Anytime a group of people are brought together – people different in values, lifestyle, beliefs and background – there exists the nucleus for the possibility of conflict. Conflict unfortunately is an inherent byproduct of the human condition. Resolving it in a manner that does not involve power or violence, is not. While conflict comes naturally to all of us, and is as old as mankind, finding a civilized way of resolving conflict is a relatively late emerging skill to our species.
So recent in fact that it can be reasonably said that until the second half of the twentieth century, “civilized” conflict resolution most often involved the two parties concerned stepping outside and deciding the outcome physically. For centuries this involved the art of the duel, whether with knives, swords or guns. This later developed to the act of “solving the problem like men,” mainly meaning fisticuffs.
It wasn’t really until after the second world war when women increasingly began to move into public life including the workplace, that people had to begin to find alternatives to authority or violence when it came to resolving conflict. One could not just step outside and duke it out with a woman who disagreed with one at work. As our perceptions began to change, we realized that there had to be better ways to solve problems. Hence the birth of the term “conflict resolution” and when that failed, the concept of professional mediator involvement.
Resolving Conflicts In A Diverse Workplace
Our contemporary workplace is nothing if not filled with a diversity of people. Given the ubiquity of immigration and the commonplace acceptance of multiculturalism, work can be rife with misunderstanding that can lead to conflict. This is not to say that people of different culture and creeds cannot successfully work together. They can. It is just as common to have conflict arise between individuals of the same background. The question is, how can we minimize this from happening and when it does, what is the best method for resolving conflicts?
As to prevention; we are human. When placed into potentially stressful situations such as a competitive or fast paced work environment some amount of conflict is bound to occur. Preventing it completely is most likely an unrealistic if not unattainable goal. However, contemporary employers and employees can practice a few ideas that may indeed help to minimise the conflict from happening to begin with:
The first and most important skill is active or interactive listening. Instead of instantly reacting to what has been said, the individual listening can repeat back to the first person what has been said to clarify the message. Many times when the message is expressed back to the first person words or phrases that may have been misconstrued as hurtful or offensive become obvious or simply recognized as mistaken communication. Always allow each person to express their full range of thoughts and emotions before making reply. Also important is when feelings are involved. It is essential to recognize anothers feelings. Again verifying their feelings is most simply done by repeating them back to the individual many times resolving the conflict on the spot by acknowledging that they are being listened to.
Remaining calm and open minded is the next skill that is of importance when considering conflict resolution. Nothing rational ever gets achieved when one or both parties are upset and highly emotional. It is at this point that ‘taking five’ can be a fairly wise idea. The trick is not to simply turn one’s back on the other party and stomp off. The individual must attempt to explain verbally that they are in no state of mind to continue the conversation in a civil manner and would like a few minutes to cool down.This method is frequently effective as it allows both parties to take some time and reflect on their own personal speech and behavior. Many intelligent people will then be able to return to the discussion with more coherent communication and may well have seen where they may have made a potential mistake in the initial exchange.
Stay Open Minded
Hand in hand with being level headed is staying open minded. Conflict resolution cannot succeed on a personal level if one or both people absolutely refuse to believe that they might be at least in part, at fault. Taken to the extreme, this leads to litigation in a court of law and the judge becomes the ultimate mediator. Sadly, one only needs to watch any of the numerous reality television courtroom shows to confirm this.However, here we happen to be in a situation where one or both parties has had some education regarding conflict resolution. If a person can remain open minded by actually listening to the other party and then ask themselves “Does what they are saying have merit? Did my words/actions actually cause harm, even unintentionally?” Then the first steps towards resolution are taken. When we remain open to the possibility that we are human and therefore fallible, we allow humility into our words and actions. It takes a much stronger person to admit wrongdoing than to obstinately deny another’s feelings.
These few simple methods can be practiced between co-workers and reduce some conflict in the workplace. It is with management however, that these skills can really shine. If employees witness their management team actively listening and interacting with one another and resolving conflict in a calm, positive manner, they are more likely to accept management’s role as a mediator if things cannot be settled on a personal level among themselves.
Furthermore, when management is trained to deal with their employees using these proactive skills, there can be wonderful results – the foremost importantly being trust. If employees witness and are consistently listened to with their feelings being acknowledged by management during conflict resolution, they begin to believe that not only are their contributions to the company worthwhile, they are actually appreciated for their efforts. This of course can open doors to other positive results such as teamwork and self motivation.
Most people do not need to have their ‘hands held’ by the boss, although a small amount of goodwill engendered by management showing that they actually care by listening to problems and attempting to resolve conflicts in a calm and open minded manner, can go a long way to fostering a positive and team oriented environment in the workplace.
Let’s reframe the outdated concept that conflict is bad and at all costs should be avoided. Conflict, if skillfully handled can have positive results and can be used to manage change and innovation.
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