When did the term “conflict” get such a bad name? In my work with teams over the last 25 years all around the world, I have never found a high performing team that did not have moments when team members disagreed, debated, or argued. These teams all had a healthy respect for the value of not only having differences of opinions or perspectives, but for having learned how to manage themselves as they worked through the discord or tensions precipitated by their disputes. High performing teams have a high degree of emotional intelligence and recognize that they must go through a process of learning how to first listen to and understand diverging points of view before they can evaluate them and arrive at a converging consensus. I strongly believe that, conflict, rather than being an enemy of collaboration, is, in fact, a necessary requirement for productive and successful collaboration! When conflict is managed well creativity can be enhanced because ideas are more vigorously debated. One idea leads to another and the quality of the options is vetted thus leading to better decisions. In group or team settings managing conflict effectively requires creating a climate where people feel comfortable openly and honestly discussing issues. To create the right climate it is essential to establish trust, work together closely, and manage emotions.
When trust is low, people hold back and fail to discuss issues openly. While this may be understandable, it cuts down on the team’s ability to solve problems. While trust is essential it cannot be mandated, it must be earned. One step team leaders can take is to speak openly about issues. This requires making themselves vulnerable by talking openly about how they think and feel about matters. They can also work with the team to establish norms to prevent someone’s words being used against them. When team members believe they can share openly without fear of reprisal, they will be more willing to address conflicts.
When people work together as a high performing team – sharing information, looking at alternative courses of action and making decisions together – they learn to give others on the team the benefit of the doubt when conflicts arise. This process of working together truly as a team is called behavioral integration. Leaders can foster this by making sure they keep all team members in the “information loop.” They can seek all team members’ inputs when developing approaches for resolving issues. Finally, fostering team rewards, beyond rewarding individual agendas, can help instill a sense of teamness (collaboration). When people feel others are working for the benefit of the team more than for their own personal interests, then they will be more willing to give others the benefit of the doubt and find out what is happening before getting angry and shutting down communications.
Managing the emotional climate of the team is also essential to maintain the right climate to address conflict. Negative conflict emotions can spread rapidly among team members. Leaders need to be aware of the emotional “temperature” of the team and address issues early on. Destructive conflict can get out of control quickly so early intervention is the key. Once the right climate is established team members need to use constructive communication techniques to keep their conflict conversations moving in a way to facilitate collaboration. Several particularly effective communication techniques include reaching out, perspective taking, listening for understanding, sharing thoughts and feelings, and creating solutions. When people are asked whether they talk more or less in conflict situations, they almost always say less. When asked whether this helps resolve conflict, they laugh and admit it does not. When conflict arises and communication has slowed down, effective leaders make sure to reach out to encourage people to start talking again.
Conflict communication consists of talking and listening. In many ways, listening is the more important of the two. A couple of behaviors typify good listening. The first is perspective taking which involves trying to see things from the other person’s point of view – “walking in their shoes.” By trying to do this, you can learn new things about a conflict that may prove helpful in resolving it. The second technique is called listening for understanding. This involves hearing what the other person has to say whether you agree with it or not. Most of us listen to respond, we hear the other person’s words but at the same time judge whether they are right or wrong so we can correct the other person when we get a chance to speak. This type of listening causes us to miss many important points and it generally causes the other person to get upset. When you listen carefully though it has the opposite effect, the other person will usually calm down and you will pick up ideas that can help resolve the conflict and improve the quality of your collaboration.
When you have listened carefully to the other person, it is often easier to share your own thoughts and feelings. The other person becomes more open to listening to you which can make it easier to make your own points. Once this sharing has occurred you are well positioned to be able to explore new options for creating solutions to the problem you face. This search for options can take into account a variety of perspectives so that solutions will not be one sided. Rather, they can be crafted in ways that meet all parties’ needs and generate sustainable solutions.
Conflict is a natural part of life. People recognize this but are often afraid to address it. When that happens collaboration is hampered because communications wither. To achieve optimal collaboration people need to be able to explore issues and debate points in a constructive manner. By managing conflict effectively, collaboration can be enhanced and its promise fulfilled.