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"She led us to understand the nature of our conflict, taught us a practical issue resolution process and helped us develop skill in its use."

Jane Van Heest
Teacher – Honey Creek Elementary School
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Conflict

It is fairly common knowledge that conflict in and of itself is not inherently good or bad; it just is. The way we choose to handle it, determines whether it will bring benefit or cause damage.

Conflict provides an opportunity for a better solution or way of doing things, or for a stronger relationship. Great solutions come when different types of thinking are brought to bear on a problem or difficulty. Your strongest, most meaningful relationships are not those where conflict has never occurred, but where it has existed and you have been able to work through it successfully. Relationships tried by conflict that have successfully come out the other side are the most enduring. There is increased belief in the strength of the relationship and its ability to withstand future challenges.

To effectively resolve conflict requires an understanding of its primary causes and the approaches available to us. Steps to resolution will vary based on the nature of the conflict itself.

At times the best course of action is to avoid or postpone the conflict. This is the case when tempers are flaring. Other times it is appropriate to acquiesce or give in. This may be the case when the difference is relatively minor and building good will is the more important goal. On other occasions it is appropriate to "fight to win", as is the case when someone you love is putting himself/herself in harm's way. Sometimes it's best to meet half-way for expediency's sake. Your teenager asks to be home by midnight. You want him home by ten pm. You and your spouse are cuddled comfortably on the sofa in the middle of a romantic comedy. Battling this out with your teenager is going to take time and effort you don't want to invest right now, so you split the difference and settle on eleven. Some conflicts deserve the investment of time and energy required to reach a collaborative solution, where all parties' most important needs are met. This might be the case when a high degree of support is needed in to achieve success.

In the years I have spent mediating conflict on teams and between individuals, I have seen the same causes show up over and over again. I'll mention just two here.

Unclear or unsupported goals, roles and behavioral expectations are near the top of the list. This is especially true when one person calls another to account for violating a behavioral expectation that the offender was never made aware of.

Let's take the break room as an example. A new employee, we'll call her Jane, joins the company and is taken on a tour of the facility. Her tour guide quickly walks her through the kitchen and break room saying, "Coffee and soft drinks are available in here. Coffee cups and glasses are in the cabinet." Well Jane settles in and, being a coffee drinker, helps herself to a cup of coffee in the break room each morning. When she finishes, she places her cup in the sink.

After Jane has been doing this for a couple of weeks, Joanne comes into the kitchen just as Jane is putting her cup in the sink. Joanne gets red-faced, raises her voice and says, "That's it, Jane! I am SICK to death of washing your coffee cups!" Joanne turns and storms off. Jane is left thinking, "Who does she think she is? She has no right to talk to me like that." And the conflict begins. Joanne might have been "feeling" the conflict for two weeks, but until Jane becomes aware of what is going on with Joanne, there is no "difference" or "struggle" between the two of them.

I can guess what you're thinking. Jane is an adult and should know better than to leave her cup in the sink when she's finished with her coffee. But Jane is only behaving in keeping with her experience. She's spent the last ten years in a firm that invoiced her time in ten minute increments. She was told never to "waste her time" washing her cup. "We have people that come in to take care of that, Jane."

All someone needed to do was let Jane know what the expectations for the kitchen area were and there would never have been a problem. Joanne was in the wrong for treating Jane the way she did. Now Jane and Joanne are both angry. Joanne for feeling like she was burdened with Jane's clean up responsibility and Jane for being called to account for something she was never made aware of.

This may all seem quite silly, but I can tell you - company kitchens and break rooms are hotbeds of conflict; which leads me to my second and final example.

Martha and Helen have been preparing lunches and snacks for important visitors to their facility for the last twenty two years. They both have other roles within the company, but have informally become the "keepers of the kitchen" and the "culinary queens". They are elderly ladies who are skilled in putting together a fine spread.

Over the last several weeks, every time they head to the kitchen to do their magic, Michelle, a young attractive girl, new to the company, is already there with preparations under way. Martha and Helen are quite wounded by this turn of events.

In the absence of information/communication people have a tendency to fill in the gaps. Martha and Helen assume that the "big bosses" want a "pretty young thing" with a nice figure serving the guests. The "pretty young thing" confides to me that she's been told to prepare the food, but doesn't know what she's doing and would really like some help. Meanwhile, Helen and Martha have washed their hands of the kitchen (no pun intended) and barely speak to Michelle.

There may well be a logical or sound reason the new girl has been asked to step in. It may have begun one day when Martha or Helen was sick and Michelle was told to help out. It could be out of concern for the physical demands on Martha and Helen. It may be because the managers realize that Martha and Helen will be retiring one day and someone else needs to be trained to take on the task. I do not know.

What I do know is that this illustrates another of the most common causes of conflict, lack of clear, timely, reliable information/communication. Communication is not just telling; it is also asking. Did anyone think to ask Helen or Martha whether they were physically up to the task or wanted to continue?

These stories are true. We could avoid a multitude of conflicts if we simply communicated in a timely manner, and clarified goals, roles and behavioral expectations early on.

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