Dealing with conflict is not something most of us enjoy. However, it is an inevitable part of leadership. How we manage ourselves and the conflict itself will in large part determine its outcome.
I have a personal saying: 'walk toward the barking dog.' That is, where there is conflict, don’t avoid it or pretend it is not there. Avoidance is not resolution. Rather it often simply prolongs the pain. Walking toward the conflict to acknowledge it, confront it and manage it is a sign of a healthy leader.
Before we talk about managing the conflict, however, we need to think about how we manage ourselves when conflict occurs. The first skill (and it is a skill) is to keep our own anxiety low. Conflict raises the adrenalin level causing us personal anxiety which if not properly managed will keep us from responding in a measured fashion. When I feel the temperature of my own anxiety rising I will literally remind myself, “keep anxiety low.” Letting it rise does not help me in any way and the truth is that I will be much better at confronting the issue if I can keep my personal anxiety level low.
A second self-management tool is that of not questioning the motives of the one who is causing the conflict. People can cause a lot of pain and relational chaos without having poor motives. Motivation goes to the heart and we cannot judge another’s heart. We can however, make judgments about behavior.
If I assume that motivations are evil, it will be very difficult for me to deal with the one causing the conflict in a productive way. I have learned over the years that even those who have caused me the worst pain usually did not have bad motives. Bad behavior yes but bad motives, usually not. Assuming that motives are not evil allows us the freedom to try to get to a mutually workable solution rather than demonizing the person.
I also assume that in most cases, conflict can be resolved in a reasonable manner while knowing that there are times when it cannot be. If we walk into the process assuming that resolution is possible the likely hood of success of greater than if we do not. At the same time, realism tells us that sometimes resolution will not be possible because it takes the goodwill of two parties to bring healthy resolution.
Self management in conflict allows us to better manage the conflict itself. Remember, where there is conflict, someone is usually upset. Our ability to minimize our own anxiety will help to lower the temperature in most cases. The higher the anxiety level on both sides, the more likely the conflict will escalate.
Walking toward the barking dog of conflict starts with acknowledging that the conflict is there. That seems obvious but many people actually try to ignore it and hope it will go away. It won’t. Some people use passive aggressive behavior to undermine others or get their way. Being up front and acknowledging the issue will often surprise people since they are not used to being confronted with behavior or issues in a direct manner.
Having acknowledged that conflict is present we can then seek to clarify what the real issues are. Remember that ‘presenting’ issues in conflict are often not the ‘real issues.’ This is often true in church conflict where ‘presenting issues’ may be philosophy of ministry or strategy but the real issues revolve around power.
Asking clarifying questions in a dialogue fashion will often get to the core issue. That may not solve the problem but at least you have a better idea of what the issue is. When I was elected to my present position of leader of ReachGlobal, there was one particular vocal individual who had numerous issues with my ministry philosophy which he freely shared with others in a not so helpful manner. The core issue was not philosophy; it was that he did not think I was qualified to lead the mission organization. Through dialogue and asking questions and listening the core issue became evident.
Having entered into dialogue it is also key for one to be honest and self-defining about what we believe to be true. People are often not used to honesty in conflict, they are used to a clash of emotions. In the situation above, after dialogue and conversation, I simply asked the question, “Can you continue to serve this organization with a happy heart and clear conscience?” The frank question surprised him and put him on notice that I was not going to ignore the issue.
Because unproductive behavior often accompanies conflict, it is often the case that a leader must point out behavior that is unacceptable even though they have not questioned motives. In the case above, I was OK with a colleague who did not want me as his leader but I was not OK with behavior that was designed to undermine my leadership. Thus I made it clear that certain behaviors were unacceptable in our organization regardless of one’s preferences. Often people who cause conflict do not understand how their behaviors affect other people so honest, frank feedback after good dialogue can be a learning experience for them.
Finally, do not let the issue go until it is resolved. Often times it is critical to agree to how future issues will be resolved so that there can be honest discussion without the unhealthy conflict that has occurred. If there cannot be resolution between parties, (usually there can be) they may be in the wrong organization or on the wrong team. Unresolved conflict just simmers it does not go away. So agree to follow up steps that will help you get to a point of agreement and resolution.
Remember, walk toward the barking dog – don’t run toward it and don’t run away from it but take as measured an approach as you can to resolve the conflict you are a part of or that you need to help resolve.