The following highlights are from an NPCC workshop presented by Howard Schwartz of The Conflict Resolution and Resource Center, and MayPing Szeto and Carol Stewart of Mediation Services/Project Resolve.
Effective communication can be the key to resolving conflict; ineffective communication often may be the cause of, and exacerbate, conflict. Thinking of conflict often arouses strong, negative emotions (such as anger, resentment, confusion, etc.) that impact communication and impedes resolution.
Another factor that affects communication are screens. Both parties (the sender of the message and the receiver) have inherent and intentional screens. Sometimes we are aware of our screens and sometimes they are so internalized that they are unconscious. Screens can include values, perceptions, assumptions, body language, facial expressions, emotional status, physical appearances, past personal experiences, stereotypes, cultural differences, nationality, race and gender, ones use of the English language, and positioning and power.
Screens are not necessarily bad, and can actually be useful in communication as long as one is aware of the impact and utility of screens. For example, maintaining a poker face when an employee raises an issue may be a useful screen in that it conveys neutrality and allows you time to reflect upon the issue.
Overall, there are three things to consider when sending a message: what I intend to say and do, how I say it (both verbal and nonverbal indicators), and where I say it. Further, how I say it, includes: who do I say it to, and what words do I actually say. On the receiving end, the major considerations include: what she hears, how she hears it, how she interprets it, and how she responds (verbal and nonverbal).
There are several broad styles in dealing with conflict: 1) The accommodating style is to give in, perhaps because the relationship is more important than the conflict. 2) The competing style is a win/lose scenario where one party gets what he wants at the expense of the other party. 3) In the avoiding style a conflict doesnt get addressed at all. 4) Using the compromising style, one party meets the other halfway, usually giving up something in order to get something. 5) In the collaborating style, the parties usually value equally their relationship and each others needs.
When reflecting on how you deal with conflict, you may realize that you unconsciously favor one style because of early formative experiences. A question to ask oneself is, how difficult would it be to use another style when trying to resolve a conflict? Would differentand hopefully betterresults be achieved by using a less familiar or comfortable style?
Five tools to get
information to move toward resolution include:
Brainstorming allows you to gather information and generate creative options for resolving issues. If possible, involve all sides to provide them with a sense of ownership of the outcome. Put everything out to generate as many options as possible and then select the most promising ideas and improve them. Brainstorming helps remove the emotions of the past and allows you to focus on the future. It also helps engender respect and provides clarity.
Separate people from the problem. Often the people and the problem get fused into one. If you see the problem as an innate personality characteristic, then youll have to change his personality. But, if you separate the problem from the personality, the solution may be more feasible. For example, a common problem is a person who continually leaves the coffee area messy. Dont tell him that hes a slob (thats defining the individual and not getting to the specific problem), instead ask him to clean up his coffee spills.
Negotiate on interests, not positions. Positions are concrete, specific and inflexible statements that appear to provide a solution. Interests are a persons needs, wants and concerns (whether they are security, happiness, territory, respect, efficiency, etc.). Interests are the underlying issues that generate positions. Negotiating only around positions narrowly limits options. You may have to step back to determine what the interests of the other person are because it is not always obvious what the interests are of any party in conflict.
Questions used to gather information about interests fall into three basic types: 1) Open-ended questions encourage people to express themselves and to generate discussions. They permit someone to take control of a situation and speak freely. 2) Closed questions ask for a yes or no answer. They are used to direct discussions and to get specific information. 3) Reflective questions are used to clarify or confirm your understanding of what someone has said. They are also used to show that you are listening and to mirror the emotional content of a response. No one type of question is better than another, however there are times when one may be more effective for your purpose. The technique of active listening should be used in discussions/questioning. For example, nodding (not nodding off), tilting your head, looking people in the eyes, etc.
Reframing is the skill of restating the underlying interests, needs and wants in positive terms to help acknowledge that the problem was heard and understood. Reframing serves to de-escalate the conflict, to establish common ground, to focus on the future, and to acknowledge feelings. Be careful not to trivialize the problem and be conscious about the words you choose and your body language.
In the workplace, the challenge is to view conflict as an opportunity for growth and resolving differences, thereby enhancing morale, productivity and improving the work environment.
Two recommended readings on the topic of conflict resolution and negotiating agreements are:
To Yes, Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In
Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project
Taking Charge/Managing Conflict
Joseph B. Stulberg
© 1999 Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York. This article originally appeared in the September-October 1999 issue of New York Nonprofits, the monthly publication of the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York.