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Jon Wortmann


The Three Rs of Conflict Resolution

Whether at work or private life, storms happen

Published: Tuesday, July 3, 2018 - 12:02

The meeting had been going so well until Josh brought up the org chart—again. The firm had made some changes recently, and he didn’t like the new structure. The room went still. Kate, the most senior leader in the room, spoke up. “Josh, let’s finish our planning and we can talk about structure later.”

“I am talking about planning,” Josh said. “How can we plan the rollout if we don’t know how our new structure will execute it?” Josh was a pro at reframing any issue to bring up his agenda. If he weren’t such a talented designer, he would not have lasted this long.

What should Kate say next?

Conflict is like the weather. No matter how many good days you have in a row, eventually it will rain. And as rain is essential to the earth, conflict is actually crucial for every team and organization. The conflict Josh is creating may feel pointless, even manipulative. Well handled, it can be the kind of moment every leader and manager welcomes. It is better to see frustration and resolve it than have it buried. Teammates that hide their true impressions don’t engage real problem solving. Open conflict that’s resolved consistently builds trust.

What Kate says next will either be a reaction based on the stress conflict causes, or it can be an intentional, practiced approach. The fear of conflict doesn’t come from our apprehension about differing opinions or disagreements. Most of us like the learning that comes from new ideas and being intellectually challenged. Our anxiety comes out when we don’t know how to manage and resolve the heated conversations and meetings that stop us from working well with the people on our teams.

In every conflict scenario, the first skill is to recognize it. When people experience conflict, we get triggered. As lions roar, rabbits run, deer freeze, and geese flock under stress, we’ve discovered that people revert to four reactions in conflict. We become passive-aggressive, confrontational, avoidant, or compliant.

None of these approaches are intentional. Whether as a result of a family pattern, a survival technique, or our personalities, our initial reaction to conflict is not what we would do if we knew we had other options.

The key to conflict resolution is the three R’s: recognize the conflict, respond to the conflict, and resolve the conflict.

When we learn to recognize our conflict reactions, every professional can respond in a way that transforms the situation.

After identifying your conflict reaction and the reaction of the people on your team, the essential way to respond is always first to step back. Brain science has identified that when the alarm in our brain, our amygdala, is firing, we can’t think. Our brain sends us every message it can—old thoughts, feelings, and images from our memory center—to drive us out of what the alarm perceives as a dangerous environment.

The way to get the brain back on line, to open up the frontal lobe’s ability to think clearly, is to be intentionally mindful for just a few seconds. Few interpersonal or organizational conflicts are so dangerous that you can’t pause, look, listen, or breathe before reacting. How to step back is a unique process for each individual, and when you know how to step back in different situations, you can begin to resolve the conflict before it hurts relationships.

Conflict resolution has three skill sets: attentive communication, intentional framing, and committed collaboration. Kate, having paused for a minute with Josh, says, “I get it, Josh. The change has been hard. Before we talk about who will roll out the new plan, we need to get the design right. You are our best designer. I need your help finishing the details, and then we can talk roll out.”

Notice how purposefully Kate picked her language. Just the phrase “I get it” is powerful. She could have said, in a condescending tone, “You always do this, Josh.” Or, “We need to stay on track here.” Instead, in a few words with a direct message, she validated his skill and the purpose of the meeting. These communication skills, coupled with the ability to use proven methods of collaboration, make every interaction more impactful.

Conflict can provide the spark of energy and focus that builds trust. Cultures that always seem to work seamlessly may not have pushed to find the best ideas and the most valuable ways of working together. Every professional, even if conflict makes us uncomfortable today, can grow their capacity to make conflict valuable and prevent those conflicts that aren’t helpful.

First published on the thoughtLEADERS blog.


About The Author

Jon Wortmann’s picture

Jon Wortmann

Jon Wortmann is an expert in the areas of communication, leadership, and stress reduction. He’s the author of multiple books including Mastering Communication at Work: How to Lead, Manage, and InfluenceThe Three Commitments of Leadership: How Clarity, Stability, and Rhythm Create Great Leaders, and Hijacked by Your Brain: Discovering the Path to Freedom From Stress.