Conflict Resolution: Setting the Stage

This is the second article in my Secrets of Conflict Resolution blog series.  The series is based on my presentation of the same name that I presented at Nebraska.Code().

The agenda for this series is:

  1. Conflict in the Workplace by the Number
  2. Conflict Resolution: Setting the Stage
  3. Approaches to Conflict Resolution: Collaborating
  4. Approaches to Conflict Resolution: Compromising
  5. Approaches to Conflict Resolution: Smoothing
  6. Approaches to Conflict Resolution: Forcing
  7. Approaches to Conflict Resolution: Withdrawal
  8. Understanding Group Dynamics
  9. Managing Conflict: 10 Tips to make you a Conflict Resolution Superstar

Conflict Resolution: Setting the Stage

Peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan put it best when he said that, “Peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.” And that is what this blog series is about – how to handle conflict within your team to produce quality results and still have a peaceful environment.

Before we can talk about ways to handle conflict, we need to set the stage and understand what we mean when we say conflict and conflict resolution. So let me provide some definitions and perspectives.

What is Conflict

According to Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, a conflict is a turning point during which an individual struggles to attain some psychological quality. Sometimes referred to as a psychosocial crises, this can be a time of both vulnerability and strength, as the individual works towards success or failure.

A good definition for conflict, especially when talking about conflict in the workplace, is that it is a real or perceived threat or opposition to one’s needs, interests, principles, concerns, or security. Now those are pretty straight forward and all encompassing, but they make it sound like conflict is a bad thing. In the first article (Conflict in the Workplace by the Numbers), I wrote about how not all conflict is bad; as a matter of fact some conflict on your teams will produce better results – you just have to be sure to manage it right so good conversations do not turn to fisticuffs.

If we wanted to look at a real world example that is happening on development teams just like mine or yours, let’s take the hypothetical situation where your team is about to take on a new web application project. You have already decided that this project will use the MVC pattern but now the team needs to figure out which JavaScript MVC framework to use. One developer says that the team should use AngularJS while another says that Knockout is the way to go. But then the third developer, who just finished up a Telerik webcast, says that the team really needs to use Kendo UI. This should be an interesting conversation, but developers get religious when it comes to their programming languages and JavaScript frameworks.

Levels of Conflict

Good discussion about the possibilities
Good discussion about the possibilities
Now, hopefully; the team conversation is something like what is depicted in this picture.  This is a good discussion about the possibilities.  Hopefully as the project lead, tech leader, architect, or whatever you will help this team come to a good conclusion by using useful conversation tools.  By definition – especially the psychology definition – there is some conflict here, but this is very workable.

Not too bad, but still not good
Not too bad, but still not good
As I mentioned, developers can become religious about such topics and your team conversation might be more like this.  Now this is not too bad, but too many meetings like this will wear down your team.  It’s here where we can truly starting seeing conflict.  You can see the poor guy in the middle thinking, “Oh my God, are we really going to do this again.”

Things starting to fall apart
Things starting to fall apart
Unfortunately, these conversations can get more heated and look like <CLICK> this.  Here you can see where things are starting to fall apart; we have all probably be in a conversation that looked like this.  Hopefully when you were in such a situation, someone was able to employ conflict resolution to get you back to the first image.

Oh goodness, this cannot be good
Oh goodness, this cannot be good
Now hopefully your team meeting do not come to this.  Obviously things have gotten off the rails and even if someone is not physically hurt, there will be deep wounds on the team.

Now this is really serious
Now this is really serious
Of course, it could get worse.

Now in all seriousness; you’ll probably never see much more than the first three images, but not addressing conflict early could result in something more serious

What is Conflict Resolution

pexels-photoSo what is conflict resolution? Well let me start with the story about a man who left to his three sons 17 camels. To the first son he left half of the camels, the second son was to receive a third of the camels, and the youngest was going to get a ninth of the camels. The three sons get into a negotiation and 17 camels do not divide into two; does not divide by three; and it does not divide by nine. Tempers start to flare and in desperation they went and consulted a wise old woman. This wise old woman thought about the problem for some time and finally said that since she could no longer ride her camel that she would give them the camel. Now they had 18 camels. The first son took his half; half of 18 is 9. The second son took his third; a third of 18 is 6. And the youngest son took his ninth; a ninth of 18 is 2. Low and behold, there is a camel left over. They were able to give the old woman back her camel.

Now think about that story for a moment, you will see it resembles a lot of the difficult negotiations we get involved with. They start off like the 17 camels with no way to resolve it, but somehow we need to step back from those situations – like that wise old woman – look at the situation through fresh eyes and come up with an 18th camel.

Conflict, arguments, and change are natural parts of our lives. Conflict resolution is a way for two or more parties to find a peaceful solution to a disagreement among them. Conflict resolution is the methods and processes involved in facilitating the peaceful ending of conflict. Committed group members attempt to resolve group, and by engaging in collective negotiation. Dimensions of resolution typically parallel the dimensions of conflict in the way the conflict is processed.

  • Cognitive resolution is the way disputants understand and view the conflict, with beliefs and perspectives and understandings and attitudes.
  • Emotional resolution is the way disputants feel about a conflict, the emotional energy.
  • Behavioral resolution is how one thinks the disputants act, their behavior.

Approaches to Conflict Resolution

An appreciation of conflict resolution approaches is integral to understanding the communication process. While the names may differ slightly, there are five major responsive approaches to managing conflicts. There is no right or wrong conflict resolution approach, and each conflict participant is capable of choosing the approach they deem appropriate in any given situation. In the workplace, a leader should understand each of these approaches to help parties resolve conflicts that arise on the job.

The next five articles will review each of these conflict resolution approaches in detail.

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