Irritation about the behaviour of a fellow student or colleague, completely different visions on a concept, a project leader who keeps harping on, an email that comes across wrong and has major consequences, an employee who refuses to continue working as long as the catering is not taken care of properly – all of these things may occur. How do you deal with these different forms of conflict?
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What is a conflict?
A conflict is a situation in which two or more parties have differing opinions, feelings, aims and/or needs, and where none of the parties is willing to accommodate the other. The essence of a conflict is the lack of understanding for the other. While you may still be willing to meet each other halfway when negotiating, in a conflict the differing convictions are an important factor and there is often a disturbed relationship.
With conflict management, you acknowledge/recognise the conflict, you accept it, you examine the cause and you see in which phase the conflict is in. The goal is to bring the conflicting parties into contact with each other again in order to create a workable relationship. You do that by examining on which level the conflict is actually taking place. In communication, each conversation takes place on four levels:
- The content – the rational and factual matters;
- The procedure – the order in which the things are done;
- The process – the relationship between the discussion partners;
- The feelings/emotions.
If you can identify what the conflict is about, you hold the key to the solution. In most conflicts, there are problems on all four levels and you will therefore have to look for a solution on all four levels.
Basic skills; indispensable keys
With conflict management, you look at what a person needs. That does not mean that you immediately have to come up with a solution. Start by reflecting, examining, listening and experiencing. This will create space to consider whose problem it is: your problem, 'our’ problem or the problem of the ‘other’. In this way, you will see what is needed, who needs what and whether you are actually the one who needs to offer a solution. Support your discussion partner with putting the problem into words. Create an atmosphere of safety and trust, and use your communication skills: listen, summarise, dig deeper (LSD).
Remember: you can only tell your story if you first have contact with your discussion partner. Time well and switch between the four communication levels. Only then can solutions emerge.
What if you don’t manage to solve it on your own?
Bring in a neutral third party. That could be a professional mediator, but also your grandmother or a wise person who you know is fairly objective. You determine among yourselves how the conflict will be resolved and therefore remain in control.
You can also let others take the final decision sometimes (you outsource the solution in that case): the management, the Executive Board, the Supervisory Board, an internal or external complaints committee, an arbitration committee, the court. An arbitration committee, and certainly a court, will give legal awards and judgements. That means that the winning party can compel the losing party to comply with the judgement, if necessary using a bailiff. However, remember that a legal approach to a conflict can also have major consequences.