Stop Treating Conflicts Like Problems

My partner, Joan, wrote a great piece about learning to love conflict. In that post, she cited Ron Heifetz, who claims that the essential quality of leadership is the ability to resolve competing values – in other words, to resolve conflicts. I want to build on her strong start by discussing one of the biggest challenges to effective conflict resolution – which is treating conflicts as if they were problems.

I recently conducted a workshop on collaborative conflict resolution. When we got to the part about developing remedies, participants tried to resolve their conflicts with “the usual suspects” – appeals to policies or rules, shared goals, or methodological standards. In short, they tried to “rationalize” the conflict. The trouble with that approach is that conflicts are not rational.

We define conflict as a clash of values, goals, methods, or information. A conflict exists whenever individuals or groups block each other. Some blocks are intentional but most are not. Most conflicts are simply the by-product of people doing their jobs, as they understand those jobs. However, because the causes are grounded in viewpoint and not logic, it’s impossible to resolve conflicts with logical arguments alone.

A well-worn example of this situation is vendor selection. Imagine the scene – a critical project that cuts across function and region, several vendors each with a good story, plus a well-crafted and logical process to collect, score, and tally vendor assessments. The assessment is complete and the scores are tallied, but the answer comes out “wrong.” Instead of someone’s preferred vendor, a small upstart firm carries the day…at least until the criteria are changed! This is just one example of how rational methods fail to resolve conflicts.

Here are a few tips to help you stop treating conflicts like problems.
1. Never discount others’ viewpoints – The most dangerous step is to discount others’ views simply because you don’t share them. Discounting is the first step on a very slippery slope that leads a person to ignore and then even demonize another person. People want what they want, for reasons that seem valid to them. It’s virtually impossible to influence a person whose views you discount.

2. Understand others’ interests as they do – Once you engage, the next step is to understand the situation as the other person sees it. First, what does the person want and why do they want it? Is there anything this person values that you value too? Is there some approach that this person might find compelling? I believe that you cannot resolve the conflict unless you understand others’ views.

3. Seek common interests – Even with the most difficult conflicts, I can usually find some common ground. If you can find and test this common interest and start working together, even with different methods, you may be on the way to resolving the conflict. Once you understand the other person’s viewpoint, make sure to find the common ground!

4. Develop responses together – One of the worst traps in conflict resolution is when one side tries to solve the conflict alone. This often happens when people are trying to please authority figures, like managers or clients. With conflict, both parties must help develop criteria and options, to make sure their views are fully represented in any resolution.

5. Don’t get stuck on your approach – Most people have been taught to see conflict as a competition, and they worry about winning or losing. Unfortunately, this mindset leads people to argue about the proposed solutions instead of jointly developing a shared approach that could resolve the issue and satisfy all critical interests. One key factor that helps you avoid these “positional fights” is to stay open to adapting your approach, wherever it doesn’t violate your interests.

6. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good – In my experience, there are no “perfect” solutions to significant conflicts, no one idea that will draw universal acclaim. However, this inconvenient truth should never be a block to action. Often, if people simply get started, a few small positive steps will provide the insight and energy needed to consolidate the bigger gains.

Now that you’ve started to love your conflicts, I hope these steps can help you find the resolution you need to succeed.