Managing conflict in the workplace can be a complicated task, even for the most seasoned professionals. Whether there is tension between peers or an issue between a superior and his or her subordinate, conflict is not something that many welcome, and as a result many lack the experience needed to successfully manage conflict and resolve issues.
“The reason that conflict is so difficult for people to deal with is because of the way the brain operates,” said Anne Warfield, CEO and Outcome Thinking® Strategist, Impression Management Professionals, an organization dedicated to helping leaders become more strategic and influential by maximizing their best asset – their brain. “Our brain is designed to protect us, so it operates on the defense. It also tends to evaluate anything we do based on intent and anything others do based on action.”
As a result, no two people will see the same situation in exactly the same light.
“This is hard for leaders, because they think if they tell an employee what to do, they should just do it. When in reality, all the other person’s brain is trying to do is protect them. So they are always going to act in accordance to their beliefs, even if they fully intend and want to do what is being asked of them,” said Warfield.
Seeing Conflict Differently
Key to managing conflict, then, is understanding where the other person is coming from and what their brain is trying to protect.
“The reality is that your style of how the brain tries to protect you will affect the way that you act,” said Warfield. “So if I’m a person that needs people to connect with me and like me and I need the synergy of other people, then if you bring a change to something I will react strongly because you are making me feel incompetent. Then I will be seen as passive aggressive, when in reality I am just trying to protect myself because I don’t like change and you’re changing things and it’s confusing me.”
In this instance, the brain tries to protect you as a connector. Other styles include networker, producer and analyzer. In each instance, the brain tries to protect something different by altering the ways that we think and act.
“People are usually not trying to do something to you, they are just trying to protect themselves,” said Warfield. “When you realize that with conflict, then you stop looking at it as an attack and you see it for what it is – a defensive protection.”
As a result, an important step in dissolving conflict is understanding what the other person is trying to protect and then developing a plan for them to feel safe and explore other options of thinking and acting.
To better understand the other party’s point of view, Warfield suggests that individuals take the following steps:
- Assume the best intent and hold the individual to the highest level of integrity, rather than assume that they are trying to wrong you.
- Ask open-ended questions that allow the other person to more fully answer your questions.
- Use the individual’s exact words and have them expand on what they mean. This will ensure that you fully understand what they are communicating.
- Engage in active listening to determine what the other person is trying to protect and how you can help them to do so.
“Successfully managing conflict is about holding people to the highest level of integrity, not blaming or shaming them, and allowing them to own their mistakes 100 percent,” said Warfield. “The reality is that conflict builds relationships. The only reason it ever demolishes them is when we let it because we do not trust the intent of the other person.”
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