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Wanna Take This to the Parking Lot?

There is a fairly widespread misperception that people in successful marriages argue less than people in failing marriages. The truth is quite different. People in successful marriages argue just as often. It’s how they resolve the arguments and what they do in-between that makes their marriage successful. This finding has important implications for business as well.
Conflict exists anywhere you have two or more people trying to work together, so it’s no surprise that businesses are rife with it. Good conflict management skills are rarely taught in the home, are almost never taught in school, and by the time most adults get to the work world, they have learned a very important rule about conflict. To avoid it.
Ignoring conflict is highly damaging – to a marriage, to a group of friends, and to any business. Besides, conflict isn’t necessarily bad, though we tend to treat any time we disagree with someone else as disagreeable. But it doesn’t have to be. Any mature adult can learn conflict management skills, and every company should have a conflict management program. The technique takes about 2 years to be fully integrated in an environment that doesn’t have any pre-existing conflict management approach, and about 1 – 1.5 years in an environment that is using conflict management, but perhaps not consistently.
First, everyone goes through a communication basics class. Interestingly, people hate the idea of taking such a course. The professionals think they already have great communication skills, and the non-professionals don’t see how it will apply to them. Trainers need to be trained to help people understand that great communication skills are rarely taught in school, and you can really get a class laughing and break the ice by talking about the communication dynamics of families. When I’ve trained this course myself I love to share my own family’s communication foibles – and then point out that my mother is a psychologist and my father a federal judge. That helps people realize that good communication isn’t necessarily known by even by high-functioning adults, and that it’s something that must be learned by everyone. At that point everyone can give themselves permission to learn the content, and most people do.
The communication basics class starts a series of classes and what I call one-point lessons (shared in team or department meetings as a way of reinforcing the training) on how to give direct feedback respectfully, how to prepare yourself to receive direct feedback responsibly, and how to ask for and give permission for that feedback to take place. These things are role-played and practiced to give people a taste for them. Once that information has been broadly disseminated more than a few times, we start working on a conflict resolution process that starts with direct feedback using the new techniques. An escalation process also needs to be put in place. If one-on-one feedback is unsuccessful, employees should be able to seek the assistance of a mediator, and mediators can be anyone in the organization that demonstrates the maturity and ability to be trained to that role. In my experience mediation solves the problem 98% of the time. In the rare instances of inability to solve a conflict, a form of in-company arbitration takes place.
Once people understand that conflict undermines the performance of a corporation and the satisfaction of the workers, and they also understand that for that reason conflict won’t be allowed to fester, they generally (not everyone, of course, but it’s not hard to get critical mass) accept that addressing conflict responsibly is a healthy way to resolve what is almost always a case of misunderstanding or of ‘dancing in each other’s heads’ (misinterpretation of motive or intention). In most businesses, managers struggle with the idea that they will have to do conflict resolution just like everyone else, which includes with their direct reports. Once people realize that the process works even with their managers, they really begin to trust it. And anyone who has ever gone through a well-done conflict resolution process knows that the resulting relationship is much stronger than the relationship was before the conflict existed.
I said earlier that it takes 1.5 – 2 years to implement a sound conflict management program. Does this seem like a long time to you? You might want to look at it this way: Either way the time is going to go by. But in organizations that have learned to harness differing ideas and diverse personalities to achieve the business strategy, the ability to have debate and managed conflict in a safe environment makes them more creative, and therefore more competitive. So where do you want to be two years from now? The time is going to go by either way.

(c) 2007, Andrea M. Hill

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