In prehistoric times, there were only two ways to resolve a conflict: fight or flight. And there was always a winner and a loser. Then, one day, someone discovered a revolutionary new approach: negotiation, or aiming to find a solution that satisfies the interests of both parties. No more fight or flight, and everyone’s a winner! Unfortunately, the human brain is still programmed like it was in prehistoric times and doesn’t always have a natural negotiation reflex. This is why we have so many difficulties in dealing with conflicts.
How can we resolve a conflict?
There’s an emotional aspect to every personal conflict. Conflicts create stress, which generates strong emotions, which in turn reduce our emotional, cognitive and behavioural capacities. So before anything else, we must try to manage the emotional aspect. To do this, don’t fall into the trap of trying to be right at all costs, of battering your colleague with criticism or of raking over the past; this doesn’t help at all, in fact it poisons the discussion. Instead, objectively describe the situation that’s bothering you, the negative effects it’s having on your work, the changes you’d like to make and even the advantages.
A group leader has a habit of seeking out his colleagues at the end of the working day to ask them to put together a data summary for his presentation the next day, which always involves a huge amount of effort. The pressure and annoyance that this creates leads to errors and inaccuracies, which makes the situation even more tense. One day, one of the members of the team plucks up the courage to talk to the boss: “Rob, you regularly give us this important job, which we enjoy doing. But you keep setting such short deadlines, and the requests often come at the end of the working day when everyone is tired and ready to go home. Could you possibly give us advance warning of your needs in future so that we have more time to get everything ready? It would allow us to give you more complete and reliable data.”
Easier said than done? Not really: it all comes down to preparation. When colleagues come to see me for advice, they are often in quite an emotional state. At the end of our conversation, I suggest that they go home, apply the above method to their situation, put everything down on paper, and then come back to see me again. More often than not, a situation that seemed impossible to resolve during the first visit appears perfectly manageable by the time of the second visit.
Many people are scared of conflict. But if it’s managed well it can be an opportunity for progress. Always see a conflict as a chance to put your relationship with your colleague on a new footing, for the good of all concerned.