Tactfully Confronting Conflict

In a Nutshell
        Too many of us fail to talk to others about the problems that they create for us because we don't want to sour a relationship.  Consequently, the underlying conflict isn't addressed, and other parties unknowingly create hassles and frustrations for us.  To eliminate those problems, we need to tactfully confront the conflict and work toward a mutually agreeable resolution.  First we need to clarify for ourselves exactly what it is that the other party does and how it creates a problem for us.  Then, we need to explain the problem to the other party in a way that reduces their defensiveness, and collaborate with them to find a solution.

In This Issue

Good Reasons Not To Be a Conflict Avoider
        Are you a conflict avoider?  Do you hope that unspoken conflict will go away if you just ignore it?  Do you convince yourself that the conflict that's causing problems for you can't be resolved, so there's no point in confronting it?  I would really encourage you to tactfully confront unspoken conflict rather than avoid it.
        Most of us appreciate and have more respect for people who tactfully confront the problems that we create for them.  Admittedly, we sometimes get defensive when confronted, but you can help us avoid being defensive (see below).  We really don't want to create frustration and stress for you, and if you would just let us know how we could help, we'd like to try.  Besides, the problems that we create for you might also affect other people now or in the future, so making a change could actually help us.
        Tactfully confronting conflict tends to strengthen relationships.  Harmony achieved through conflict avoidance is artificial and dishonest.  Confronting conflict increases the openness and, therefore, the closeness in a relationship.
        How long can you keep your frustration bottled up anyway, and what happens when you let it out?  If you avoid confronting conflict for too long, you risk health problems and a blow up with the other party.  I once spoke to a local personnel manager who wanted team building training for her staff.  Conflict was poorly handled in her organization.  She told my colleague and me about one young staffer who was loathe to confront the conflict she had with a coworker, and the stress ultimately made her physically ill and unable to work for weeks!  Obviously, one option for getting it off your chest is talking to a third party about the problem.  But, where's the integrity in that?  How would you feel if you found out that a coworker was complaining about something that you did behind your back?  Furthermore, you don't want to wait until you're fed up with the other party and then unload on them.  When that happens, you've become the problem.
        Finally, if you are a manager or any other person in authority, resolving conflicts is part of your role.  The responsibility to resolve conflicts and promote harmonious interactions among group members coincides with the authority and privilege of being a leader.

Conflict: A Puzzle to Solve, Not a Battle to Fight
        One definition of interpersonal conflict says that it results when the goal-directed behavior of one party interferes with the goal-directed behavior of another.  To make that definition fit every conflict situation, the term "goal" has to be interpreted very broadly to mean anything that people would like to have occur.  For instance, goals in this context must include things like having a pleasant working environment, receiving a certain perk, being treated with respect, getting a particular task completed, etc.
        Notice that the definition of interpersonal conflict makes no reference to fighting or losing.  When we reflect on conflicts that we've observed in the workplace, we readily recall fights, winners and losers.  However, not all conflict results in fights.
        To build harmonious relationships and improve organizational functioning, it's much more useful for parties in conflict to view their conflict as a puzzle to be solved collaboratively rather than a fight to be won.

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Use Language That Reduces Defensiveness
        When confronting a conflict you have with another party, supportive communication and "owning the problem" reduces their defensiveness.  The March 2 LeaderLetter summarized the principles of supportive communication.  For instance, supportive communication addresses problems rather than attacking people, describes actions and situations rather than judging them, notes specific occurrences and situations rather than general patterns, follows a consistent line of discussion rather than jumping around, and involves two-way discussion.  One advantage of such communication is that it focuses attention on a problem to be solved rather than the party who is causing the problem, which reduces that party's defensiveness.
        In addition, "owning the problem" reduces defensiveness.  When you need to confront a party that has done something that causes frustration, disappointment or any kind of displeasure for you, you can think of that displeasure as your problem.  That's what owning the problem means.  Naturally, you can just as easily say that the actions of the other party are their problem.  However, if you use the language of owning the problem when you confront conflict, you will improve your chances of resolving it in a mutually agreeable way.  The other party will be less inclined to react defensively if you draw attention to yourself and the problem rather than putting them on the spot.  When there's goodwill between you and the other party, they will be happy to help you solve your problem.

