Where two or more are gathered, there is potential for conflict – with free discussion paper included
Conflict is a common occurrence in any setting – including Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and Nonprofits.
Why? Simply because each person is an individual entity, with her/his life experiences, personality, cultural background, characteristics, preferred way of doing things and making choices.
There will always be differences as well as similarities in a group, even a group of two. Think about groups you are familiar with - including at work, in a social setting, within a family, playing sport, on a bus tour, in a holiday resort. You will have observed potential for conflict in any of these settings. However, have you also observed the manner and extent to which such potential has been at best eased or managed, or at worst ignored?
People should never be surprised when conflict occurs, whether suddenly and unexpectedly – or after a long or painful period of development.
Conflict can be like a promised cool change when still in the midst of a heat-wave: we know it is coming, but it seems forever away. Or it can be like a sudden tropical storm with all the drama of thunder, lightening, fierce winds and torrential rain – one minute on the horizon, the next minute all around us. The better equipped you are to anticipate conflict, the better equipped you are to deal with it sensitively and effectively - or even to avoid it.
This free discussion paper that can be used by managers, supervisors, HR staff, in-house trainers, team leaders, team members, committees, boards – indeed for any person interested to explore the reality of conflict. The example used throughout is a work-group in a business venture of some kind. However, be assured that this complete discussion can be applied to many contexts, including:
- social club supported by people of various ages, backgrounds, etc,
- people living together as a family,
- sports club comprising a number of teams with allocated coaches,
- bus-load of people spending a few days together and travelling in a confined space,\
- holiday resort with a core group of staff having to cater for the needs, interests and aspirations of ever-changing mix of holiday-makers – arriving, residing, participating, and eventually departing.
You’ll be able to think of other examples, and when following this discussion paper as an in-house training exercise, the issues can be explored with an example far removed from the real situation. This Conflict Discussion Paper explains:
- what is conflict?
- how can conflict be recognized?
- how can conflict happen?
- what can be done to deal with conflict?
- how might conflict be avoided ?
What is conflict?
- a struggle between opposing forces: a battle
- opposition between ideas, interests etc: a controversy
- opposition between two simultaneous but incompatible wishes or drives, sometimes leading to emotional tension.
- to come into opposition: to clash
- to fight
Each of these dictionary definitions gives an immediately negative picture. However, when handled sensitively and with respect, conflict can release people and groups from fear of the unknown, from ideas and procedures that are out of date, or from being controlled or manipulated by undesirable people or influences.
How can conflict be recognised?
Robert Bolton’s comment on conflict in his book, People Skills (p 206): ‘To be human is to experience conflict’
Edward de Bono’s definition of conflict in his book, Conflicts – A Better Way To Resolve Them (p5): ‘Conflict: a clash of interests, values, actions or directions. Conflict refers to the existence of that clash’
These two quotes give the assurance that conflict will occur and that conflict is recognisable.
Robert Bolton goes on to show that conflict is unavoidable: ‘At its best it is disruptive, at its worst it is incredibly destructive. Conflict however can bring important benefits – especially when handled skilfully’. The challenge, he suggests, is to manage conflict in such a way as to minimise the risks and maximise the benefits. Bolton’s assurance is that, being human, we can expect to experience conflict. Most people’s life-experiences would support this assurance. Nevertheless when it does occur, it can leave people totally devastated by the emotions involved, and disillusioned as to the matter or issue over which the conflict has occurred.
Work-groups will experience conflict, not only because each member is human, but because they do things which attract conflict, for example:
- management or leadership work-groups manage people – their role is to successfully achieve established results by working with and through people, and
- they also manage scarce resources, especially if they work in a climate of increasing competition, increasing costs, increasing expectations – but with decreasing resources.
Conflict is recognised when emotions surface, when suspicion of others’ motives becomes apparent, when absences increase, or commitment falls away. The next section offers many examples, following de Bono’s concept of ‘clash’.
