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10 Steps to Use Workplace Conflict to Your Advantage

Aug 8, 2008
Is there such a thing as a good fight? The willingness to embrace conflict and turn a bad fight into a good one is a hallmark of a great leader. And if you want to learn, there are steps you can take to help turn negative conflicts into creative opportunities.

1) Don't Despair, Prepare!

First, and most importantly, know that sometimes it's best to walk away from conflict. Know your 'exit point' -- the point at which it makes more sense to walk away from a conflict than it does to work to manage the issue. There are times that it will be your best option.

Everyone has their own style of dealing with conflict. Understand the different styles, identify yours and the styles of your team. Learn to appreciate the diverse styles of others, assume leadership when conflicts arise, and value the creative spark that conflicts can kindle.

2) Follow the Yellow Brick Road

What is your goal? If you can agree on a common goal - to creatively solve a problem, to generate a new idea or to sell more product -- you'll have a better chance of harnessing the conflict. Sometimes the root of a conflict is that you don't even agree on what the problem is -- or that you're struggling to address different issues.

3) Reveal, Don't Conceal

You must agree -- at least some extent -- to be vulnerable, to reveal why you want something, and to declare what's really important to you about an issue. When we're in conflict, we always have a story - usually one that justifies our proposed solution. Listen and try to understand the other person's story. If the other person won't reveal their needs or interests, ask open-ended questions and look for clues.

4) Tackle the Problem , Not the Person

Focus on the problem and persuade the other person to join you in solving the problem. Make the problem your common enemy rather than blaming the other person for causing the problem. Try and discourage conflicts from becoming personal.

5) Play Within Bounds

Sometimes conflicts are caused by process problems rather than substantive issues. If the other person remains difficult, start talking more about standards and procedures than about the problem. This can help you creatively manage a conflict that seems like an unmovable object.

6) Stir Up a Storm

Brainstorm -- welcoming all suggestions -- then sort through them all and determine which ones merit further study. Many of us fall in love with our solutions and decide that our idea is the only possibility. The best resolution for all concerned may not be the one we had previously discussed.

7) Take a Time Out

Classic advocates of creative conflict management have used this move throughout history. Martin Luther King Jr. suggested we "go to the mountain" during conflict to gain the higher ground and a better perspective on the problem. Gandhi retreated to meditation and fasting during the most intense periods of his struggle to free the Indian people. When things get heated or stalled consider taking a time out to regroup.

8) Talk Until You Drop

People don't allow enough time for creative conflict management. In our modern, instantaneous world we have lost our patience. If you have decided the conflict is worth your time and energy, make sure you allow sufficient time for management. It usually takes longer than we think to produce good fights instead of bad ones.

9) Circle the Wagons

When you reach an agreement or a creative solution, you need to go through some sort of closure process. Arrange a time in the future to review how the solution is working. Agree upon an action plan to accomplish the goals of an agreement and decide who does what, when and where.

10) Write to Avoid New Fights

Write down what you think you've agreed upon at various stages. The process helps clarify your own thinking as well as the agreement. We all tend to assume the meaning we ascribe to a certain word or discussion is the same for everyone. This one act will save you a world of hurt down the road.

These ten steps can provide a roadmap to lead you skillfully through using conflict to generate creativity. While you may not need to use all ten for every situation, it's good to review them before you try to resolve an issue. Then, you'll be able to see where you're stuck and what you need to do to move forward. For complex disputes, you may very well need to work your way through all the steps with all the parties.
About the Author
Learn more about dealing with workplace conflict at http://www.workplacesthatwork.com. Lynne Eisaguirre is a workplace expert, author of six books on workplace issues, including the recent "Stop Pissing Me Off! What To Do When People You Work With Drive You Crazy," and a former employment attorney.
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