What makes humans react in the way that they do? Often shying away from conflict situations, turning their back on it, pretending it’s not happening, or just totally ignoring it?

Of course, this is not true of everyone, but many of you who are reading this now, will be thinking, ‘yes, that’s me’. How can this be changed?

The training organisation, Master Class Management states; ‘In some cases, the conflict can be a good thing like process improvements or better ideas to service the customer. This can be part of the “open communication” that is encouraged within the team. However, in most cases the conflict is more negatively based.’

It can lead most commonly to stress in the workplace and consequently an increase in absenteeism; when staff become so anxious about what may happen, and how they are going to deal with a difficult situation or colleague, that they become physically unwell and cannot come to work.

It can in extreme cases lead to a total breakdown in communication, not just affecting the two, or more people involved but impacting on the whole team and the well-being and effectiveness of that team.

If you are a leader or manager, what do you need to be aware of to prevent these issues arising or at least to limit them?

Similar strategies can be used in our personal lives as well.

The main message I would give is, ‘Don’t bury your head in the sand as the problem may fester, and potentially worsen. Address it before it gets that bad’.

This is a lesson that I have learnt myself over time.

In the long run, dealing with conflict head on is far easier than letting it go. If you do not try to put it right in the present, it will undoubtedly leave you feeling disillusioned with yourself. Make it a priority, get involved and seek solutions to resolve the issues.

One of my favourite quotes from Thomas Huxley (Physiologist) is ‘Action is the catalyst that creates accomplishments’. Conflict situations require action, or nothing will change.

So how do conflict situations arise, how do you know it is happening, and what can you do both at work or in your personal life to ease the impact?

The most common issues are;

  • A lack of understanding by one person around another’s actions
  • A simple clash of personalities; one person may be sensitive and another totally insensitive; one may be direct, appearing brash. The other may prefer to have time and more details
  • One believes they are working harder than the other
  • Jealousy of another person’s success
  • A perceived favourtism, perhaps by the boss
  • A disagreement – one person wants to do it one way because they think it is the best way and the other thinks their way is better
  • A person picking up on another’s past mistakes and highlighting them.

These situations can so easily arise.

If you are a manager and not working alongside your team, or if you arrive at your club, or a family or friend’s home, what is it that alerts you to a conflict situation?

It is often difficult to make that judgement and sometimes it is almost a subconscious awareness. You walk into a room and there is an ‘atmosphere’:

  • You sense tension
  • It could be unusually quiet – not the usual buzz of activity or visa-versa
  • Look out for the body language of people in the room – are they turned away from each other?
  • Observe facial expressions
  • Be aware of those ‘off-hand’ comments; perhaps rude, hurtful, or embarrassing – or designed to make others feel stupid or incompetent or to undermine them
  • A person who is usually quiet is being outspoken or a vocal person is being unusually quiet
  • Evidence of manipulation or ‘backstabbing’.

All these points may indicate that you have walked in on a conflict situation.

What can you do when a conflict arises?

Invariably when it arises in a work situation there is a process to follow or even a policy.

At work it is good to have some acceptable steps that can be taken, especially to support those new to management. However, what leaders and managers often think, is that they need a specific formula to follow. There is a magic solution. Fault is soon found in others or blame is passed on.

In my view, what is often overlooked, is the fact that people have different values and beliefs which impact on the way that they behave. And one person’s behaviour can often be the only thing that causes the conflict situation to arise.

A wise and knowledgeable man once said to a group of students (including me) that were studying emotional intelligence, ‘If you hear something that you are not happy about, it is better to say something than nothing’.

Being aware of the impact that you can have on others by what you say, the way in which you say it, and the way in which you behave, is critical in conflict situations. Develop your self-awareness.

I like to reflect on awkward and difficult situations that I have encountered in the past. Sometimes I have been annoyed at myself for thinking afterwards, ‘I wish I had just said . . . . . .’. I have made a conscious effort to change my behaviour and I will now nearly always say something, even though I may not be quite sure how I am going to tackle the situation. That comes later.

Usually just a few words, delivered in a calm and non-confrontational way gives me time to think about the best course of action to take; ‘I am not too happy about what I have just heard, could we discuss it when we have some time together later?’

When leading or managing a team, or even in a social situation, and you say this quietly, at least the person is aware. It is easier to address it rather than to let it fester over time and have to raise it separately when the situation has long passed. Try it. Perhaps it will work for you too?

Some key points to keep in mind when handling conflict

Consider whether you have a typical style of handling conflict – do you totally avoid, attack, or do you tend to defend? What impact does your style have on others around you? If you are able to handle and express feelings appropriately it has a far better outcome. Perhaps you need to change your style if you know that the end result is not always good.

Get to the bottom of the problem. Take some time to understand what has happened. Ask open ended questions starting with the words; what, why, where, when, how, explain or describe.

Often conflicts arise out of human need; a desire to be accepted, a need to feel listened to or to feel heard.

Do we know what is important to ourselves let alone what may be important to another person?

A consequence of not knowing this means conflicts will re-emerge with new triggers but the individual’s needs may remain the same.

Take some time to think about this.

In work environments consider the communication skills of those involved.

Do they need training? Is there a lack of listening? Do they say too much, not enough, are the messages given unclear or sloppy and do they lack words that evidence empathy; ‘I can understand why you are feeling angry . . . . .’

In developing conciliation skills, you need to care about people and not just about tasks and getting things done. You need to understand what emotional intelligence is; an awareness of how a person may be feeling in any given situation. Put yourself in their shoes. Try and see, feel and understand how it may be for them.

Examine the values and beliefs of those involved. What is important to individuals that conflicts with what they have been asked to do? Can any compromises be made on your part?

Just because a person is quiet and not very articulate when it comes to expressing their views it does not mean that their opinion should be disregarded. Ask them what they think. Consider what you can do to help them in a conflict situation. Find out what is important to them.

Top tips for dealing with conflict:

Be well prepared.

Listen and be non-judgemental.

Remain neutral and be fair.

Stay calm and be clear in your communication.

Do not generalise.

Share an outline-plan for dealing with the conflict if you are managing the situation.

Explain next steps and timescales for action.

Consider what needs to be shared and what should remain confidential.

Document it!

Ultimately if what you have tried before is not working you need to think about and respond to problems, issues and particularly conflict in a different way.

You have choices and control over those choices. Don’t keep thinking you can have an impact on things that you have no control over.

If dealing with conflict is something that you need help with consider taking up a short course of coaching and/or mentoring which will set you on the road to success:.