Ten Principles Of Engaging Conflict
By Rodney Shaw
Left unattended, conflict can wear down resolve and morale, and this is especially true in a volunteer organization where the work experience itself is both the chief motivation and the reward for the work. Directed conflict, on the other hand, will motivate an organization to envision new possibilities and to experiment with new endeavors. Here are ten principles for engaging conflict.
1 Create A Context For Conflict. If you’re going to carry water, you need a bucket. Conflict also needs a container, or else it will run out through the cracks like water seeping through your cupped hands. A healthy environment that is suited for conflict is crucial, and this context must be deliberately constructed.
* Build good relationships. When people have good relationships it is much easier to work through conflict. When healthy relationships exist there is more interpersonal credibility and mutual respect. This means we must work hard at building relationships long before we encounter a conflict.
* Engage in regular confirmation. The book Crucial Confrontations is about how to have a productive confrontation. The authors included an appendix titled “When Things Go Right.” The author’s state, “Those who are best at holding crucial confrontations make good use of praise between confrontations.
* Create lines of communication. There should be a culture of communication where even dissenting views can be expressed, so long as they are expressed appropriately. If people cannot communicate openly in healthy ways, they will find covert ways to communicate. Often misbehavior is simply a way for a person to be heard.
* Organize with policies, procedures, and systems. Defining structures in advance prevents much conflict, for it directs people and resources in harmonious channels. Further, when conflicts do occur, established policies and procedures make provision for unbiased solutions. Job descriptions, for example, delineate who is responsible for a particular job. The implication is that everyone else is not responsible for this job.
* Document and discuss group values. Many organizations have mission statements or vision statements, but much fewer have a formal values statement. Churches should not assume that everyone will always act in the best interest of the group. It is easy to mask impure motives and bad behavior behind spiritual causes. There needs to be a set of governing values that is commonly accepted by the team.
2 Be Honest With Yourself. When a conflict arises we all must think and act responsibly. This includes refusing to allow ourselves to make wrong assumptions. We often fill in the blanks, assigning motives to people’s actions, assuming certain things were said, and drawing other irresponsible conclusions. There are many reasons that may motivate us to do this, and the temptation is strong; but, we must resist. We must remember there is an ethic of hearing as well as of speaking.
3 Handle Conflicts At The Lowest Level Possible. Although leaders arc often the final arbiters in conflict. a great deal of conflict can be handled without dragging top leaders into the mix. Leaders often assume a parental role, and this is sometimes necessary; however, if the leader’s intervention is constantly required, the organization is not functioning properly. Introducing a leader into a conflict not only changes the complexion of the conflict, it takes the leader away from the task of leading (although it is possible and sometimes necessary to lead through conflict). Handling conflicts at the lowest level possible not only isolates and minimizes conflict, it also incorporates the principle Jesus gave in Matthew 18:15-20.
4 Grade Conflicts. Do not load for bear if you are hunting for sparrows. All conflicts are not the same. Many conflicts will work out themselves. Others require very little intervention. while others will require arbitration. Conflicts need to be evaluated as to their severity and extent before they are confronted. Treating a minor conflict as a major conflict or vice versa diminishes one’s effectiveness not only in dealing with the present conflict, but also in dealing with future conflicts. Too, we should not spiritualize
administrative conflicts or administrate spiritual conflicts.
5 Determine What Is Truly At Stake. Confrontations do not always address the underlying conflict. Sometimes people are distracted by personalities, secondary issues, ongoing turf wars, or different understandings of terms or circumstances. When two or more people enter a confrontation it is imperative that they “take the time to un-bundle the problem.” Following are some practical ways to get to the conflict.
* Focus on your interests instead of your position. A position is what a person usually presents as a solution during a confrontation. However, there could be any number of positions that could satisfy the underlying interest. While our interests may not be negotiable, often times our positions are negotiable. Further, positions tend to be personal, and “taking positions just makes things worse because people’s egos become identified with their positions.” In confrontation we must be careful not to confuse our positions (pre-defined solutions) with our underlying interests. It may be necessary to forego one’s position in order to preserve his interests. David Augsburger illustrates this point well with a story.
“Two Hong Kong women, arguing over the ownership of an orange, each made a strong case for sole ownership. The mediator a neighbor, heard each side as equally compelling, and recommended that a compromise be struck. The orange was divided into equal proportions. When each had received her half and returned home, the one peeled her half, threw away the peel, and ate the flesh. The other peeled her half, discarded the flesh, and julienned the peel for a stir fry.”
* Communicate your interests clearly. Once you have determined what your true interest is, be sure you communicate this to the other parties. If they do not know what your true interest is, they cannot be expected to negotiate in such a way as to satisfy your interest. “If you go with a raging ulcer to see a doctor, you should not hope for much relief if you describe it as a mild stomachache.”‘
* Acknowledge and try to understand the other side. If you misunderstand the other side, you may be negotiating against something that does not exist. True collaboration can only occur when all sides fully understand the interests of the others. Sometimes it’s a matter of perspective. As William Ury points out, “They can be right in terms of their experience, and you can be right in terms of yours.
* Ask questions instead of stating a position or making statements. You already know your own interests, so try to discern the other interests involved. Asking questions tends to disarm tense situations, for it demonstrates that you are willing to listen. But it is important to ask the right questions.
