Managing conflict and difficult situations for good

By 4 August 2023 No Comments

We are part of the problem

While most clients we speak to don’t enjoy conflict (let’s face it who does?!) and want to avoid it at all costs, the reality is that at least at some point in their careers they will find themselves in a difficult situation. Managing conflict and difficult situations in the workplace can be messy and generally gets in the way of getting work done, leaving everyone feeling deflated and frustrated. The fallout tends to linger and affect future work and relations. So, it’s important to know what to do and how to approach such events, instead of burying your head in the sand or defaulting to your ‘holding the line’ position, which tends to lead to inefficient resolutions.

Of course, it’s typically our human nature that can get in the way of effective resolution. Do you recognise any of these common pitfalls when conflict is involved?

  1. Denial and failing to acknowledge that a difficult situation exists, therefore no solution is sought.
  2. Not being open, honest, and clear when communicating. (Of course, I’d love to help you with this, I’m just very busy with a deadline but if you need me…is it a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’?)
  3. Not listening/hearing another point of view and failing to identify the root cause of the conflict, inhibiting progress towards a solution.
  4. Being reactionary, not managing emotions, and taking things personally. (That’s a big one!)
  5. Not having a fair and transparent conflict resolution process. (Don’t worry most small businesses haven’t got this in place!)

It is no wonder these difficult situations can fester.

There is more than one way to resolution

There are many resources on conflict resolution. Have you come across Rosenberg’s work on  Non-Violent Communication and Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler? If not, we highly recommend reading both books as they provide plenty of helpful tips and information on a more nuanced, emotionally intelligent, and collaborative approach to resolving a conflict. They banish the idea of a fool’s choice (two bad alternatives) and spend time looking for a better solution.

In Getting to Yes Fisher and Ury emphasise the importance of wise, efficient, and fair agreements that improve relationships. They propose a method for reaching good agreements, which differs from positional bargaining, which often neglects interests and fosters stubbornness. Instead, they propose a principled negotiation, based on four principles, which can help you reach good agreements effectively:

  1. By separating the people from the problem
  2. By focusing on people’s interests (“Your position is something you have decided upon. Your interests are what caused you to so decide.”)
  3. By generating options, and
  4. By insisting on objective criteria (To foster better decisions and prevent conflict. With principled negotiation, negotiators agree on objective criteria (first principles), the basis for resolving their differences).

This approach can be applied to various conflicts and aims at improving let’s say Jack and Jill’s work relationship.

Fisher and Ury’s four principles underpin a process that starts by analysing the situation, considering Jack and Jill’s interests and perceptions, and considering their existing options. Then planning various ways of responding to the situation and the other person. Finally, Jack and Jill discuss the situation trying to find a solution on which they can agree. The principles and the process facilitate reaching a ‘good agreement’.

Let’s take a deeper dive into their four principles:

Principle 1: Separate the people from the problem

Fisher and Ury’s first principle is to separate the people from the problem, as people often tend to take things personally. This separation allows Jack and Jill to address their issues without damaging their work relationship and gain a clearer view of the substantive problem. Fisher and Ury’s identify three main types of people problems: differences in perception, emotions, and communication. Perception is crucial in conflicts, as it allows Jack and Jill to understand each other’s viewpoint and make proposals that appeal to each other. Emotions can be a source of people problems, and acknowledging and understanding their source is crucial. “Speak when you are angry,” said Ambrose Bierce, “and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”  Communication is another main source of people problems. To combat misunderstandings, active listening is essential, with listeners giving their full attention and speakers directing their speech towards the other person. Jack and Jill should avoid blaming or attacking each other and instead speak about themselves, their feelings and thoughts. The best way to deal with people problems is to prevent them from arising in the first place ‘nip them in the bud’.

Jack and Jill have feelings, opinions, values, and unique backgrounds that contribute to what they do and say during the conflict resolution process. When misunderstandings and conflict arise in negotiation, Fisher and Ury advise us to deal with the “people problem” directly. To strive to imagine the situation from their counterpart’s viewpoint. If Jack is refusing to back down from a hardline position, ask him how he thinks things are going. Exploring each side’s perceptions openly and avoiding the tendency to blame are key conflict resolution skills.

Be sure Jack and Jill have ample opportunities to express and discuss any strong emotions related to the conflict at hand. Allowing one another to ‘speak their minds’ will benefit both of them. “Freed from the burden of unexpressed emotions” write the authors in Getting to Yes, “people will become more likely to work on the problem.”

