When ‘Banging Their Heads Together’ Doesn’t Work…

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A mediator’s guide to workplace conflict, by our Guest Blogger Emma Jenkings of Mosaic Mediation.

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“Why can’t people just ‘get on’?”

I haven’t met a single adult who hasn’t been involved with, or witnessed, workplace conflict. At some point in your working life, you will need to work with or alongside people who you don’t enjoy being around. And, at work you have little choice about who you have to interact with.

The first way to approach the issue of workplace conflict is to realise that at some point in your working life you will encounter conflict – which, most simply put, is any form of ‘disagreement’. This can manifest in the form of frustration, hurt, anger, or disappointment – all of which result from
conscious or unconscious ‘disagreement’ with someone’s behaviour, where a person doesn’t like, agree with, or understand why someone behaves as they do.

Not all conflict is negative but it may lead to hostile disagreement, passive aggressive communication, withdrawal or even physical altercations, at the extreme. Any of these behaviours WILL negatively impact the way people work together, and their individual performance at work.

One of my favourite quotes is by Blaine Lee: Almost all conflict is a result of violated expectations.”

Having realistic expectations of others could be the difference between peace and conflict. Unfortunately, in the workplace (especially if our roles are similar) we subconsciously expect people to communicate, behave and understand things the same way we do. Even acknowledging that ‘everyone is different’ doesn’t stop us from those inherent feelings of frustration if, for example, we have explained something multiple times, and the other person still doesn’t seem to understand what we mean!

Differences between colleagues can have the potential to help an organisation perform beautifully, when pulling together these different skills, insights and personalities. However, they also have the potential to cause disruption and communication breakdown if those differences are neither expected nor appreciated.

Such ‘expectation and appreciation’ may be demonstrated by developing a culture within an organisation that is equipped to prevent ‘unnecessary conflict’ and to handle reasonable conflict effectively, when it does occur.

What constitutes ‘unnecessary conflict’?

As I have already stated, at some point in your working life you will encounter conflict. What is preventable is: the degree of fallout from the conflict, the escalation of issues, and the extended length of time it can take to resolve things.

So ‘unnecessary conflict’ is where – had there been a greater level of understanding, and willingness to see a different perspective, and the awareness and knowledge to communicate effectively with behavioural tendencies that are different to their own – the degree of disruption,
miscommunication or friction would have been significantly reduced or avoided.

What can be done to prevent ‘unnecessary conflict’?

In my book, ‘The Four Pillars of Conflict Prevention’, I discuss four main areas to be aware of. Essentially, these are the areas that I look at when both helping an individual or organisation prevent conflict, or areas that I will take note of when determining what has to an already-present conflict.

These 4 areas are: Communication, Approach, Notice Change, and Trust.

1. Communication is involved in every interaction we ever have, but it truly is a skill to communicate effectively with different people in all manner of situations. Preventing unnecessary conflict is possible by developing your knowledge of communication, particularly around: listening skills, clarity of mindset, the impact of someone’s perceived identity, emotions, and different communication tendencies.

2. Having the most appropriate ‘approach’ goes beyond working on your tone of voice. If you are aiming to prevent unnecessary conflict, it helps to understand which factors should determine your approach to a conversation, to give you the greatest likelihood of your communication being received exactly as you had intended.

3. Change is often a major factor in conflict developing. So, if you notice changes in how the organisation or the team is structured – a new manager for example – it is likely you will be more prepared to tackle ‘minor niggles’ before they become major issues. Other areas of change to pay attention to include: employee’s social lives, body language, any inconsistent treatment amongst staff, an increase in critical attitudes.

4. Finally, TRUST. It is what underpins the balance and ‘health’ of all relationships – whether work or personal. If you notice a change in how people are interacting or engaging with each other, think about how much they may (or may NOT) have trust in the other person’s credibility and/or character.

If there is low trust between people, that will impact how they communicate, how they perceive the intentions of the other person and will inevitably lead to some form of conflict. Noticing which area of trust is low, will enable you to focus on what each individual can do to re-build trust in that area.

How to manage conflict effectively

Each situation is different, so the approach will need to be adjusted to match each situation.

That being said, there are some general rules which are helpful:

1. No ‘winning’ – If you are involved in the dispute, trying to ‘win’ an argument is a recipe for conflict escalation. If you are helping to support other people to resolve an issue, don’t take sides – not in reality, nor in perception. Neutrality is an essential skill as a mediator – knowing that taking sides will be a block to an effective and long-lasting resolution. When mediations are done by someone where there is the potential for perceived bias, it has a very low chance of working out. (I have done mediations to clear up previous failed mediations because of this exact issue.)

2. No apportioning of blame – I’m not suggesting that we allow people to avoid accountability; but that it is more effective to talk in less emotive terms than ‘blame’. Using different phrases, and an approach that encourages people to address their ‘contribution’ to a situation, is less likely to make people feel defensive.

3. Ask curious questions – Often, people feel they are being asked questions to trap them into an answer that will put them in a vulnerable position. Asking questions that show an intention to understand, and maybe gently challenge, will encourage more open and honest answers.

4. Don’t ignore the ‘red flags’ – Most issues don’t get resolved by time itself. Most need addressing and require effective communication about them – and if done when they are minor and new, it’s likely that they will be quickly and efficiently resolved. Issues that are ignored will fester and escalate (even if it takes a while). The longer they are ignored for, the harder it is to resolve.

5. Don’t try to resolve things too quickly – Far too often I have been brought into a situation where there has been a previous discussion where people agree to ‘move on’, without actually having discussed the key concerns or feelings involved. Moving on can only happen once there is a greater level of understanding from each person about the other. (No ‘banging of heads’ please!)

6. Encourage problem-solving – Once issues have been addressed, misunderstandings clarified and the core concerns are clear, then you can move onto to forward-thinking. Any solution that the individuals mutually agree upon and champion is going to have a greater likelihood of ‘sticking’, so get them involved in the suggestions as much as possible.

One last tip: Aim for preventing ‘unnecessary conflict’, not for avoiding all conflict! Some conflict is necessary to promote positive change.

Conflict (or ‘disagreement’) of some sort is inevitable because everyone is different – with different histories, personalities, skills, communication styles and perspectives. However, that doesn’t mean the conflict needs to be long-lasting, nor should it be damaging to individuals or the organisation.

I love being a mediator, and what I enjoy about my job is not the arguments or negativity, but seeing the positive results that come from conflict resolution. For the vast majority of mediation, the issues and discord are resolved. And, in every mediation I have been involved in, individuals discover more self-awareness and a greater understanding of others – as an inevitable by-product of the mediation process.

If you are involved in, or supporting people through, workplace conflict currently, have hope. Most conflict is ‘resolvable’, and it may lead to far more positive results than you could anticipate.

Emma Jenkings is a qualified Workplace & Employment Mediator and set up Mosaic Mediation in 2016. She has since been involved in a wide range of mediations to resolve disputes and tackle difficult conversations. She is now also a DISC assessor, conflict resolution coach, communication
trainer, and speaker on conflict and communication. Her online ‘Kindly Speak Up’ course on positive assertiveness is now available to purchase.

‘The 4 Pillars of Conflict Prevention’ ebook by Emma Jenkings can be purchased on www.amazon.co.uk . For more information on workplace mediation, coaching, training, courses and resources, please go to www.mosaicmediation.co.uk . Or, you can contact Emma Jenkings by
emailing emma.jenkings@mosaicmediation.co.uk .