How to Get the Most From Conflict
Susan Shearouse lists five sources of conflict in her book, “Conflict 101.”
Information conflicts are disagreements about facts or data.
Interest conflicts center on underlying concerns, desires, and needs. In order to solve them ask, “What are your concerns,” rather than who is right or wrong.
Structural conflicts involve limited resources and are often solved by individuals with decision-making authority.
Relationship conflicts are about history, communication styles, stereotypes, and trust.
Values conflicts are the toughest to solve because fully embraced values are non-negotiable.
Leading the organization I serve from an “insider focus” to an “outsider focus” represents a shift in behaviors based on a shift in values. Three years after initiating that shift there are varying levels of adoption; everything from 100% to tolerance.
Dealing with Values Conflicts:
- Stop convincing others your position is right while theirs is wrong. Values are personal convictions not moral absolutes.
- Realize values differ from person to person. Your number one value may be another’s number four. Agree to disagree.
- Focus on mission and vision rather than the disputed value. Are you accomplishing your mission? For example, shifting from insider to outsider focus expresses our mission in new dimensions and gives fresh meaning to established programs.
- Build on and strengthen relationships. Leading a shift in focus includes affirming and valuing dissent based on mutual respect.
Realize variations in the priority of a given value proposition is normal and important in creative, diverse organizations. For example, one segment in my organization loves outsider focused projects; another loves insider focused. Every growing organization needs both.
You have my sympathies if you’re in a values based dispute. It’s a disagreement centered on the fundamentals of behavior. My suggestion is reject the temptation to assume moral high ground while demonizing others. Rich organizations are diverse. The ultimate issue remains, are you accomplishing your mission.
Finding the high road:
Once they arrive, failure and conflict are great opportunities for growth. Understanding the sources of conflict along with corresponding solution-finding-strategies lifts leaders and organizations to new levels of fulfillment and effectiveness.
This post is based on Shearouse’s book: Conflict 101.
What strategies do you employ to resolve conflicts?
I’m still working on my agree/disagree button on some of what you say here, however I recognize it is causing me to think deeper (or in a different pattern) and I appreciate that. I respect that you have given great thought/time to a post like this then hang it out where so many can critize it — or better still, grow from it!
Nicely said Ken. Come on back when you’re ready. I love reading the insights my readers leave. Cheers.
Two things jump out at me from this post, probably related to where I am.
It is important to keep moving people’s focus toward the mission and the vision. This is after all the main thing we are trying to accomplish.
The other is learning to respect and affirm values that you may not embrace 100%. This goes a long way in building up your credibility, respect and trust while you moving the mission forward.
Thanks for your comment Martina. It’s a pleasure reading your insights.
Love your focus on mission and vision. Alignment in those areas are the foundation of a leaders authority. The more the alignment the greater the authority.
I’ll add this idea about values.
From an organizational perspective mission determines values. In other words you begin with mission and then explain and embrace the values that best express the mission.
From a personal level we begin with values and define mission and vision based on whats important to us.
There is a fundamental difference. When I connect with an organization I find alignment between personal and organizational values. This allows for a difference in the priorities of various values. My #1 value may be the organizations #3 value.
Thanks for the additional feedback Dan
Dan, I found these additional thoughts about values helpful — maybe we should encourage you to “crack the 300 word barrier” now and then! 🙂 Thanks.
This is a great summary from the Shearouse book, Dan.
As a mediator and as a conflict management coach, I work daily to help people resolve or talk out their differences and I want to stress the latter.
Resolving values conflict isn’t always the answer when people have differences. Somehow, when many of us are in these types of conflict we end up fighting about right and wrong with both people asserting their rightness (which often sounds righteous). Generally, at least in North America, we don’t seem to easily accept agreeing to disagree is a good outcome.
In any case though, having constructive conversations about our values conflicts does not need to be as difficult as many people think. For instance, when people gain some self awareness i.e. through coaching, their emotions about the matter subside and reflective thinking is more feasible. Then, they are usually better able to gain an understanding about what happened for them and consider what is going on with the other person. This usually helps people to better engage ‘the other person’ in a productive conversation which may end of meaning they agree to disagree and being okay with that.
Sorry, for being so long-winded. I couldn’t help myself !!!
I agree, Cinnie, that only good can come from trying to tamp down the conflict to more of a conversation. If you can start to understand how the other person came to hold that value, you may begin to see possibilities for resolution of the conflict.
