Conflict is inevitable. Conflict will come regardless of how much you try to avoid it. Because it is inevitable, as a leader, you need to know how to deal with it. There are resources out there to point you in a direction, but really, experience is an excellent teacher as well, provided you work hard at understanding the underlying cause of conflict, how each of the parties involved in conflict create escalation, and how conflict can be effectively be used to direct issues.
I was listening today to a reflection on Lena Horne’s life today on NPR Radio; an author of a recent biography (James Gavin) spoke of her difficulties in having a mixed marriage in the Civil Rights Era. While I don’t know if it was live or not, when someone like Dr. Maya Angelou calls in (and she did), it’s pretty interesting, especially when she calls to dispute the biographer’s take on the situation. I listened to her dissect most of what Gavin was saying about Lena’s struggles at that time. Judging from the silence, I could sense that Gavin was either humiliated, or coiling for a fight. After the commercial break, Gavin came back at the esteemed Dr. Angelou with a point-by-point rebuttal of her criticism of his own research. Did I see that coming? Certainly. When someone has just written a book on a subject and professes to have some expertise on Lena Horne’s life is contradicted on National Radio, even by someone as reputable as Maya Angelou, you know he’s not going to let it stand. Have you ever experienced this same type of situation, either on the giving or the receiving end?
We can all sense tension when conflict is present. Some of us are more perceptive of the tension than others. The ability to be perceptive is an excellent asset to have. When another party is uncomfortable with a given situation, if you are in a position of negotiating with that individual, knowing how to defuse their anxieties can win them over. And as a leader, your job, like it or not, is a never-ending series of negotiations; getting people to do this, to not do that, inspiring people to create, talking people out of bad decisions, and any number of interactions. Thus, it is significantly valuable to be able to not only plan and direct actions, but to be able to read and interpret subtleties that translate into whether or not you are going to achieve success with those plans and directions.
Teaching someone how to intuitively perceive tension is like trying to explain that air has mass to a three-year old; we can feel it, but you can’t see it and it certainly defies explanation, so how do you explain that to them? We all know what it feels like in a tense situation, we can all agree on what it looks like when people are acting under conflict, but to be able to describe it to the uninitiated, well, it’s tough.
Likewise, when you are explaining to someone that they are obviously acting in a manner that is creating tension and conflict is nearly impossible. They may not feel like they are doing this and in fact, your suggesting it might just make the situation that much more untenable. I have found that when working with people like this, I even get defensive and sometimes say things that aren’t exactly contributing toward meaningful dialogue (actually, more often than not).
It sounds pretty cynical to suggest that you treat every exchange and interaction as a negotiation, but in reality, it is. I’m not suggesting that everyone you encounter is simply out for their own agenda, but realistically, you have no idea what the motivation is of the individual you are having an interaction with. I don’t care if it is your spouse, their motive may be entirely altruistic, but you have no way of knowing that for sure, unless you happen to be a mind-reader (which I am definitely not). Therefore, any interchange you approach must not just include what you expect to occur, but unless the return is apparent, explaining what they will get out of the situation will minimize the conflict as well, because in some cases, it leads toward more discussion of the benefits of the desired action and lends toward open communication.
Half of the problem, in fact, is determining what motivates the other party. Again, it may be obvious, and again, maybe not. Treating people with respect and understanding goes a long way toward finding out the needs of the people involved.
Another big factor in the equation is knowing conflict typology and by understanding how various types of conflicts evolve, using specific techniques to direct the argument toward a positive outcome for everyone involved. A great tool I have used is the University of Colorado Peace Study Center’s website “Beyond Intractability”, which gives you many resources to study conflict management and resolution.
Designed to aid students in studying conflict management, I have found the links to literature on the site extremely valuable. By understanding how misunderstandings occur, you can head off certain problems at the pass. Likewise, any texts you can find on strategic living, like The Art of War, The Book of Five Rings, or The Seven Characteristics of Successful People, are popular because they direct readers on methods to solve conflict. In reading The Art of War, you really have to get farther into the meaning of each interaction between adversaries, but in each situation, if you were to treat the “armies” in the context of opposing forces, you’ll find that there are a lot of lessons to be learned, as well as shared with your subordinates.
If you could come to work and engage others the entire day without conflict, there wouldn’t be any need for supervisors. Our job is to make sure that we further the mission and vision of the organization and that the resources allocated to make that happen are utilized to the most advantageous and efficacious means. Since the presence of more than two individuals means that at some point there will be a misunderstanding, a misinterpretation, or a disagreement on how to achieve those means, someone needs to be the deciding party. And even if you work alone, you are likely going to encounter friction and conflict with customers, suppliers, regulators, or others at some point. If you don’t take the time to understand what strategies solve problems in the most effective manner, you can go about finding these answers the hard way: by experimentation. All of these battles have been fought before, they are just framed differently. Don’t continually reinvent the wheel; learn about the classic conflicts, understand personality and motivation, and use the experience of many to leverage an advantage. By doing so you can develop excellent relationships, cause others to see you as a “uniter” rather than a “divider”, and impress everyone with your ability to solve problems.