You don’t have to look very hard to find signs of conflict in an organisation. Conflict costs businesses millions of pounds every year. It’s the largest reducible cost, yet so few people have the know-how to tackle it head on.
A quick internet search on the cost of conflict brings up pages and pages of results: conflict is big business. Yet few people know how to resolve conflict in the workplace.
A recent Forbes article stated that '60-80 percent of all difficulties in organisations come from strained relationships among employee'. Looking at the Workplace Conflict Survey (UK) Report 2010, 40% of all grievances at employment tribunals are relationship orientated.
Here's another shocking statistic from the same survey:
55% of managers don’t see conflict as their responsibility. So whose responsibility is it? It usually lands on the doorstep of HR.
Of course, the responsibility for successful resolution of conflict resides with each of us, but it's not something most of us look forward to.
But conflict is something we simply cannot avoid. In essence, it's about different ideas; one person's idea conflicts with another person's idea. When having a discussion, we have a tendency to hold onto our idea.
The first step in resolving a conflict is to recognise there's a conflict in the first place. Conflict management techniques need to be learned – if they were taught when we were young, we'd save ourselves a lot of angst as adults.
By the time we're several years into our careers we may have learnt lots of technical skills, but we won't have learnt how to resolve conflict effectively. We still resolve conflict the same way we did in the playground - sticking our fingers in our ears, not listening, standing our ground and taking a position of either aggressor or victim.
Conflict management techniques
As adults, we need to respond appropriately, especially in the workplace. This means being assertive. Aggressive means 'I am more important than you'; passive means 'you are more important than me' and assertive means 'we are both equally important'.
Assertiveness is calmly stating the facts and their effect on you, whilst allowing the other person to speak too.
Knowing ahead of time that you might get emotionally involved can help you to prepare your responses, go through the possible scenarios and clear your mind.
So, you need to resolve a conflict with a colleague. How do you do it?
First, you prepare. Write it down: write what you saw and heard as though you were watching a film of it. Describe the actions, the words, the facts. Do not ascribe any meaning. Read through what you've written and ask yourself if you've made any assumptions like: 'She only said that to me to wind me up'. Is that true? How do you know? Perhaps she has tried to have a conversation with you in the past and your responses have prompted hers – what assumptions is she making about you?
Frame each event as a one-off and don't bring history into it unless you've tackled the same subject before. People have a habit of exaggerating the events to make themselves appear the 'better' person, but saying absolutes like 'always' and 'never' are seldom true and the person can argue with that instead of focusing in on the specific event you have a conflict around.
Flexible – keep an open and questioning mind
A good listener – listen with the intent to understand
Non-judgmental – you're finding out about the other person and you can't judge them for what they think as you don't want them to judge you. Check how you're feeling and don't say things like 'you need to' or 'that's ridiculous'
Solution-focused – concentrate on resolving the issue at hand
Questioning – probe for facts and solutions and ask good questions which are open and thought-provoking. Start with 'who', 'what', 'where', 'when' and 'how'
Asking 'why' – it sounds accusatory
Pause for response and:
Suspend judgment – how is your listening face? Are you letting your negative reactions show?
Paraphrase to ensure clarity so the other person feels understood.
Agree on a solution together and if it fails first time don't give up – the other person may not yet be ready to talk adult to adult. If you're taking the lead, you can help them follow.
If you're unsure ahead of time – practice with a friend!