From Reactions to Conflict
By Richard Caruso
Healthy conflict begins with an awareness and appreciation of differing perspectives. When you realize that everyone brings to the table his or her own unique set of perceptions based on their genetics, generation, culture, gender and other experiences, it should not be surprising that everyone can’t agree on everything all the time. As Walter Lippmann, writer and political commentator aptly asserts, “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.” The goal then isn’t that everyone completely agrees with every decision made. Rather, the goal is that all people know that they have been heard and that their ideas were seriously considered in the final decision. Productive conflict management helps take what could be a disruption and turns it into an opportunity. For this to happen, the goal is not to reduce conflict but to create a safe place for people to share differing perspectives with mutual respect.
This said, there are a number of different conflict styles that we will tend to default to if we are not careful. See if any of these sounds like you.
In this style it is all about winning, not the subject or substance of the conflict. You will win at all costs, even if it means exaggerating or even flat out lying to “prove your point.” You look for those “zingers” that will make the other person stop talking, and thus letting you win.
This conflict style is all about ending the conflict at all costs. In this style you will acquiesce, and not really talk about what needs to be talked about because you just want it to be over. Statements like “fine, fine, you win” or “the details really don’t matter, let’s just stop fighting” are indicative of this style.
This style is one of the least productive. Conflict or disagreements are avoided at all costs. This style promotes fake unity while tempers are seething below the surface. There is no outlet for the conflict so the relationship ends up suffering since real issues are never discussed.
This style seeks to resolve the conflict but doesn’t really take the time to find the best solution. Usually the way the conflict is resolved is with both parties giving up something. Even though the result seems “fair” it often ends up being a lose- lose solution.
This style seeks that win-win solution. It often requires more time to find a resolution and it requires that we treat other with great respect and appreciation for each other. The collaboration style has to have both parties check their egos and anger at the door and seek a solution based on common values, passions and goals. The solution then honors those shared values, passions and goals so it is a win for all concerned.
Did you identify with one of more of these conflict styles? Work to become aware of how you handle conflict and pay attention to what is and isn’t working. Notice your patterns. Then notice the default conflict styles of your team members. Clearly you will have varying conflict styles on your team.
Using this new awareness and knowledge, the goal is to transform difficult conversations and conflicts into opportunities for productive conversations and healthy conflict. Figuring out a way to move more toward the collaborative style then becomes the focus. Brainstorm practical ways that you and your team can begin to work together more collaboratively.
Giving Positive and Corrective Feedback
When we hear the words “difficult conversations” we often default to the assumption that this is a conversation focused on conflict or correction. In reality, however, both negative and positive interactions can be difficult. One of the most challenging conversations to have can be that of feedback, both positive and negative. Positive feedback is often overlooked or forgotten. Leaders may feel that their people will intuitively know when things are going well. As a result, the amount of feedback tends to diminish when things are good. On the other hand, corrective feedback is equally as difficult to give. When someone’s work, behavior or choices need correction it is challenging for the recipient as well. But developing tools for navigating these difficult conversations can transform these challenging situations from conflicts to be avoided into opportunities to be embraced. Try these tips for both positive and corrective feedback.
Positive feedback can easily be forgotten if it does not get the priority it deserves. Becoming intentional about letting people know what they are doing well can be a powerful tool for employee development, job satisfaction and motivation. A few tips for giving more effective and impactful positive feedback are:
- Be prompt. Positive feedback is most impactful when it is given as closely to the event as possible. Giving feedback in a timely manner allows you to be more detailed and specific. Quick feedback is also more relevant and sincere. When it comes to positive feedback, there is no time like the present.
- Be specific. A general “Good job” is always nice to hear, however, it does not give the recipient any information that they can incorporate into their performance. Instead, focus on specific behavior, actions and decisions that the individual made that contributed to the “Job well done.” Tell the person exactly why you are praising them.
- Be consistent. Celebrate both the large successes and the small ones. Of course your feedback and celebration should be relative to the size of the success, but be sure to give it consistently whenever you notice an individual or team success on any scale.
It is also important to give positive feedback consistently amongst all members of your team. Give praise to all team members regularly. This will help to maintain a healthy staff morale.
Be sincere. Really mean what you say when you are giving positive feedback. People are very perceptive and will see right through you if your feedback is in regards to a trivial task or delivered in a trivial way. Make an effort to only give positive feedback that you truly believe. The goal here is not just to boost egos or self-esteem, but to give your team members feedback that they can use to continue to improve their performance.
Giving corrective feedback can be a difficult process. However, if done well, giving productive corrective feedback can be beneficial for the employee, the team and the organization. Along with the tips given above for positive feedback, the tips below will help you give corrective feedback that is more productive and impactful.
- Focus on the future. Focus on improving performance and on the future, rather than spending too much time discussing the past that cannot be changed. Use past actions only to inform the crafting of new strategies for improvement.
- Focus on behavior. Comment on behavior, not personality or character. Behavior can be changed much more easily than personality, and assaults on character rarely have a positive result because they are much more difficult to talk about objectively.
- Focus on specifics. Avoid absolutes like always or never. These absolutes can easily be refuted with one example where it wasn’t always or never. Instead, point out a specific behavior at specific times and remark on how you perceived that behavior. This leaves the discussion open for understanding intentions behind the behavior, even if it didn’t come across that way to you.
- Focus on achievability. Focus on performance over which the person receiving the feedback has control, like their behavior and their abilities (otherwise you are setting them up to fail).Breaking down the needed improvement into smaller steps that the person can achieve will get a better result than expecting drastic improvements immediately.
- Focus on improvement. Show them respect as the people they are today, but care enough to not let them stay there. Enlist them in the solution, so they feel more ownership and investment in the outcome.
- Focus on support. Show you are behind them now, just as they are. Tell them specifically why you believe in them and their capabilities. Let them know that you see great things in their future.
Conflict with Interest
Conflict is “friction or opposition resulting from actual or perceived differences or incompatibilities” (www.businessdictionary.com). Friction can get us heated and can be downright uncomfortable. Why is it that disagreements with certain people seem to take on an ache different from those with others? I know if I have found a person to be “safe,” someone who knows how to listen and state their alternative view with respect, the friction can actually spur healthy discussion and creativity. Consequently when I have a history of unhealthy conflict with someone, I tend to go into avoidance mode because I know that only painful interactions seem to be possible. I can still work on those relationships to become healthier (we discussed ways to do this on the radio show this week), but there is value in knowing ahead of time to put up defenses with people who have proven to be unsafe.
But what about when conflict unexpectedly raises its head in a relationship that has been encouraging and positive in the past? In my recent experience this type of conflict caught me vulnerable and unprepared to respond. Disturbing and difficult, it robbed me of sleep and appetite, and made me question resolve. As a result of being caught off guard by the very negative reaction to something I had done thinking it would be received in the opposite fashion, I came to a decision point. Do I proceed to continue the friction through arguing for my case or do I instead put the relationship ahead of “being right.” I chose the latter to honor the past gift of friendship I had with this person, even at some personal and professional expense.
What do you think? Have you had to choose relationship over positive progress? What is the “correct” decision to make? I am at peace with my decision this time, but realize this is a gray area and that it may not always work out this way in the future.