How can conflict happen?
de Bono states that conflict can be recognised in the early stages by the ‘clash’, and can often be avoided if the clash is handled sensitively and with respect. Very often, the clash is noticed or felt, but foolishly ignored, smoothed over or ridiculed in the hope that it will go away. Let’s look at these ten common factors that contribute to conflict, and identify some of the clashes within each factor:
- mixed levels of confidence in the group,
- familiarity or lack of familiarity with the purpose of the group,
- availability and distribution of information,
- language and jargon,
- organisational structure,
- introducing change,
- meetings and meeting procedure, and
Now … some of the clashes:
Mixed levels of confidence among group members:
Confidence as a group member tends to grow with time: the longer a person remains in a group, the more confidence the person displays:
- the clash occurs when another person or an issue is seen to challenge or dismiss that experience and confidence, whether consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or unintentionally.
Over time, a group member may become too familiar with the established group routines and procedures (commonly referred to as ‘group norms’ or ‘group culture’):
- the clash occurs when over-familiarity causes the member to act outside their allocated role and responsibilities, and intrude into the territory of other group members or to negatively interfere in the group’s wider relationships.
New group members may suggest new ways of doing things and find that members who have been in the group for some time may dampen their suggestions with comments like:
- ‘we’ve already tried that and it didn’t work’
- ‘there aren’t enough of us to do all the work’
- ‘why don’t you wait until you understand how the group operates before suggesting anything new’
- ‘there’s nothing new – we’ve already tried everything’
- the clash occurs when new members push ahead with their ideas or criticisms, ignoring the reasons for such responses from more experienced members; or the more experienced members determine to block new ideas regardless of merit.
More confident members may treat new members with suspicion or even contempt – or new members may treat established members with disdain:
- the clash occurs when the attention and energy of the members involved is diverted to personal tensions rather than to their role and responsibilities as group members: conflict may then spread quickly to relationships within and beyond the group.
Personal friendships or interests outside the group may create separate power groups or factions within the group, without those involved realising that this is happening:
- the clash occurs when other group members feel distanced or left out from the group: the effect may be that different sides are taken on major issues such as new initiatives, or on minor issues such as the wording of emails or frequency of text messages.
Familiarity or lack of familiarity with the purpose of the organisation:
Group members who are personally or emotionally involved with other aspects of the workplace may feel vulnerable when comments or decisions are made about such aspects:
- the clash occurs when such members become sensitive to issues raised which unknowingly reinforce private or particularly difficult or emotional experiences, fears or feelings.
A group member may make an innocent comment which deeply offends or hurts another group member:
- the clash occurs when the offended person reads more into the innocent comment than was ever intended.
New members may have difficulty aligning their personal values to the established group values: the new member may favour greater or less than acceptable risk with available resources, or in some way challenge the established group values:
- the clash occurs when personal values are forcibly challenged or presented.
Availability and distribution of information:
A critical piece of information may not reach all group members at the same time:
- the clash occurs with accusations that information is being kept from some, or that decisions are being stampeded without sufficient understanding or discussion.
A few group members may not receive a document due to late delivery:
- the clash occurs when this is taken as a personal insult and seen to have been intended.
Information deemed to be confidential may be unintentionally left around after a group meeting for others to discover:
- the clash occurs when tensions develop over what is confidential and what is not: and when people feel they are not trusted sufficiently to read confidential information.
Members may complain to the group leader that too much information is coming to them:
- the clash occurs when the group leader reduces the volume: members then express the fear that they are being under-informed.
Language and jargon:
Much information coming to the group is heavy with jargon and cased in language which confuses the meaning or intention to some group members:
- the clash occurs with mixed interpretations or embarrassed ignorance.
A member may engage in swearing or indelicate language during group meetings or events:
- the clash occurs when people who are offended do not know how to request a toning-down of language, or engage in open innuendos without making a direct approach to the offender.
New members may have little idea of what is being talked about at their early meetings, as experienced members easily and with an air of knowledge and confidence use technical language, acronyms and jargon:
- the clash occurs when new members display behaviour indicating that they feel discriminated against or intimidated.
A group member may exceed her/his authority in speaking on behalf of the group, making controversial statements to a wider audience and causing embarrassment to many, including other group members:
- the clash occurs when there is a need for the matter to be raised directly with the group member in order to put a stop to this wrongly assumed authority: but no-one seems to have either the courage or the status to do so.
