Today heralds Conflict Resolution Day, an international celebration initiated by the ACR (Association of Conflict Resolution) in 2005 to promote awareness of mediation, arbitration, conciliation and other creative, peaceful means of resolving conflict in businesses, schools, families, communities, governments and the legal system.
But when we hear the word ‘conflict’, how many of us instantly switch off, with the thought that conflict doesn’t really involve us; doesn’t happen in our working life experience. After all, conflict is about fisticuffs, isn’t it? And probably not many of us find ourselves in the middle of office-based gangster-style brawls …bodies flying across desks, photocopiers upturned and coffee cups smashing around us. At least not on a daily basis.
And yes, the many dictionary explanations of ‘conflict’ do seem to throw up a certain seriousness , with definitions that include words such as ‘struggle’, ‘state of opposition’, ‘clash’, ‘fight’, ‘battle’, ‘serious disagreement’, ‘emotional disturbance’. In fact the word derives from the Latin ‘fligere’ which means ‘to strike’.
However, it’s just as important to focus on another key word used to define ‘conflict’ – the word ‘difference’. For difference of approach, of opinion, of ideas, is something that 100% of us will definitely be encountering every day – many times a day – in our working environment.
Indeed, all conflict management training will always start with the concept that conflict is a normal and healthy part of life. If we didn’t have conflicting views and opinions, we’d have staid and inefficient processes, unchallenged ways of doing things that wouldn’t move with the times or with the needs of the organisation or the unique expertise and strengths of each employee.
Yet there’s a fine line between healthy and unhealthy conflict, and even [more so perhaps] at the low, everyday level, where niggles and misunderstandings have consequences that affect business.
Just take a common example of an email conversation between two people in which different perspectives are at play. One is in a rush and quickly emails the other with a request that may sound more like a demand, may not give clear instructions, or may even be taken as ‘rude’. The recipient, on reading the email is instantly triggered into a reaction. He/she may take fight mode – perhaps emailing straight back in retaliation using a similar tone or refusing to comply. Or, alternatively, flight mode – defocusing from the task altogether and retreating to the coffee machine to let out the anger and share the situation with a couple of colleagues. Then the ramifications: the news might have an effect on those colleagues, that could alter the way they view or interact with the email sender, which then has a knock-on effect on other colleagues, and so on. Not to mention the cost of downtime for half an hour times the hourly salary times three people.
Add up the number of times this happens daily to many employees just in one organisation, and it makes a significant difference on the balance sheet. And that’s only every day stuff – it doesn’t include the high costs of grievances and tribunals when relations properly break down. Research proves the point – CPP Inc., publishers of the Myers-Briggs Assessment and the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument discovered through their study a few years ago that workplace conflict amounted to approximately $359 billion in paid hours, or the equivalent of385 million working days in one year.
So, conflict is something we all live with, and for which we need a proper strategy and plan of action.
Increasingly, organisations are introducing dispute resolution methods, such as mediation, when a situation becomes untenable between colleagues. Rather than allowing a situation to fester or escalate, or even embarking on grievance procedures, with time and stress costs on both sides, timely mediation offers a more positive, forward-focusing and long-term solution where both parties have a chance of getting their needs met.
That’s at one end of the scale. What organisations need to do equally, at the same time, is lay focus right at the other end of the spectrum, on the everyday communication between colleagues, long before a situation requires mediation. Here we’re talking about equipping employees with the personal tools and skills needed for effective communication with one another on a daily basis in the workplace. Tools and skills that help them to harness and manage their reactions to situations, to be able to listen to, and hear, the intentions of others, and to express themselves openly and clearly in a professional manner.
Such skills focus on a resolution-based approach to meeting needs – for themselves and their co-workers, in collaboration towards the needs and goals of the organisation. Building these foundational skills instils a code of conduct, infused and used throughout the organisation, where people are able to build a culture of respect, trust and authenticity that leads to greater employee engagement and ultimately higher productivity. A code that allows conflict resolution to be the responsibility of every employee, and not only the responsibility of HR when the conflict escalates to the other end of the spectrum.
Penelope Newton-Hurley is a Communication Troubleshooter,Consultant, Trainer and Mediator
The Communication Troubleshooter helps drive engagement and
performance through Emotional Intelligence and
Resolution-based CommPassion© Communication techniques.
Find out more at www.thecommtroubleshooter.co.uk
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