4 Ways to Prevent a Conflict Catastrophe

Conflict, misunderstandings, disagreements: these are all a part of working with people who are different than we are. Why can’t we all just get along? Why do tasks, projects and decisions often feel annoying, frustrating, or difficult?

The more diverse the workplace is the greater the likelihood that conflict will arise. This is the powerful potential and maddening disruption of diversity. There is powerful potential because of the various perspectives, insights, and ideas. There is maddening disruption because others don’t see things the same way, and that means they don’t always want to do the same things. Diversity is proven to create better outcomes but it takes time, patience and skill to navigate the conflict in between.

As workplace diversity increases, here are four ways to prevent conflict from becoming catastrophic:

  1. Uncover Assumptions by asking questions. One of the realities of diversity is that we can mean something completely different even though we use the same word. For example, on virtually every workplace survey the results indicate that communication needs to be improved. Most leaders see these results and assume that they need to increase the number of emails or town halls. While that may be true, when we’ve asked employees what they meant, the desire for better communication was about being listened to not talked at! When someone uses a word, no matter how common it is, ask them what they mean by it.
  1. Understand Your Conflict Style. Just as each human being has a personality, everyone has a preferred approach to dealing with conflict. According to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI), there are five major styles of conflict management—collaborating, competing, avoiding, accommodating, and compromising. Know your default and learn how to use the other styles so that you can match the conflict situation to the most suitable style. Recognize when you are moving to your default style rather than the style that is best for that situation.
  1. Choose Carefully. The words you use can exacerbate or soothe in a conflict. The words you choose can activate cortisol, the stress hormone and hijack the brain with an emotional response. Pause to clarify your intention (what is your ideal outcome) and then select objective words. During a conflict it’s easy to sling emotion-ridden words that feel judgmental to the person hearing them. Once you are clear on the impact you want and you’ve selected your words, ask for feedback to understand whether your intent matches the impact.
  1. Find Agreement. Begin from a position both parties can agree on to resolve conflict more rapidly. While facts are fantastic, when people have a different context the same facts will be viewed in different ways and can still cause disagreement. Discuss and reach agreement on a common goal or outcome. For example, instead of arguing over who should be the leader, focus on the qualities and characteristics of the ideal leader. Then talk about the various candidates and see who best fits those criteria.

Conflict is inevitable. Your opportunity is to use it to create an excellent outcome rather than exacerbate a sore spot that festers. Asking questions to uncover assumptions, using the best conflict resolution style for the situation, choosing your words carefully and beginning with the end in mind by starting with agreement will help you resolve it positively and productively.

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