Many business leaders are skilled in multiple areas – anticipating future needs in the marketplace, financial acumen, casting vision, and building strategic partnerships with other companies. But one area that creates challenges for many leaders is the ability to handle conflict with others well.
Hardly anyone enjoys or seeks out conflict. In fact, most of us don’t like it at all. We don’t like trying to resolve conflicts. We don’t really even like thinking or talking about it.
But conflict is a normal part of life. Conflicts happen fairly regularly (more for some than others!). So, understanding the core issues underlying conflictual situations can help you grow to become a better leader.
Where Does Conflict Come From?
It is helpful to understand that there are different sources of conflict:
- Miscommunication (or misunderstanding)
- Competing needs (or desires)
When you hear the phrases, “I thought you meant...” or “That is not what I meant at all!” then you know people have misunderstood one another. What one person intended to say and tried to say apparently wasn’t the message that was heard and accurately interpreted. Often, however, in the business setting, miscommunication is really due to a lack of communication—there wasn’t a message sent. Silence is one of the greatest causes of miscommunication in the workplace today. When there is no message sent, then others are left to try to guess what the person is thinking or intends for us to do.
Competing needs, desires or beliefs
Some conflict is a result of two people (or groups or organizations) wanting different things. John thinks more money should be spent on advertising, while Laura thinks the money should be spent on product development. Sarah thinks she pays her staff well (in light of the current economy and challenges the business is facing), while Tim believes he is significantly underpaid for the contributions he makes. Given the reality that there are limited resources for each of us (time, energy, money), people come into conflict over how and when those resources should be utilized.
When people don’t trust one another (especially another person’s motives), then conflict is not far away. Mistrust leads us not to believe what the other person says (“That’s what she says, but that is not what she really believes!”). Mistrust almost always leads us to assume that the person is primarily self-interested, and is not concerned about the welfare of others or the organization. The result? Defensiveness and arguing.
Common Responses to Conflict
While some leaders avoid conflict, other leaders react in an aggressive and angry manner. There is a continuum of responses in between these two extremes (for example, passive aggressiveness), but avoidance and aggression are the most prevalent response patterns.
Even though I’m a psychologist, I’m not a big “why” person (e.g. why does he do that?)–partly because it is not an easy question to answer. In this situation, however, I think asking the “why” question is relevant–because there are lots of potential answers to consider.
Why don’t we (sometimes) handle conflict well?
The answer varies from person to person, and from situation to situation, but often our feeling responses interfere with us responding appropriately. Sometimes:
- We are angry.
- We are offended or hurt.
- We feel disrespected.
- We are afraid of what might happen.
- We don’t like the person.
- We are concerned about what others will think about us.
- We are worried about hurting or offending the other person.
- We are fearful of the other person’s potential negative reaction.
- We don’t want people pointing out our faults or our part in the situation.
A good question to ask ourselves is: “How is what I’m feeling getting in the way of me dealing with this situation in a healthy way?”
Results from Conflict
Unfortunately, both avoidant and aggressive responses can create significant negative results for the business. Some common results include:
- Not dealing with the negative facts of reality (team members don’t share bad news for fear of being yelled at).
- Damaged or strained relationships with key customers, team members and vendors.
- Stress experienced from worrying about how to deal with the situation.
- “Weirdness” created from uncomfortableness among the staff.
Principles for Dealing with Conflict
Okay. Now that we understand where conflict comes from, how people respond, and some potential negative results, let’s move on to the positive side – how should we respond?
When the other party has a problem with you. Sometimes in relationships, we become aware that another person is upset with us (or they may be angry, hurt, or offended.) In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus taught the principle that if you become aware that your brother or sister (that is, someone with whom you have a relationship) has something against you, then you should go to them to resolve the matter. So, it is important to note that even if it is the other person who has a problem with you, you are not supposed to wait for them to come talk to you. You should go to them, find out what is wrong and discuss how the situation can be resolved.
When you feel you’ve been wronged. Later in the book of Matthew, Jesus outlines the process we are supposed to implement when we feel offended, hurt or angry by an action another person has done. In Matthew 18:15, Jesus teaches that if your brother or sister wrongs you, then you are supposed to go to them and deal with the situation.
See the theme? In either case–when you’ve done something that has torqued off a colleague or when someone has offended you–you are to take the initiative to go to him or her to deal with the matter. This is patently different than the “if they’ve got a problem with me, they can come and talk to me” attitude, or the “when they come and ask for my forgiveness, then we’ll deal with it” approach. Neither action is what Christ taught (which is why neither of those approaches is effective in resolving relational conflicts).
So what are we supposed to do when we go to talk with the other person? The answer is fairly straightforward: “Speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:20). But let’s dissect this instruction a bit.
- 1. Speak.
Don’t yell. But don’t keep silent. Say something. Address the issue.
- 2. The truth.
When you speak, tell the truth. Don’t lie. Don’t exaggerate. Don’t distort. Don’t withhold relevant information. Make a distinction between verifiable facts (in contrast to “hearsay”), conclusions from the facts, and your opinion.
- 3. In Love.
The perspective of love is what is in the best interest of the other person. Love is not punitive or punishing. Love does not try to prove the other person wrong or embarrass them. Love does not seek revenge. Trying to make yourself look good is not driven by love. Love is gentle. Love is kind. (But love also does not speak so “softly” that the truth isn’t heard!)
Handling conflict in a healthy, constructive manner is really easy (theoretically!). When you have a conflict with someone:
- 1. Think about the possible cause of the conflict.
- 2. Go to them to talk about the situation.
- 3. Manage your emotions.
- 4. Speak the truth in love.
There you have it. Now, “go and do likewise”!
By: Dr. Paul White
Dr. Paul White is a psychologist, speaker, and consultant who makes work relationships work. Co-author of the 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace (with Dr. Gary Chapman), Dr. White provides practical advice in improving workplace relationships and successfully transferring family businesses across generations.Read More Articles by Dr. Paul White