60. Conflict: Time For Some New Tactics

January 13, 2012

Maybe you're back in the swing after an enjoyable and harmonious Christmas break, refreshed and ready for whatever 2012 brings. Or maybe harmony was not the word you would choose to describe your Christmas holiday. Maybe old family feuds surfaced, or perhaps brand new disagreements blossomed in the fertile environment of an over-heated living room where too many over-fed, inebriated family members spent rather too long together. Maybe you need another holiday to recover?  

Then again, maybe your Christmas was fine but was proceeded by conflict at work, and now you're back having to face it all over again.

As with death and taxes, conflict is an inevitable part of life, whether concealed or overt. We all have our favourite ways of dealing with it, all with their advantages, but by the same ticket we tend to be stuck with those favourite ways, even though conflicts are many and various and so require flexibility if they are to be handled well.

This week's tip is about those favourite ways, and how they help and hinder you. And, of course, how you might find new methods that serve you better.

Let's be clear, conflict is difficult and few people are good at it. While some thrive on conflict, most of us will avoid it if possible, hate it when it happens, and be very confused about what we want from it.

At first thought, you might assume that anyone in a conflict wants to win it, but it is so much more complicated than that. When we're coming from a position of insecurity, as we often are, we may want to win in order to feel better about ourselves, or because the issue is really important to us, but actually we may be more motivated to:  

-    avoid losing (and therefore looking weak/stupid)
-    appear nice
-    inflict damage
-    tell the other person what is wrong with them
-    lose and look like a wonderfully generous person
-    lose and make the other person feel guilty
-    keep in the other person's good books
-    avoid unpleasantness and confrontation

Insecurity is a real enemy of good conflict resolution. Here's an example of a common conflict in the workplace. A man, Ivan, feels that one of his colleagues, Oliver, is not pulling his weight. Ostensibly his desired outcome in this situation is for Oliver to do more work and therefore allow him to do less. However there are all kinds of other priorities going on beneath the surface.  Firstly he is angry with Oliver because he feels that his, Ivan's, good nature is being taken advantage of. He really wants Oliver to be exposed as the no-good scumbag he is. He also wants to be seen as the injured party, the decent person who's been doing more than his fair share. Whether he's conscious of this or not, a mere resolution of the work issue is unlikely to resolve the situation for Ivan. Secondly, he hates confrontation and he's frightened of Oliver. He's afraid that if he tackles Oliver, Oliver will be aggressive and he'll give in and look pathetic. Thirdly, Ivan prides himself on being a nice person, but the feelings he has towards Oliver could hardly be described as 'nice'. He's afraid that these feelings might spill over and then people would see that he's not the decent person they thought he was. Also, if it goes badly, he would become public enemy No 1 in Oliver's eyes and his life could become a great deal more unpleasant. Unsurprisingly, Ivan decides that he'd rather find a way of managing his workload that doesn't involve tackling Oliver.

Whatever our priorities in a conflict are, they will translate directly into how we handle them. Because of his fear of confrontation and unpleasantness, Ivan's favourite conflict mode is avoidance. Because he likes to look like a nice person, if he does find himself in conflict he is likely to give in at the first sign of resistance. When he's feeling more secure he tries to find solutions that both people are happy with, so he may collaborate with the other person to find joint solutions, or he may go for compromises. Collaboration works well with other people like him, and avoidance works well when there's nothing important at stake. However, avoidance of important conflicts like the one with Oliver leads Ivan to feel angry and resentful towards the other, and to lose respect for himself. Compromise sometimes works, but there is always the danger that nobody gets what they want.

Make a plan and you will find,
That she has something else in mind, 
And so rather than do either you do something else that neither likes at all
                                      from My Fair Lady                                   

Oliver, on the other hand, likes to win. Listening to him talk you will hear lots of war language - fighting corners, victory, aligning troops, battle stations, bringing in reserves. He swiftly turns to aggression if he is challenged and will do everything he can to 'shoot down' his adversary's arguments. His ego rests on being strong. Giving in is a sign of weakness and he avoids it like the plague. This method has served him well over many years. He has a reputation for being good in an emergency, where authoritative action is important, and he tends to get his way. What he doesn't realize is how many people he alienates, and how the potential of his work is limited as a result.

Oliver's conflict style is likely to work with Ivan, in that he'll tend to get his way. Ivan's style will not work with Oliver, however, whose model of conflict  resolution is limited to winning and losing, and for whom compromise is only for wimps.

This is a great example of when it's handy to be aware of your natural tendencies and to be prepared to act out of character if necessary. While the Olivers of this world respect strength and despise weakness, many of them are quite weak themselves, the aggressive exterior being a very effective way of disguising this fact. What they depend on is their opponent giving way. If their opponent doesn't give way they will often falter before giving another blast. If their opponent still doesn't give way, they may well cave in.

If Ivan had been coming from a position of strength, what he wanted from the conflict may have been more like one of these:

-    To find a solution that is fair
-    To reach an agreement that both are happy
      with
-    To explain and be heard
-    To protect himself and/or other people
-    To maintain or even strengthen the
      relationship
-    To win because it's important and right

A well-handled conflict requires honesty, self-respect and respect for the other. If any of these are missing then war may well ensue, cold or otherwise.

Try this:

1    Looking back over your life, what kinds of conflicts have you been involved in, and with whom? What characterises your handling of conflict? Do you tend to avoid conflict if possible, try to keep the peace, accommodate the other person, compromise? Do you try and find solutions that both parties are happy with or do you prefer to win? Or lose?

2    What difference does it make to your conflict mode if you are feeling safe or feeling insecure?

3    To what extent do your favourite tactics work? Can you think of times when they've worked well, and times when they haven't? With what kinds of people do they work well, and with what kinds of people do they fall down? 

4    What do you think about your favoured conflict mode - does it serve you well? Are there times when another mode would work better?

I wish you well with resolving conflicts this week! 

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