Oh Brother, Where Art Thou Conflict Management?

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February 17, 2017 | Aubrey Wiete | HCI

I grew up in the Midwest, which means childhood vacations involved long road trips. My family would bundle up in our dorky, sky blue Mitsubishi van with captain’s seats that rotated and faced the back bench. She was a beauty. My brothers and sister and I would enthusiastically stack the luggage behind the captain’s seats, essentially walling off my parents and creating a very cool-kid zone in the back of the van (it took me years to realize how much of a win this exercise was for my mom and dad).

Left to our own devices and separated from our parents, the four of us spent the next few blissful hours singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” and playing I Spy. Inevitably, that’s about the time the conflict would arise, and in our self-imposed lockup, we had to mediate ourselves.

Fast forward a few decades and I can admit that I am very grateful for my siblings. They keep me grounded and offer me different perspectives on the world in a way that others cannot. But perhaps most importantly, my siblings provided me with an early education in conflict and conflict management - skills I find increasingly valuable in my professional career.

In great leaders, managing conflict begins as a preferred competency and quickly becomes an absolute necessity. As the pace of change continues to increase, diversity and inclusion strategies abound, and world politics affect business and policy, conflict too will grow. Professionals that can effectively navigate this inevitable tension and controversy will set themselves apart.

What does it take though to negotiate conflict meaningfully? If my experiences with my siblings have taught me anything, it’s that there are five fundamental steps to successfully addressing discord, and disregarding them is a recipe for resentment and anger.

  1. Acknowledge.  You cannot address with neglect.  If there is palpable tension or discord that needs to be dealt with, call it out in a diplomatic way. Burying it further or ignoring it creates much bigger problems in the long run.  Identifying that an issue exists is the first step in solving a problem.
  2. Disinfect. Admittedly, this is hard. Getting upset is a side effect of caring, but as my mother spent much of my childhood telling me, an “attitude adjustment” can go a long way. Take time to remove emotion from the situation so you can be objective. What is the situation? Why are you upset? Articulating your position clearly and impassively is crucial to move forward.
  3. Listen – actively. Temper tantrums are easy; that’s why toddlers throw them. It takes far more respect and patience to listen to – and seek to understand - an alternate perspective. Allow the other person(s) to say their piece, in peace. Ask questions and clarify.
  4. Recognize and compromise. Often simple misunderstandings balloon into full-fledged conflicts when obstinacy rules. Once all of the facts are on the table it’s time to discuss and concede. Compromise is a trade off; no one walks away with everything they want, but everyone walks away with something. In some cases, this might be as simple as an apology or as complex as a new process or procedure going forward.
  5. Relax and readjust. Perhaps most important of all is the ability to adjust and move forward after negotiating a conflict. Adaptability is key. After you’ve reached a compromise, acknowledge how it might affect your behavior going forward and move on. Let go of the grudges!

At their core, conflicts are a tremendous learning opportunity. Learning how to acknowledge and discuss issues with individuals that you disagree with is a skill imperative to success in both business and life. The world would be a much dimmer place without controversy, and I suppose I have my siblings to thank for teaching me that fundamental truth.