I recently read a great piece of advice from one of my colleagues, Carol Bowser (http://www.managingconflict.com/.) She’s a conflict expert, and suggested that we all prepare for conflict situations before they happen. That’s a good idea since (1) we are highly likely to find ourselves in such a situation sometime and (2) when you’re in the midst of a conflict it’s really hard to come up with the right thing to say if you’re not prepared. In other words, behaving effectively in a conflict situation is actually a skill that you can learn.
So, what does being prepared mean? Taking Carol’s suggestions and expanding on them, here are some questions to ask when you find yourself in that conflict:
- What’s the issue (and do we both agree that’s the issue)?
- Why do I hink it’s an issue? Why does the other person think it is?
- What are some possible solutions?
- What am I willing/able to do to make it better?
- What can we do together to make it better?
To apply these to a workplace example, say you’re the Marketing Manager in a company. You and Susan, the Finance Specialist are having an argument about a budget line item for graphic design in the Marketing budget. You want to spend most of it to purchase new software you need. Susan says it can only be used for hiring a graphic designer for a project.
- What’s the issue? You and Susan agree that the issue is allowable use of the budgeted graphic design funds.
- Why do you think it’s an issue? You’re thinking long-term about the department’s needs which would best be met by buying this software now. Why do you think Susan think it’s an issue? She seems to be tied to the rules, and these dollars are in a section of the budget which may only be used for consulting services.
- What are some possible solutions? You and Susan brainstorm, and come up with the following:
- Expand the use of funds in this line of the budget.
- Transfer the funds to another part of the budget, likely leaving little available for consulting services.
- What are you willing to do to make it better? In talking with Susan it becomes apparent to you that expanding the allowable use of funds in this line item would be a longer term project, and you need the money for the software now. You might want to propose this change in graphic design funds use as budget development begins for next year, but for now you decide that you’re willing to forgo consulting services monies and move the funds to another line in the budget from which you can purchase the software you need.
- What are you willing to do together with Susan? You decide to meet with the Finance Manager together to get the OK to move these funds.
As you can see, there’s a real system here – and it works. Till they really become part of how you approach conflict, I’d recommend putting the steps on a note card or even a sticky note and always having them handy. I used to have a sticky note with these steps on the bookshelf above my desk. That way I’d have them handy whenever something came up. I’d also recommend practicing (with your child, with your friend, with anyone where you find yourself in a disagreement – even talking to yourself as you drive…). If you practice on “small” conflicts ir even invented conflicts, when real or bigger ones come up you’ll be prepared.
If you want to know more about this way of approaching conflict, check out the Harvard Negotiations Project (http://www.pon.harvard.edu/category/research_projects/harvard-negotiation-project/ ) and the work they’ve done over many years, starting with the famous Getting to Yes.
Has this or another systems for working through conflicts been successful for you? We’d love to know! ~ Daphne Schneider