Conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Yes, it can sap the energy and resolve of managers, entrepreneurs, and employees, undermining morale and effectiveness in the process. But, it can also invigorate a discussion, create healthy rivalry, expose problems for resolution, and stimulate the creative juices of stakeholders to come up with innovative solutions. The key is to manage conflict, rather than trying to avoid it.

Here is what happens when you try to avoid conflict. It goes underground. It generates seething resentment and unhealthy rivalries. Bystanders feel they have to take sides or risk being left in the cold on important decisions. It’s much better to keep the issues likely to lead to conflict near the surface, or to uncover them if they are in danger of sinking into the morass.

There is no point in avoiding conflict. Any time two or more people get together with a goal of achieving something of significance, there are bound to be disagreements as to what the goal is, why it is important, and the best means of achieving it. Therefore conflict can exist at three levels: values (the why), goals (the what), and means (the how).

Some of my work with clients involves the identification and analysis of issues that, if managed incorrectly or left unattended, can easily descend into unhealthy conflict. I also face actual and potential conflicts in my own life. Sometimes this involves other people, but it can also be internal, where there is misalignment between my values, goals, and approaches. When you’re working to resolve, reduce, or, in a more positive sense, canalize conflicts toward productive ends, the first step is to identify the stakeholders in the disagreement. Who are the direct parties to the conflict? Are there others who can be affected indirectly? To what extent?

The second step is to determine if it is a conflict about values, goals, or means. If the conflict is about values, it may not be possible to reconcile the parties. If it’s about goals, there is a better chance of achieving consensus. This usually involves a question of priorities, because there are never enough resources and time to achieve all the goals at once. Sometimes it is better to sequence them in time, or to allocate resources that are commensurate with the importance or criticality of the goal. If there is agreement about values and goals, then the only other substantive source of conflict is disagreement about means to achieve the goals.

We often hear talk of “personality conflicts,” where two people supposedly have so much antipathy to each other that they can’t possibly work together to resolve their differences. While I agree that personality incompatibilities do exist, in most cases, these are symptomatic of deeper conflicts that come from a misalignment of values, goals, and means. In other words, “personality conflicts” are usually an effect of substantive conflicts, not a cause.

When I’m working with others to help them resolve or manage conflicts, I always start by asking each party what their respective goals are, or what outcome they would consider in their best interest. What is it that they are seeking? If the conflict is very heated, it may be necessary to ask each party separately. If possible, though, it is better to do this in each other’s presence. The basic rule is that they have to listen to each other without interrupting. In practice, there can be a lot of emotion involved, and sometimes there is a need to express themselves and give their perspective on the other party’s position. This is okay, as long as they are giving concrete facts and examples, and not trying to impute motives to the other party. The key advantage of focusing on goals and outcomes is that it operationalizes the conflict. It shows everybody involved that it is about achieving something, much more than it is about who somebody supposedly is, or why he or she is supposedly acting in a certain way. In other words, goals are tangible and can be achieved. Conversely, trying to change someone else’s personality is always doomed to fail. Once the starting positions are known, we can start to work toward a resolution. In many if not most cases I find that there is more common ground than the parties are initially willing to concede. I often find that they are saying nearly the same thing, but using different terminology or giving differing weight to factors and criteria.

The important thing to remember in all of this is that people hold their beliefs for reasons that they think are valid. There is no point in denigrating someone else’s values or goals or approaches to a problem, because they will always look slightly less rational than one’s own particular mix. The solution is to take the parties’ statements at face value and seek common ground. Sometimes the residual areas of disagreement are insurmountable, and the best solution is temporary or permanent separation. In practice, though, the residual disagreements can usually be parked for the time being while the main conflict is worked out, or mechanisms can be put in place to compensate for the remaining issues or minimize them in the bigger scheme of things.

© Alcera Consulting Inc. 2011. We encourage the sharing of this information with attribution. All other rights reserved.

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