A number of group members over the years have received keys to premises or passwords to computer files, and are in the habit of accessing these as they choose at any time of the week:
- the clash occurs when mischief is found to have occurred, when staff find a security door unlocked, or computer files are found to be corrupted or deleted – and all group members are placed under suspicion.
The group may be given the responsibility of obtaining quotes for some work, and wrongly assumes it has the authority to select one supplier and place the order for work to be done:
- the clash occurs when the contractor arrives ready to start the job.
A group member may inappropriately request a non-group/staff member to forward a report direct to the group, thus by-passing their direct supervisor or manager:
- the clash occurs when the staff member takes valuable time to prepare and submit the report, and provides a copy to their direct supervisor or manager who is ignorant of the group’s request.
A new group member may find the organisation’s structure unacceptable, and begins a strong campaign to introduce changes in reporting procedures through the organisation:
- the clash occurs when the new member behaves as though his/her desired changes were already in place.
The group leader may complain bitterly about the associated workload, with frequent accusations that the group doesn’t appreciate him/her:
- the clash occurs when a genuine offer is made to provide an assistant to relieve the group leader from some minor responsibilities, and the group leader takes offence.
The group’s workload may have been shared around freely, but no-one knows exactly who is doing what, or if anything important is being overlooked:
- the clash occurs when a regular meeting is held, no-one has anything to report, and no-one knows who should have done what.
The group is involved in strategic planning, with each member requested to look into a specific issue and bring particular suggestions to the following group meeting:
- the clash occurs at the meeting as each person in turn begins his/her report by saying “there was much more time needed for this than I had imagined but I’ve done the best I could. Someone else will have to take over from here!”
A newly appointed group leader announces that a ‘Group Executive’ of three will be chosen from the nine group members, and will meet an hour prior to the scheduled group meetings:
- the clash occurs when, after the first ‘Group Executive’ meeting, other group members seat themselves around the table for the group meeting and one says bitterly “Well! I guess we’re good enough to join in now that all decisions have been made!”
An established group member may be nominated for and accepts the position of group leader: the retiring group leader has held this position for two years, but recently has taken very little interest in the group:
- the clash occurs when, on being elected, the new group leader immediately proposes a new procedure for monitoring the group’s performance.
The group receives advice from Senior Management that the group’s responsibilities will be substantially changed, and that performance as a group member will be included in each member’s annual performance appraisal:
- the clash occurs as the nature and extent of change slowly becomes apparent, and each group member struggles to accept this imposed change.
Meetings and meeting procedure:
At conclusion of a group meeting which has followed the custom of a late start, one group member suggests an alternative time and place to enable group members to arrive on time:
- the clash occurs as four group members stand up, pick up their lap-tops, and make for the door without a comment.
Briefing papers have always been presented at group meetings by members with a specific portfolio – presented clearly and concisely with written details of all recommendations:
- the clash occurs when half an hour of an hour-long group meeting is taken to discuss an issue already well considered by a portfolio sub-group, with recommendations fully substantiated: the group then agrees to send the issue back to the portfolio sub-group for further investigation.
Group members constantly complain that, due to the group leader’s style of chairing, meetings are always unproductive:
- the clash occurs when the group leader announces at the start of a regular group meeting that it will end at the appointed time, therefore everyone had better be brief and to the point.
The group leader has completed a very detailed financial report on the group’s budget, and moves that the report be accepted:
- the clash occurs when a passive group member suddenly takes her/his courage in both hands, announces that s/he doesn’t have any idea what it all means, and makes the comment “I can only trust that it’s all correct!”
Group members express concern that they are required to pay for incidentals that influence the productivity of the group out of their own pockets:
- the clash occurs when questions are asked as to how and why this situation arose, and the group leader recognises that emotions are close to being out of control.
An amount of $3,000 has been approved by Senior Management for the purchase of badly needed equipment for their work stations:
- the clash occurs as a group member points out that this equipment may be incompatible with existing machinery, and will certainly require a substantial investment in training and upskilling for which there is no budget allocation.
What can be done to deal with conflict?