Use All of Your Collaborative, Creative Problem Solving Skills
        Viewing conflict as a puzzle or a problem to be solved collaboratively should help the parties in conflict find creative solutions.  Accordingly a creative, collaborative problem-solving process should be used.

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        Whetten, D. A., & Cameron, K. S.  (2002).  Developing management skills, (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

About the Photo
        Lennox Lewis punches Mike Tyson during their World Heavyweight Championship bout, June 8, 2002.  (REUTERS/Jeff J Mitchell: e-mailed to me from Yahoo! News; news.yahoo.com.)

About the Newsletter and Subscriptions
        LeaderLetter is written by Dr. Scott Williams, Department of Management, Raj Soin College of Business, Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio.  It is a supplement to my MBA 751 - Managing People in Organizations class.  It is intended to reinforce the course concepts and maintain communication among my former MBA 751 students, but anyone is welcome to subscribe.  In addition, subscribers are welcome to forward this newsletter to anyone who they believe would have an interest in it.  To subscribe, simply send an e-mail message to me requesting subscription.  Of course, subscriptions to the newsletter are free.  To unsubscribe, e-mail a reply indicating that you would like to unsubscribe.

E-mail Your Comments
        Whether you are one of my former students or not, I invite you to share any insights or concerns you have regarding the topic of this newsletter or any other topic relating to management skills.  Please e-mail them to me.  Our interactions have been invaluable.  Lets keep the conversation going.

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Good, Clean Joke (or, at least a clean one)

TO:  All Employees
FR:  Human Resources
DT:  Monday, June 10, 2002
RE:  Revisions to the Employee Handbook

It is advised that you come to work dressed according to your salary, if we see you wearing $350 Prada sneakers & carrying a $600 Gucci bag we assume you are doing well financially and therefore you do not need a raise.

SICK DAYS: We will no longer accept a doctor's statement as proof of sickness. If you are able to go to the doctor, you are able to come to work.

SURGERY:  Operations are now banned. As long as you are an employee here, you need all your organs. You should not consider removing anything. We hired you intact. To have something removed constitutes a breach of employment.

PERSONAL DAYS: Each employee will receive 104 personal days a year. They are called Saturday and Sunday.

VACATION DAYS: All employees will take their vacation at the same time every year. The vacation days are as follows: Jan. 1, July 4 & Dec. 25.

BEREAVEMENT LEAVE: This is no excuse for missing work. There is nothing you can do for dead friends, relatives or coworkers. Every effort should be made to have non-employees attend to the arrangements. In rare cases where employee involvement is necessary, the funeral should be scheduled in the late afternoon. We will be glad to allow you to work through your lunch hour and subsequently leave one hour early, provided your share of the work is done enough.

OUT FROM YOUR OWN DEATH: This will be accepted as an excuse. However, we require at least two week's notice as it is your duty to train your own replacement.

RESTROOM USE: Entirely too much time is being spent in the restroom. In the future, we will follow the practice of going in alphabetical order.  For instance, all employees whose names begin with 'A' will go from 8:00 to 8:20, employees whose names begin with 'B' will go from 8:20 to 8:40 and so on. If you're unable to go at your allotted time, it will be necessary to wait until the next day when your turn comes again. In extreme emergencies employees may swap their time with a coworker. Both employees' supervisors must approve this exchange in writing. In addition, there is now a strict 3-minute time limit in the stalls. At the end of three minutes, an alarm will sound, the toilet paper roll will retract, and the stall door will open.

LUNCH BREAK: Skinny people get an hour for lunch as they need to eat more to maintain their energy, normal size people get 30 minutes for lunch to get a balanced meal to maintain their average figure. Fat people get 5 minutes for lunch because that's all the time needed to drink a Slim Fast and take a diet pill.

Thank you for your loyalty to our company. We are here to provide a positive employment experience. Therefore, all questions comments, concerns, complaints, frustrations, irritations, aggravations, insinuations, allegations, accusations, contemplations, or input should be directed elsewhere.  Have a nice week.

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