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A calming force

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Marielena Sabatier gives her top tips on conflict management to promote harmony in the workplace.



According to report in 2008 from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and OPP, a workplace psychology company, poorly managed conflicts at work costs UK businesses £24bn a year. Whilst workplace conflict is nothing new, the impact of the recession has increased incidents of conflict at work, particularly at managerial level. Job cuts and downsizing are forcing senior staff to work more closely together than normal causing rifts and clashes, according to a report from law firm Mace & Jones in June.

Many experts believe that conflict management should be a vital component in any effective leadership programme, but lots of companies overlook it as a business priority. Consequently, managers are often ill equipped to handle conflict at work whether it is with their peers or their employees. So what techniques can be learned to manage conflict better and keep a harmonious workplace?

Firstly, let’s look at how conflict arises. We have all been there, if we have to have a difficult conversation with someone we tend to put if off. We want to be liked and can’t imagine having a difficult conversation with someone. Even thinking about confrontation can make us nervous; we become worried about what the person will think of us, so we avoid the situation, hoping it will go away. But this doesn’t work and we end up feeling resentful and angry and eventually we explode completely or address the person we have been avoiding in an emotional, angry or dismissive way.

This kind of conflict is very common in business and can arise from a simple misunderstanding with colleagues that escalates, from a personality clash, between colleagues with different values or goals, a lack of cooperation within a team or even competition between managers for resources.

Seeing it from a different perspective 

One of the best ways to encourage a harmonious workplace is by nipping potential conflict in the bud before it escalates. To do this, people need to learn to see things from other people’s perspectives. Although neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) divides the critics, it is a very useful tool that managers can call on to understand other people’s intentions and motivations more clearly because it teaches us that everyone has a different perspective, motivations and values. No person is the same – we all filter and absorb information in different ways. Our own values and beliefs will not be the same as the next persons, so any assumptions we make about a person’s actions are probably not accurate.

Top tips for conflict management

  • Think before you act - ask yourself what did the person actually do? What was the impact on me?

  • Understand that impact and intention is not the same thing. Did you make any assumptions about their intention?

  • Turn the situation around. Ask yourself how would the situation be different, if you assumed their intention had nothing to do with you?
     
  • Learn from the every confrontation - be curious about what could you do differently to avoid the situation in the future

  • Communicate honestly and openly at all times - when you confront someone, communicate how their behaviour made you feel and what you'd like to happen in the future
     
  • Be empathetic – put the shoe on the other foot

  • Stay calm at all times

NLP also teaches that a positive intention lies behind every kind of behaviour - and sometimes that intention doesn't have anything to do with you. If you are handling a redundancy situation or a dispute between colleagues, you need to accept that anger will more than likely be directly at you. Before reacting and rising to the bait, stop for a minute and think about the reasons why this person is angry, be empathetic and remember you are probably not the root cause of the anger, so don’t take it personally. 

Also, don’t assume you know other people’s intentions.  Sometimes people behave out of mixed or confused intentions, sometimes they have no intention regarding you, and even if they have a good intention, their action still can hurt you. Remember we don't actually know what other people are thinking unless we ask them, so it is important to be up front and open to communicate effectively with other people.

Because we tend to process another person's behaviour based on our own values and beliefs, we tend to think we are right and the other person is wrong. We often blame them for the way we feel and want them to apologise for their behaviour. But, 'It takes two to tango' and in reality, both parties are probably at fault.

Let's say for example that a member of your team owes you a report and he is late once again. You are tired of hearing his excuses; every time he is late you have to work late to prepare your own work, but he doesn't realise this. This time you get fed up and confront him; you feel he doesn't value or respect your time. However, if you had taken a step back and examined your part in the situation, you may have realised that you hadn't mentioned anything to him before and he is oblivious to the fact that you have to work late because of his actions. Part of the reason you are angry is because you have interpreted his behaviour as a lack of respect, however, you may find really you need to first ask yourself if he is even aware of the impact of their behaviour on your work. To get him to value and respect you by delivering his reports at the committed time, you may need to find a more effective way of communicating.

Think before you act

Any time that conflict does occur, ask yourself what you have assumed about the circumstances that may not be correct. How can you learn from this? How can you prevent it from happening again? You also need to look at how you could communicate more effectively in the future; it's not about taking 100% responsibility, but about acknowledging that you have contributed to the conflict in some way.

If you know you have some bad news to deliver to someone or have to have a difficult conversion with one of your team members, think about the purpose and goal of the conservation. How are they likely to react and try to put yourself in their shoes? Ask yourself if you need to change what you were going to say, modifying your language and behaviour to avoid potential conflict. How could you achieve a positive outcome? Simply stopping, thinking about the other person and being careful about the way you communicate can help move a situation from conflict to harmony. 

Marielena Sabatier is the CEO and founder of Inspiring Potential, a UK company that helps people achieve their full potential in the workplace through executive coaching and leadership and development training

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