Cinnie, great comment, particularly about the self-awareness, reflective thinking. As a coach I often see that exact thing, which clearly helps bring about a better outcome, even if it is after the fact.
Very thought driving post Dan! In accomplishing any mission though I find there has to be values that drive the mission itself. If therefore a conflict arises on a specific value that is embedded in the success of the mission that value can not be compromised. Agree to disagree of course as long as it does not corrupt the integrity of the mission.
Convictions and moral absolutes can be two sides of the same coin and can be a very difficult sea to swim in when a conflict arises. At times a leader to remain true to the mission will need to stand alone even separate for the sake of the success of the mission.
Reflecting on my own experience, I tentatively conclude that the real trouble comes when you ask someone to compromise a value. Maybe there’s grounds for resolution if you look for answers that can reasonably co-exist with a value that’s in conflict. That’s a different outcome than 100% support, but it would at least allow that person to come on board with a course of action.
I strongly believe that it’s more efficient to have core values well define first in a company. It’s the heart of the company and yes not everyone will agree on all values and their priorities.
Although great companies usually have these values well defined and LIVED through all relations and interactions. At one point a process is normally define to ensure everyone can contribute to the values of the company and say their opinion about it so it can evolve with the people. People are the most important assets of today’s innovative world. People must feel they are part of the process otherwise they won’t be motivated or totally engaged.
The expert in the industry say that values should be a strong evaluation factor in the hiring process. We need to find people that share most of the common value of the community they are joining to really maximize the chances of success.
As you said values are not good or bad although it’s better to work with people that aren’t the total opposite of you in term of values.
You make a good point regarding finding people that share most of the common value…..Your point causes me to think that we do not do enough time asking questions of potential players within our organization/mission therefore we are own worst enemy. Because of a lack of forethought we set ourselves up for conflict without even realizing it.
Dan, thanks for sharing. Very helpful. What I like most is that Susan categorizes conflict, something I don’t think a lot of people do. Is this a conflict about Information, about Interests, about Structure (resources), Relationship, or Values. Understanding what the conflict is about can prevent it from becoming about the “other person.”
I often ask strong-willed people, “Do you want to be right or effective.” Truth is, we often want to be right because we think that’s the end game. It’s not. Maintaining and building our relationships helps us to get things done. Tearing down relationships is a distraction to serving our clients and serving our organization. Focusing on what the conflict is about can help us understand that some conflicts are not about the other person or ourselves. As such, they’re easier to resolve. When they are about values, well that’s a tougher nut to crack. Susan makes some excellent suggestions in dealing with values conflicts.
My observation is that healthy conflict resolution is not well-modeled in our culture. When you see some of the senseless violence, stalemates in Congress, state legislatures that leave town, or work teams that don’t work well because of conflict, we seem to be modeling that we don’t have to solve conflict. In my mind that’s only true if we want to live in a world that doesn’t solve problems, is less productive, and killing is okay.
Let me know who signs up for that!
I appreciate your observation “Focusing on what the conflict is about can help us understand that some conflicts are not about the other person or ourselves.” In many situations where I work, people begin by demonizing the other person or people, or labeling the problems between them as “personality conflicts.” That approach really leaves us know room to understand or find resolutions. Digging deeper into the relationship between them and the sources of conflict listed in Dan’s piece gives us more tools to approach our differences.
Dan, I think conflicts are just another opportunity to learn how to collaborate and get along well with others. Defining the five sources should help us see conflicts as a bridge rather than a barrier.
When I find myself in a conflict, I try to look for the mutual goals that we share and then work from that point so that we can collaborate on as much as possible. In so doing, we gain awareness of each others mission or cause and that helps discharge the emotion when we return to the issue that caused the dispute.
Of course, it takes trust to do that and when we are embroiled in a conflict, trust may not be our first emotion at all.
A variation on values is also perceptions…both of which are rarely argued, cajoled, convinced, changed in the moment, sometimes never. That adage ‘agree to disagree’ may even ring as false words in the heat of the conflicts.
Another variation might be on the insider/outsider focus to be the ‘video camera in the corner’ focus. Can you engage a very neutral perspective? Again in intense conflicts, difficult to do as we cling to our core intense emotions.
