Making Conflict Work: Three Things Leaders Can Change Right Now, Conclusion

In Part 1 of this series, I established that dealing with conflict and managing “difficult” people are traditionally the most often mentioned needs in surveys of leaders. I also mentioned the importance of examining your goals for conflict and making sure they are the right ones.  (We often start off on the wrong foot by wanting to win, punish or control, whether those objectives are conscious or subconscious.)

In Part 2, I discussed the first change leaders can make: Asking questions instead of defending or explaining.

In Part 3, the focus was on the importance of resisting the temptation to pursue “rightness” or “fairness” in difficult conversations.

In this final post in the series, the third thing you can do right now to be more effective at conflict management.

The Third Change You Can Make Right Now: 
Stop Ad-Libbing Conflict Conversations 

Since God’s creatures are highly complex and, often, very unpredictable, it’s difficult to say what the single greatest mistake is that leaders make when it comes to handling conflict. The topic is beyond a single magic step or simply eliminating one pitfall. However, it’s likely that a significant mistake many of us make when it comes to managing conflict in a way that protects the relationship and helps solve problems is that we don’t prepare for those conversations.

We might think about them as we’re walking in the room, or we might even counter-productively lose sleep over them in the nights leading up to the actual conflict conversation. But we don’t truly prepare. We either think that we’re too experienced at them to need to prepare, we don’t even think about preparing, or we don’t know how.

If any or all of the following have happened to you, you probably need to work at preparation.


> After a confrontation, you think of one or more things you wish you would have said.

> After getting into a heated dialogue, you regret saying something.

> During a conversation, you throw your hands up in the air (figuratively) and bail out. You’re there but you’re no longer there.

> You raise your voice, blame, or become defensive in a conversation.

> You use the silent treatment as a conflict strategy.


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Of course if your current approach to conflict management is working out well for you – if your conversations protect the relationship and solve problems – you can disregard. However, if you’ve read this far, I’m guessing some information on how to prepare for a conflict might be helpful.

Preparation Phase #1
  • What’s the purpose of having the conversation? What’s your purpose? What is likely to be the other person’s purpose? What do you hope happens? What do you hope doesn’t happen?
  • Is this the first conversation? (Many “difficult conversations” are actually multiple individual conversations.) What ground have you already gained?
  • What must happen in the conversation to protect the relationship? To solve problems?
  • How is your relationship history helping, hurting or clouding the issue you’re having? How can that be addressed?
  • What are your points of emotional sensitivity and how can you avoid having your “buttons” pushed, or planning your reaction if they are?

Based on this work, jot down a rough plan for the conversation. How can you invite the other person to give their perspective? How will you avoid being defensive? What should be discussed first?

Preparation Phase #2
  • Think about how feelings are impacting the situation. What are your strongest feelings? What about the other person’s? Write them down. If you’re writing words such as “shame,” “betrayal,” “unforgiven,” “bitterness,” etc., preparation becomes even more important.
  • How will you get those feelings into the conversation? Often our greatest mistake is to ignore powerful feelings, but they are much more disruptive when they are underneath the surface than when they are brought into the light.
  • Should you apologize? If so, when in the conversation and how? What will that look like?
  • What identity issues are there for you? Do you feel like a failure or do you feel rejected in the situation? If so, how will you manage those identity issues so they don’t end up hurting the relationship? Does the whole situation make you feel less adequate or powerless?

If you’re the type who likes a chart or form, you’ll find an excellent resource for preparing for a difficult conversation here.


The Best Conflict Management Sources

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Challenging Conversations – Strategies for Turning Conflict into Creativity