Principle 2: Focus on interests rather than positions

In Getting to Yes Fisher and Ury suggest that when we stake out our firm positions, we set ourselves up for failure. If our goal is getting to yes, we need to draw out the interests underlying our counterpart’s positions by asking open questions, such as, “Why is this important to you?” By identifying what interests are motivating Jill, and Jack sharing his own interests, they can create opportunities to explore trade-offs across issues and increase their odds of resolving their conflict.

Good agreements focus on Jack and Jill’s interests, rather than their positions. When a problem is defined in terms of the Jack and Jill’s underlying interests it is often possible to find a solution which satisfies both Jack and Jill’s interests.

The first step is to identify Jack and Jill’s interests regarding the issue at hand. Once Jack and Jill have identified their interests, they must discuss them together. Both Jack and Jill will be more motivated to take the others’ interests into account if each shows that they are paying attention to the other side’s interests. Discussions should look forward to the desired solution, rather than focusing on past events. Jack and Jill should keep a clear focus on their interests but remain open to different proposals and positions.

Principle 3: Generate a variety of options before settling on an agreement

Fisher and Ury identify four obstacles to generating creative options for solving a problem. Jack and Jill may decide prematurely on an option and so fail to consider alternatives. Jack and Jill may be intent on narrowing their options to find a single answer. Jack and Jill may define the problem in win-lose terms, assuming that the only options are for one side to win and the other to lose. Or Jack or Jill may decide that it is up to the other side to come up with a solution to their problem ‘solving their problem is their problem’.

The authors suggest four techniques for overcoming these obstacles to generate creative options:

  1. Separate the invention process from the evaluation stage. Before brainstorming clarify the ground rules, including the no-criticism rule. Brainstorm for all possible solutions to the problem.
  2. Broaden the options on the table rather than look for a single solution.
  3. Search for mutual gains ‘win wins’.
  4. Invent ways of making the other sides’ decisions easy. Give them a choice that is as painless as possible. Without some options that appeals to both sides, agreement is unlikely.

Jack and Jill can avoid falling into a win-lose mentality by focusing on shared interests “look for items that are of low cost to you and high benefit to them, and vice versa.” Each side should try to make proposals that are appealing to the other side, and that the other side would find easy to agree to.

Principle 4: Use Objective Criteria

When interests are directly opposed, Jack and Jill should use objective criteria to resolve their differences. Allowing such differences to spark a battle of wills will destroy relationships, is inefficient, and is not likely to produce good agreements. Decisions based on reasonable standards makes it easier for Jack and Jill to agree and preserve their good relationship.

  1. Frame each issue as a shared search for objective criteria.
  2. ‘Keep an open mind’ reason and be open to reason as to which standards are appropriate.
  3. Never yield to pressure, only to principle.

Agreed objective criteria are stepping stones to resolution.

Top tips for effective conflict management  

Here are some tips that can help you manage conflict and difficult situations:

✅Acknowledge that a difficult situation exists and face it head on rather than burying your head in the sand.

✅ Communicate honesty and clearly.

✅ Be aware of what’s happening and be open about the problem.

✅ Let individuals express their feelings.

✅ Listen actively and empathetically.

✅ Identify the root cause of the conflict.

✅ Brainstorm all possible solutions.

✅ Choose from a number of solutions that people find easy to agree on.

✅ Follow up on the solution.

Develop the essential skills

Managing conflict and difficult situations can be challenging. However, there are some essential skills that can help turn conflict into a constructive tool for individual and company success. According to IMD the six essential skills to manage conflict and negotiate are:

  1. The ability to create and maintain a bond with the other side at all times.
  2. The ability to establish a dialogue for conflict resolution ‘it’s a two-way street’.
  3. Knowing when and how to ‘put all your cards on the table’.
  4. The ability to keep in mind the root cause of the conflict when the going gets tough.
  5. Having empathy and social awareness allows you to make the right concessions at the right time and the other person is likely to respond in kind.
  6. The ability to nurture a positive relationship throughout conflict.

And finally…

It is important to analyse the conflict and find out its source to resolve it effectively. Workplace conflicts can seem very complicated but there are typically one or two main causes. Think carefully about the situation to pinpoint the central issues at the heart of the conflict. The rest is easy!

William Ury outlines the principles of “Getting to Yes”

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