A conflict involves two people: you and somebody else. The key to successfully resolving those conflicts often comes down to recognizing two things — First: Realizing that you have several options available to you, and Second: Ensuring the other person understands you.
In Learning Tree’s course on conflict management and resolution, we look at a conflict from three perspectives: yourself, others, and your team. I imagine that when it comes to conflict, looking at others makes sense. After all, when we have a conflict, it’s with some other person, who might be a team member. It’s important to recognize that looking at yourself makes equal sense. Often, the reason we’re in conflict is that we’ve reacted to the other person in a way almost guaranteed to create conflict.
For example, the assumptions we make about the other person’s reasons and goals that lead to the conflict are often…unfortunate. When Jim McCarthy wrote his classic book on developing effective software development teams he addressed this problem in his fourth rule for developers: “Don’t flick the bozo bit.” Translated from ‘developer-speak’ that rule says that you shouldn’t assume that the other person disagrees with you because they’re stupid.
And, yet, when we find ourselves in conflict with others that’s one of the first things we assume: We assume that our position is so obviously right that only an idiot would disagree with us. To measure the effect of flipping the ‘bozo bit,’ you just have to remember how you’ve felt when someone suggested that whatever reasons you offered as part of an argument were dumb.
Another reaction that can aggravate a conflict is treating all conflicts the same way. All conflicts are not alike and an approach that resolved one conflict might well lead to a worse problem in another conflict.
At the very least, we should distinguish between “conflict management” and “conflict resolution” because it isn’t always necessary to ‘resolve’ every conflict. In many conflicts, all that’s necessary is to map out some arrangement that allows all the parties to continue to work together and to avoid the areas where conflict occurs. As Brad Spagler points out at Beyond Intractability, peacekeeping forces sent into war zones aren’t intended to resolve the conflict and bring peace — they’re just there to ensure that everyone follows the rules and stops killing each other. That’s obviously a good thing. Trying for resolution when it isn’t necessary or possible can aggravate conflict by forcing people to work together in some resolution process that is guaranteed to fail.
However, conflict management does require constant vigilance because, in the absence of a resolution, it’s possible for the emotions associated with the conflict can continue to grow. When that happens it can become impossible for the participants to continue to ‘follow the rules.’ If the likely outcome of a conflict management solution is festering resentment then applying a management solution may only make the conflict harder to deal with when the rules break down.
The issue is to recognize the options that you have for dealing with conflict and applying the ones appropriate for the current conflict.
Even when you decide to resolve a conflict with someone else, you have three options for dealing with the conflict. Typically, however, we only use one. Your three options are:
Most of us excel at one of these strategies and, as a result, apply that option even when it’s the wrong choice. If you do decide to resolve the conflict by using either compete or engage, flipping the bozo bit is not going to lead to a happy result. No one will want to work towards resolution with you if you obviously think they are idiots.
If you decide to go with engage then you need to the use the tool that’s the complete opposite to flipping the bozo bit: empathy.
Too often, when people hear the word “empathy” they think it means “feeling the other person’s pain.” Paul Bloom has argued that form of empathy actually makes things worse. Bloom feels that, while empathy (in some form) makes you a more compassionate person it also blinds you to the long term consequences of your actions.
And that may be true (though it’s not obvious to me why compassion is especially good at blinding me to long-term outcomes). But it’s only true only if you assume that empathy has to be bound up with sharing the other person’s emotions. In fact, in a conflict, emotions are probably already running high so taking on someone else’s emotional burden is only going to aggravate the problem.
If we take out the emotional component, empathy just means understanding why that other person’s goals and reasons make sense to them. This is essential because you wouldn’t be in conflict with the other person if they shared your goals and reasons. You can, therefore, in a conflict assume that there is something happening with that person you don’t know or fully understand. In other words, rather than flipping the bozo bit, we should assume that the other person has reasons for disagreeing with us that make sense (well…make sense to the other person).
And let me clear: Empathy, in this sense, does not require you to agree with the other person; With empathy, you’re merely able to see how the other person’s goals and reasons make sense to them. If you can honestly say, “From your point of view I can see how I must look like a complete jerk,” then you’ve achieved this level of empathy (I’m assuming here, of course, that you don’t agree that you’re a complete jerk).
In fact, all you’re doing with this level of empathy is granting to the other person the same respect that you want to be granted to your point of view. As Amy Gallo, points out in an article in the Harvard Business Review, you’re going to need to understand the other person’s goals and reasons if you’re going to create a solution that makes sense to both of you.
Navigating conflict means recognizing all of these options (manage vs. resolve, accommodate vs. compete vs. engage, engaging with empathy) and picking the right one. If you can do that you can not only survive your next conflict, you can end up with a better result than you ever thought possible.