The first two blogs in this series examined why innovation causes conflict and how it can be made constructive, conceptually. This blog will examine how to react to conflict, emotionally and behaviorally, to keep it positive.
Looking at conflict as differences containing value is easier said than done. Even the possibility of conflict elicits stress responses that prepare us for fight or flight. We release hormones and neurochemicals so quickly, and sometimes so powerfully, that we sometimes say or do things we don’t mean. While our response might occur automatically, understanding it can help us slow it down. By slowing it down and making it fully conscious, we can make different choices. Choices in our interest, and the group’s, for purposes of working together in an organization.
The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode shows how people tend to respond to conflict in one of five modes – avoiding, accommodating, competing, compromising, or collaborating. Each is a blend of assertive and cooperative behaviors. Those behaviors are connected to the feelings and thoughts we have about conflict, in a kind of package. Responding in a certain way, over time, produces the tendency.
Tendencies are efficient and effective in a biological survival sense. An animal is more likely to survive by diving for cover when a shadow crosses unexpectedly overhead, than it is by pausing to check for a predator or a cloud. Tendencies might have less value in a social sense. Avoiding conflict as a tendency means things can happen to you whether you like them or not. Constantly competing as a tendency can cost you relationships and not always meet your interests in any given situation.
Follow these steps to give yourself options – and increase the chances of making conflict constructive.
- Make Yourself Aware
Some moment when you’re not in conflict, when you can calmly reflect, think about what conflict does to you. Do you get “butterflies” in your stomach? Does your throat tighten? Palms sweat? Do your thoughts race, or do you stop thinking? Do you make eye contact or avoid it? What happens to your voice when you speak?
Think about the bodily sensations conflict creates, and the thoughts and behaviors which accompany those sensations. Although you might like or dislike what you see, you need not make value judgments. Your only objective, at this point, is to make yourself aware of your response to conflict.
- Notice Your Response, and Slow It Down
Imagine a conflict situation and see if it triggers the response. Notice the sensations, thoughts, and behaviors as they unfold. Note how fast they occur and, while observing them in yourself, slow them down. Notice the chain reaction and let yourself dwell on the parts or pieces, one at a time. Then breathe. Stretch. Smile. Perform some small behavior that is not part of your usual pattern. Give your brain something new to do, something other than what it always does in this situation – even if you’re only simulating the response!
Practice this in your imagination and you’ll get better, quickly, at slowing and altering your response. Then practice with low-level conflicts, some that trigger the response pattern minimally. Perhaps with a server in a restaurant, or customer service on the phone, or telling the kids, “No, you’re not having that sleepover.” You don’t need 10,000 hours. Just practice enough to be comfortable with your new process.
- Pause to Think, and Communicate Your Interests
If you’ve slowed your response to the point where it doesn’t own the moment, think about what your reaction is about. Conflict scholars talk about substantive, procedural, and psychological interests in any conflict. So ask yourself what’s at stake. Fairness? Credit or blame? Risk or reward? Give yourself permission to label your interests and communicate them. This step might require more practice because the communication behaviors might be new. (There are many excellent self-help sources on this; Roger Fisher and Bill Ury literally wrote the book.) But practice even if all that means is thinking aloud to clarify your thoughts.
To do this in the presence of another which whom you’re in conflict has risks. Sometimes you’ll give voice to things they were thinking and feeling, and communication will flow. They might have a different experience and different interests, but that’s OK. Now we’re at the place where differences have value and can teach us – if we let them.
Sometimes there will be little to no reciprocation, and little or no collaboration will occur. You can’t determine conflict outcomes by following any process. But you can own your behavior to give yourself options – and increase the chances of making conflict constructive.
Lou Kerestesy is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.