Healthy conflict

Conflict2 - sMaturing our approach to resolving tension…

Deborah Alcock-Tyler, CEO of the Directory of Social Change, recently penned a timely article on the tensions and enmities that can arise when organisations find themselves under pressure.

I often see those tensions in my work, not just between trustees and executives, but between individuals, departments, even organisations across the sector.

They might arise over anything: different views on budget cuts and resource allocations; on plans and priorities; on who is to blame for a situation and what the solution should be; whatever the tensions are, as pressure builds they increase, conflicts emerge, and the way those are resolved will not just influence the outcome, but as Alcock-Tyler points out, will shape the group culture as well.

We all have our own default approaches to conflict, invariably shaped by our experiences but also influenced by the situation and what we think of the personalities on the other side of the debate.

In the face of a disagreement, some become increasingly assertive, even combative if the outcome isn’t going their way.

Others, disliking confrontation for all manner of reasons, either try to avoid those situations with all manner of tactics, or accommodate others’ demands, often with a sense of resentment or injustice.

Still others will stand their ground and argue their point, sometimes finding a compromise, other times “agreeing to disagree” until the same topic comes around and it flares up again, or the boss steps in like the parent of squabbling kids.

If you recognise those patterns, whether in others or in yourself, it’s not surprising.

They represent four of the five common “modes” of conflict in the Thomas-Kilmann model (competition, avoidance, accommodation, and compromise) and in group settings, the dynamic these adversarial modes create is what often splits people into camps, just like in Alcock-Tyler’s example.

All four modes contain the classic parent-child dynamic; hence, I use the term “conflict maturity” to contrast these with the alternative, Thomas-Kilmann’s fifth mode, and our conflict antidote: collaboration.

In practice, and in my own experience, getting a conversation into collaborative mode requires consciously raised levels of curiosity, openness, and trust: to listen to and draw out what’s really underneath the other person’s point of view so that you can understand them, and so they can feel genuinely understood; but also that both of you might better understand the roots of your own opinions, and the differences in pressures or perceptions, starting points or rationale, that have led to your divergent views.

Curiosity to explore, openness to finding common ground, trust that by sharing your innermost, your counterpart will share theirs.

I once supported a department head in a large organisation with, as it transpired, quite a contentious project. My engagement began with an invitation to join a session with their executive team, in which our opening question elicited a smorgasbord of vocal, often conflicting opinions, with the seeming expectation that we would take this collective feedback and magic up some kind of solution.

I managed to shepherd the discussion into something vaguely cohesive but spent most of the following week picking up the pieces through follow-up calls with the attendees.

However, because I went into those calls in full-on collaborative mode, I discovered that almost everyone had responded to our question based on what their teams had told them they wanted, not really considering what the wider organisation needed, nor what the strategy dictated. They were very honest, and I was not there to judge, simply to understand.

And so, in the next exec team session, my first question to them was: “From what perspective should we be answering these questions?” And I offered four options: personal, departmental, achieving current budget, or delivering the strategy.

I had no idea what they would choose, but not only did the question generate a healthy discussion, it produced mature reflections on the previous session as well. The remaining topics benefitted from a much higher level of thinking and the outcomes were immeasurably improved.

But more than that, the room felt much calmer, the environment more thoughtful and creative, and the whole session more like a constructive collaboration of experts working in common cause.

With the pressures we’re under, the performance challenges inside our organisations, and the collaborations we need to make work outside of them, our approach to developing and modelling high levels of conflict maturity has never been more important.

How are your people developing and modelling a mature and constructive approach to conflict?

Leave a Reply