6 Involve The Other Side In The Solution. Not only should we avoid imposing solutions, we should actively invite others to join in the collaborative process. It is easy to include other parties as part of the problem; it is more challenging to include them as part of the solution. This may require giving up some things and conceding some of the credit. Involving others may require one to surrender his ideal solution, but it will be a solution that is much more likely to succeed. “A solution that is tactically inferior, but has the full commitment of those who implement it, may be more effective than one that is tactically superior but is resisted by those who have to make it work.”
* Don’t appear to know the best solution until you have heard the alternatives.
* Do not impose your solution without a fair hearing. It is best to come to a mutual decision. Even if one side knows the best solution, he should allow the other party the opportunity to embrace the solution as a joint solution, for “An imposed outcome is an unstable one.”
* Use first-person plural language. This is a very practical way to change the tone of a confrontation. By speaking in terms of us and we instead of I, me, and you, it is possible to bring the others along side you. This can be a major step in collaboration, for it removes accusation and invites the others to participate in the solution.
* Be open to creating new possibilities. In Getting To Yes the authors say, “In most negotiations there are four major obstacles that inhibit the inventing of an abundance of options: (1) premature judgement; (2) searching for the single answer; (3) the assumption of a fixed pie; and (4) thinking that ‘solving their problem is their problem.’ By a “fixed pie” they mean a fixed number of solutions.
7 Allow People To Save Face. One of the principle rules of negotiation is to allow the other side to save face. Even in conflicts where there is an obvious right and wrong position, the person in the right should allow the person in the wrong a dignified way out. Humiliation, belittling, insulting, and intimidation may be the easiest way to resolve the immediate conflict; however, this can be a costly resolution in the long term. People need to feel respected and valued, even when they make mistakes.
8 Do Not Misuse Power. There are two primary ways power is misused in confrontations: (1) people with power use their power to win by intimidation, and (2) people with less power defer to those with power to the detriment of everyone.
9 Stay In Control. A lot of damage can be done when a confrontation becomes contentious. Words can quickly spiral out of control, and they can never be retracted. As Ambrose Bierce said, “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”
10 Look To The Future. Longterm changes are more important than quick fixes. The past is gone. Solutions should prepare a path into the future. How can we avoid a similar conflict in the future? Where do we go from here? This should be the focus of collaboration. In addition to resolving the conflict is the all-important task of preserving the relationships with those involved. Relationships are more important than most issues that arise in the life of a church. In this regard, it is certainly possible to win the battle but lose the war. In some instances, it is more productive for the long-term to concede a particular position in order to maintain a relationship or better position oneself of negotiation in the future.
We’re Missing A Camel! The Fact Of Conflict
In Getting Past No William Ury relays the following story:
“There is a story of a man who left seventeen camels to his three sons. He left half the camels to his eldest son, a third to his middle son, and a ninth to his youngest. The three set to dividing up their inheritance but soon despaired of their ability to negotiate a solution because seventeen could not be divided by two or three or nine. The sons approached a wise old woman. After pondering the problem, the old woman said, ‘See what happens if you take my camel.’ So then the sons had eighteen camels. The eldest son took his half-that was nine. The middle son took his third-that was six. And the youngest son took his ninth-that was two. Nine and six and two made seventeen. They had one camel left over. They gave it back to the wise old woman.”
This issue of the Forward addresses conflict. As leaders we are frequently called upon to sort out conflicts, and often times, it seems as if we are looking for missing camels! Conflict is an inevitable part of human existence. Two people approach a four-way stop at the same time. I want McDonald’s, but my wife wants Taco Bell. Two ministries want to schedule different events in the fellowship hall on the same date. I am asked to speak out of town on my daughter’s birthday. And the list goes on.
I am not suggesting frequent brawls! That is not at all what I mean by conflict, nor would I suggest that this type of interaction is healthy in a church or any other organization. In fact, I do not see conflict as the fight; rather, conflict is the intersection of competing claims, ideals, expectations, or desires. Conflict, therefore, results from creativity and diversity, and is evidence of the image of God that is within us. If there are no conflicts in your relationships, you are either a dictator or you work for one.
When different ideals and claims arise from within the core of a group, it is indicative of the vibrancy of the organization, and it is this vibrancy that shapes and propels the organization. Conflicts force groups to consider alternatives, deal with obstacles, and challenge norms. Accordingly, Ralph Martson aptly said, “Welcome those big, sticky, complicated problems. In them are your most powerful opportunities.”‘ As David Augsburger points out, “Conflict is a visible sign of human energy; it is the evidence of human urgency; it is the result of competitive striving for the same goals, rights, and resources.”
Conflict can actually be healthy if it is directed in an appropriate way. Conflict can create cohesion in a team. People tend to reach new levels of commitment during conflict. Conflict is also an ideological undressing; it exposes our core, our loyalties, and our insecurities, dispensing of peripheral issues that do not define the group.
Team experts John Katzenbach and Douglas Smith note:
“Conflict, like trust and interdependence, is also a necessary part of becoming a real team. Seldom do we see a group of individuals forge their unique experiences, perspective, values, and expectations into a common purpose, set of performance goals, and approach without encountering significant conflict. And the most challenging risks associated with conflict relate to making it constructive for the team instead of simply enduring it.”
How do we respond when others say no to our yes or yes to our no?
The articles “Ten Principles Of Engaging Conflict” and “We’re Missing A Camel! The Fact Of Conflict” both written by Rodney Shaw are both excerpted from Forward Magazine the 2007 September/October edition.