And having witnesses a recent values/relationship/perception conflict, such moments in time may not be just about you and those you are in conflict with. We bring our past experiences to every table where we sit. Sometimes past experiences are ‘re-enacted’ and we may not realize it is happening. Some are intense such as seemingly very real flashbacks to war, accidents, trauma and others much more subtle, though still impacting the current interaction/conflict.
As you noted Dan, failure and conflict are nuggets for amazing growth, often not in the moment unless you are extremely facile and nimble (again there may have to be greater neutrality the more intense the conflict) or if you have a ‘spot on’ facilitator. Maybe that too is a learning from this, we may not resolve the conflict in real time, however, there always is the option to revisit it and grow from it. To do so also creates vulnerability which is a while different thread.
You bring up an important key to resolving conflicts that we often overlook: time. In the middle of a conflict, we need to allow people (including ourselves) time to absorb new ideas, to consider new approaches, to apologize and to forgive, to refocus and to let it go. Sometimes this may mean a 15 minutes break in a difficult discussion. In more challenging moments, it may take days or weeks for us to reframe our thinking.
“Values are personal convictions not moral absolutes.” What a powerful statement. I absolutely agree. Values differ from person to person. To an honest person, truth can be value but the same truth may not hold any value for dishonest person. Generally we use values in positive proposition but actually it can take both positive and negative form. It is a personal belief. And this personal belief comes from upbringing, life experiences, environment and what is the meaning of success for person. I strongly believe that values determine success or failure. Strong values lead to long term and horizontal success whereas weak values lead to short term and usually vertical success. Strong values usually focus on developing and helping others to develop. We take values are more self centric and short focussed.
I think empathy plays greater role to resolve conflicts. In case of conflict, I try to explain position of each person in such as way that other can put himself of herself in others position and realise the response of other person. Broader view on any conflict is helpful to resolve conflict. Perhaps the better way to resolve conflicts is through role play. Just ask the person to be in position of other and come out with best solution to the problem. When this process is carried out honesty and fairly, I think, even the toughest issue can be resolved without any negotiator.
Great point about empathy Ajay, definitely agree. Maybe with a degree of openness by asking..’if I were you, what do I need to know?’ And then, after a while, reverse that question and ask if they were me, what would they do. And rather than advocating for my position from the start, let go of it, and just listen to ‘how they see things’ A few times I have asked those in conflict to exchange physical positions just to shift the environment. Funny how we get physically entrenched sometimes. Of course, if you can get those in conflict to move/walk in the same direction rather than locking horns, that works well too.
I liked your interpreting variety of conflicts and the possible ways to handle them. It’s not easy to give generalised solutions. It varies from aituation to situation and the people involved.
I believe in only one thing i.e. the truth always prevails and one needs a matured approach to tackle every conflict.the conflict with clear and courageous communiaction. Stick to the facts and address the issues from managment angle. Good consistency with powerful positive thoughts [solution based approach] always will lead to a successful resolution.
People do appreciate your honesty, sincerity and integrity at the end. Develop a courage to fight conflicts and come out as winner to earn better respect with fairness.
This post came at a good time: http://i-am-paleo.blogspot.com/2011/07/white-power.html
and I referred to you =)
How might your thoughts fit into the framework that the sources of conflict are goals, strategies, values, and facts?
I wish I could find the original author.
It’s not unusual for conflict to have multiple causes. I’ll send your email to her. She may contact you. Best, Dan
Here I am, the original author. Thanks for raising the question.
Yes, I have encountered that framework as well. There is some overlap between the two. Values are an important component of both models. I use the term ‘information’ rather than ‘facts’ because I find facts to be slippery things. Regardless, those conflicts can be relatively easy to resolve when people can find sources of information they can both agree on.
I am concerned that the framework you referred that focuses on goals and strategies does not help us understand three important sources of conflict, interests, structural conflicts and relationships.
Interest conflicts are about differences in needs and expectations. An example is the differing interests that can exist between finance and operations in the company. Both share the mission of the organization, but what they each need to account for within the company can be in competition with the other – until the two start talking, and understanding what each needs in order for both to accomplish the mission.
Structural conflicts include conflicts created by the power dynamics within an organization, and the conflicts that are created by overlapping roles and responsibilities. The conflict people are dealing with is built into the structure of the organization. Generally resolving these conflicts requires a systemic solution.
Relationship conflicts are conflicts created and fed by the history between people, distrust and disrespect.
I’d love to talk with you more about this. You can also find a lot more on the topic in my book, Conflict 101