After reading through the examples, it’s clear to see that ‘clashes’ can either be the first stage of a conflict, or the catalyst or final straw in a long lead-up to the onslaught. Very often the clash will become an argument over a trivial matter or something completely unassociated with the real issue of conflict.
de Bono, Conflicts – a better way to resolve them, (p25) gives an interesting list of motives for arguing:
- to prove that someone is wrong
- to show someone up to be stupid or ignorant
- to make an impression on others
- to create an emotional mood
- to cast doubt on someone’s statement or opinion
- to force an exploration of a matter
- to bring about a change of view
Argument becomes a tool of conflict when used to attack another person or issue, or to defend oneself.
When dealing with a clash, it is essential to separate emotions from facts. Of course, the sooner this approach is made after the clash is recognised, the greater chance there is of getting to the real issue of conflict – and working through to an acceptable resolution.
To resolve is to decide or determine firmly. If the parties directly involved are unable or unwilling to resolve the conflict themselves, a mediator or ‘neutral’ third party may be able to help, provided the involved parties will accept this assistance. It is important to begin the resolution process by acknowledging emotions, which may include anger, distrust, defensiveness, scorn, resentment, fear or rejection.
The facts or issues of substance can include opposing needs, disagreements over policies and practices, and differing conceptions of role and uses of resources. When emotions are separated out, the issue should then be able to be sorted out in a calm, objective and therefore unemotional manner. Conflict over facts and issues often generates emotional conflict. Similarly, emotions may well magnify the factual conflict. It can be difficult to separate the emotional issues from the facts. However, the task will be much easier by following Bolton’s advice.
Bolton’s conflict resolution method (People Skills, p 218) presents three consecutive stages:
- Treat the other person/s with respect
- Listen until you ‘experience the other side’
- State your views, needs and feelings
In more detail:
Stage 1 Treat the other person/s with respect:
- recognise that the other person is saying what s/he believes at this time to be true,
- understand that what you believe at this time to be true may be different to the other person,
- recognise that each has the right to their own interpretation of the truth, the right to express themselves, and right to be listened to,
- in short, hold and show a genuine respect for the other person, and display this respect in your tone of voice, your selection of words and type of reasoning used.
Stage 2 Listen until you ‘experience’ the other side
The goal of listening is to understand:
- the content of the other person’s idea or proposals,
- the meaning it has for her/him, and
- the feelings s/he has about it.
- which means being able to step into the other person’s shoes and view the things s/he is talking about from her/his point of view. This stage encourages you to summarise the other person’s remarks back to her/him before moving into your response or next stage of resolution: you don’t have to pretend that you believe what has been said, simply to reassure that you now understand.
Stage 3 State your own views, needs and feelings
- state your view and needs briefly,
- avoid using loaded or emotive words,
- say what you mean and mean what you say, and
- disclose your feelings.
Stages 1 and 2 acknowledge the emotions and give a positive strategy to deal with them before moving into the facts:
- Stage 1 causes you to deal with your emotions,
- Stage 2 causes you to ally your emotions with the other person/s, and
- Stage 3 allows you to introduce the facts separately from your feelings.
Bolton suggests four ways to use his Conflict Resolution Method:
You can use this method even when the other person/s is not using it or even aware of it.
- if you are involved in a dispute or sense that a conflict is brewing,
- you can explain the method briefly and ask the other person/s to join you in trying this method.
- you can introduce the method when things are calm and peaceful.
- you can use the method to help others resolve their conflicts, if the antagonists agree to your role as mediator.
How might conflict be avoided?
There is a well-known saying to keep in mind here: “fore-warned is fore-armed”. Simply by knowing and understanding the preceding four points about conflict:
- What conflict is,
- How it can happen,
- How it can be recognised,
- What can be done to deal with it,
- the challenge to avoid conflict becomes much more manageable.
‘Knowledge is power’, and knowing about conflict gives one the power to work with it and to anticipate it.
Each of these definitions gives an immediately negative picture. However, when handled sensitively and with respect, conflict can release people and groups from fear of the unknown, from ideas and procedures that are out of date, or from being controlled or manipulated by undesirable people or influences.