There are four different types of conflict. Knowing the kind of conflict that you are facing can help you manage your expectations and decide on an effective strategy for dealing with the conflict.
The easiest type of conflict to resolve is a disagreement about facts. In workshops, I will say, “I believe that I am the tallest person in the room.” Then I will ask the group if they agree or disagree. At 6 feet tall, I am sometimes the tallest person. However, the group will usually suggest different participants who are close to my height or taller. The group will sometimes argue a bit about who appears to be tallest.
Fortunately, it’s an easy conflict to resolve. I ask the person whom the group believes to be the tallest to come to the front of the room. We stand back to back, and viola! – we have an answer. One of us is clearly taller than the other, or the group declares a tie. Either the way, we know for sure.
We argue all the time about things that can easily be proven or disproven with a little research! It’s amazing. When my youngest son was living at home, I had the new registration for his car. He insisted that he had an updated registration in his glove box and that he didn’t need the one in my hand. I started to argue with him and then said, “Let’s go check.” We walked out to the car together, and he pulled out the registration. It was about to expire, so he took the one from my hand without further argument.
Here is an important side note: We want to maintain positive relationships at work and at home – especially during disagreements. A relationship can strengthen when conflict is handled effectively. It’s essential never to do the “I told you so” dance. It can be especially tempting when proving a sullen and argumentative teenager wrong, but it’s well worth the effort to restrain yourself. We want to use every opportunity to create positive moments. The appropriate response is something like, “I’m glad that we figured that out.” Do the “I told you so” dance in your head if you must.
The second type or level of conflict is one based on procedures. In this case, everyone agrees on the outcome, but not how to achieve it. I use my trusty water bottle to demonstrate this type of conflict in workshops. I put the water bottle on one side of the room and tell the group that we must decide together how to get it to the other side. For fun, I tell them that efficiency is not a consideration. We don’t have to find the fastest way to get the water bottle from one side to the other.
I begin by picking up the water bottle and carrying it to the other side of the room with a series of side steps, spins, claps, and a bit of moon walking. Then I ask them if they would all be willing to use the same method. Sometimes a few people agree, but for the most part, the group refuses. I ask them for their suggestions. They usually say we should hand it person to person or toss it. In the end, we find a way we would all be willing to use to transport the bottle, and it doesn’t take a huge amount of time to come to an agreement.
After we agree, I tell the group to pretend that I am the only one who will be transporting the bottle. Then, I ask them if my original suggestion is an acceptable way to get the bottle across the room, keeping in mind that efficiency is not a consideration. It’s interesting that most groups have trouble admitting that my inefficient, yet entertaining, way is acceptable.
Here is another important side note: Let people achieve the agreed-upon outcome in whatever way they want as long as it meets efficiency, safety, and organization standards and policies. There is usually more than one way to get a job done, and we build positivity in our relationships if we let others do it their own way as much as possible. Sometimes our egos get in the way, and we want everyone to do things the “right” way, which is our way. Ask yourself, “Does it really matter if it’s done the way the other person or group wants to do it?” People feel empowered and motivated when they get some autonomy.
The third level of conflict involves deciding an outcome. We aren’t just deciding how to get the water bottle from one place to another; we don’t agree on where the water bottle needs to go. Disagreements about an outcome can be much more time-consuming to resolve and require some discussion about standards, values, emotions, and expectations. I would need to understand why you think and feel that the water bottle needs to go to the back of the room or another room – and you would need to be able to explain your rationale. Once again, we want to keep our egos out of the discussion and resist any temptation to use the words “because I said so.”
My husband and I were having a difficult time deciding where to ultimately retire. I put a big map of the US up on the wall. He didn’t want to live in states that taxed his military retirement, so I put a piece of blue tape over all those states. I feel that water is going to become a scarce resource, so I put blue tape on states with low rainfall. We both agreed to stay at or below the Mason Dixon line for warmth. It’s a decision that remains unresolved, but what’s important is to capture the things that are important to everyone involved.
It’s also important to use what’s best for the bigger organism as the guideline for deciding the best outcome. At work, a discussion on a desired outcome should include the needs and goals of the organization. A goal or outcome that would be fantastic for the sales or marketing department might not be in alignment with the organization’s goals for growth or income. An outcome may not be the best thing for one individual or team, but might be best for the family or organization.
The final type of conflict is around values. In many cases, it’s best to agree to disagree on values. For example, you and I could argue ourselves silly about our spiritual beliefs and not change each other’s minds. Values are usually closely held to the heart and not easily changed.
Although we may not agree, that does not mean that we can’t build positivity with the discussion. Our personal needs are to be listened to, understood, and respected. “Agreed with” is not on the list. We can learn about a person’s beliefs and perspectives by listening in a respectful way. Listening does not obligate you to agree!
Think family dinners at holidays. It is a rare family whose members all agree about religion, politics, and worldviews. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask questions and understand a person’s perspectives and beliefs without agreeing with them. Effective conflict doesn’t have to include resolution. It can just be achieving mutual understanding.
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