavior, say our actions frequently differ from the way we say we would like to act, because we adopt behaviors to preserve relationships.  If you're trying to accommodate someone, one probable reason is that you care about the relationship.  Realize that the other party to the relationship, whether work or personal, probably also highly values the relationship and will work with you to find mutually acceptable solutions.  Here's a better way of handling an urge to accommodate:

Look for mutuality in accommodation:  Simply say, "I really want to accommodate you because I know this is important to you.  I am worried about a couple of things, though.  May I share my concerns with you so we can figure out together how to accommodate both of our needs?"

I really, really wish I would have said something like that to my friend before our fight.  

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Competitive:  If you find yourself pushing an issue regardless of how insignificant the stakes, you may be a Competitive.  If you've stopped making reasoned arguments and are, instead, throwing expertise or rank around, dropping names, hoping to get a credibility edge, you may be a Competitive.  Do you pride yourself in holding back a few points you can concede - points on matters about which you didn't actually disagree - just to make it look like you're being reasonable?  If someone accuses you of being all about winning, do you point back to those crumbs of concession?  When you've been cornered - do you make dismissive comments about your opponent or your opponent's position, wash your hands of the situation, and walk away?

Believe it or not, this kind of conflict has a place.  When all other options for conflict resolution have been exhausted and someone needs to fearlessly stand up for what is right, digging in with your heels might be necessary.  Or, when decision-making processes just go round and round in circles, someone has to make a decision for movement.  A person this self-confident can usually be counted upon to make the tough call.

Unfortunately, the downside of competitive conflict is that it rarely results in learning, which requires open-minded self-reflection.  Not, dig-your-heels-in defense tactics.  

And it often results in loss of relationships, because being unable to grant credibility to others is, in a way, the same as failure to accept your relationship or collaborative partners for who they are.  We all want acceptance. Trust is built around acceptance.  And failure to be able to see any credibility in another person's perspective leaves that person feeling like talking to you is talking to a wall.  They will not trust you to take their needs into account.  They will come to believe they cannot work with you.  Everybody loses.

Barbara Kellerman, author of several books on leadership, says there are five relational positions in an organization:  leader, follower, by-stander, isolate, activist and die hard.  Someone who is so competitive, sticks to his or her opinion regardless of what is best for the relationship or the group, is, with rare exception, not a leader.  He or she is a die-hard.  That's because a good leader must also be a good listener.  Followers will either follow willingly or they will surreptitiously move to undermine a "leader" whose values do not include concern and compassion for followers.  If you really want to succeed in bringing people around to your opinion, being a competitive die hard is not the way to gain influence.  Here's my advice:

Practice standing down.    Make a decision that for an entire day, you will simply listen.  Actively listen.  Practice inviting opinions and searching them for value.  Practice thanking people for sharing their thoughts, and voice the value of their opinion back to them without following the statement with a persuasive - or any - opinion of your own.  Practice being Zen-ish about having an opinion.  Let go and let it be ok not to have an opinion.   Eventually, when you get good at this work, try to integrate the new Zen you into your own opinionated behavior - exhibiting both opinion and appreciation for the opinions of others.

I predict that you will be pleasantly surprised by the results when you back up and give others space to have a valid opinion too.

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Compromisers:  In the traditional conflict negotiation model, parties give up stuff to get other stuff.  In the end, usually both parties are equally miserable, but willing to live with the deal.  If you're a compromiser, chances are, you hate conflict because you always walk away feeling deprived.  The key, according to "Getting to Yes" experts Fisher, Ury & Patton, is to turn a conflict into a collaboration, rather than a compromise.  My advice here is the same advice I have given the Avoider. Move into the conflict asking questions, trying to ascertain the other person's or organization's needs.  Acknowledge those needs, and then enlist the other parties in working collaboratively to solve the problem in a way that meets both their needs and yours.  If you've sincerely acknowledged their needs, there will be the raw material of trust upon which you can begin building mutually satisfying solutions.

I don't mean to make this sound easy.  Building mutually satisfying solutions sometimes requires more than listening and trust-building.  It often requires people to park preconceived solutions  - what we in conflict management call their positions - long enough to explore the underlying interests their positions seek to satisfy.  Once the underlying interests are on the table, creativity can flow as the entire group seeks explore alternative solution ideas to get all parties' needs met.

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Collaborators:  Collaborators know that working together to find solutions that accommodate all parties' valid interests will result in better, more durable solutions and better long-term working relationships.  If you're already a collaborator, congratulations!

But, in times like these, when people and institutions are stressed, you may find yourself in the middle of unexpected conflict, acting from a more guttural and less strategic position.   I hope that some of the tips above will move you along.  

Athena would be proud.

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