November 10, 2009 by
Filed under: Leadership, People, Teamwork 

One of the greatest challenges with conflict is that by the time we deal with many issues, after there has been some unbearable situation that forces us to do something, the conflict has become a gnarly hairball of different issues, some actually related to each other. In many situations, trying to find a solution to the conflict as it presents itself is impossible. Instead, try to divide and conquer.

Conflict is sometimes modelled as a cycle. Alice does something that offends Bob (either because it is offensive or it is merely perceived as offensive), then Bob responds in kind, and Alice takes that action (or inaction) the wrong way, and…eventually perception gets washed right out of the equation. We’re at a point of full-blown conflict. As we run through that cycle several times, actions or responses often bring up issues that may have been simmering for a while. These may have seemed bearable originally, possibly annoying little things that we usually just let go. As we get into the heat of the conflict cycle, it can be too easy to pile all these things on the heap.

Rolling the eyes, not responding to simple pleasantries, tapping your finger to the music, talking loudly on the phone, I’m sure you can collectively name hundreds of others. Each one is easy to overlook, most are not even remotely related to the original affront that started this particular conflict cycle, but by the time we are forced to deal with it, they’re all in there, complicating things.

The first thing we need to do is to pull apart that hairball of issues (even before that, actually, is to be willing to put your position aside and be ready to understand the other side of the conflict: if you can’t do that, get someone to moderate the issue). Ensure that all parties are interested in the common goal of being able to interact with each other without conflict. Walk through the issues from both sides, lay them all out on the table. If you are moderating things, gather from each side independently, focusing on how the issues impact them, and avoiding any blaming. One thing you will always find is that everyone is behaving congruently to their own system of motivations and beliefs. That’s just something we do.

Put all the issues into at least 3 categories:

  • those annoyances that we can live with under normal circumstances
  • slightly bigger issues, things that need to be dealt with, but aren’t core to this argument (so can be deferred to later)
  • the nasty issues that are really core to this challenge.

There should only be a few of those issue in that last category. If we look at these more closely, we can often see a pattern emerge. We may see that there is a cause/effect relationship between them, or that one issue is the root of the problem, even though the conflict apparently manifested itself in other ways. I’ve found that if we can sit down and forensically pick apart the conflict, both parties can become engaged and work together in this effort. Fascinating.

Through this effort, what will emerge is the core concern that we need to tackle here. It may be something that only requires an empathy for why the other person behaves in that way, but it is often something a little deeper. The issue will possible require a change in behaviour, something that adjusts the relationship slightly. Often, awareness of the impact that someone has to others makes it easier to soften the annoying behaviours and defuse the conflict.

The work is not yet done. It may take time for the people involved to believe that the situation has improved, until the trust has been built up to an acceptable level. If that is the case, the situation needs careful monitoring until things have settled down.

If we choose the right issues to deal with, any remaining issues will just melt away, at least for now. They may still escalate into other full-blown conflicts in the future, so you are best served to remember this list, and proactively deal with some of the bigger issues while all parties are working together more effectively.

Simplify those complex conflict situations, and you are well on your way to resolving them. – JB


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