Embracing Conflict with an Assertive and Cooperative Attitude

Invariably, when I tell people what I do as a consultant, the area that gets the most interest is in my work helping people navigate conflict at work. It seems everyone is struggling with conflict these days. Little wonder.

Conflict is prevalent throughout our personal relationships: quarreling with a spouse about money and division of domestic chores; battling with teenagers about limited screen time, completing homework and acceptable curfews; arguing with friends about issues, politics, sports or activities. And conflict continually impacts our professional relationships: fighting with co-workers for power, resources and projects; locking horns with those we manage about completing objectives, meeting deadlines and budgeting; arguing with the boss about giving us the kind of direction and support we need to be successful.

And then there is politics. If Barack Obama is re-elected, will congress work more cooperatively and help move this country forward? If Mitt Romney is elected, will he find a way to bring Democrats and Republicans together to get things done in a way we haven’t seen for a generation? If polling data is any indication, neither outcome is likely or expected.

Conflict is not new, so why does it seem so much more prevalent and detrimental to our lives? In my work with teams, I continually remind them that conflict is natural, to be expected and should be embraced in order for groups to thrive. Diversity of opinion should be honored as it can bring about more creative solutions.

But we seem to have forgotten how to respectfully disagree and continue working on the problem in spite of our differences. As a colleague of mine likes to say, it’s important to attack the problem, yet respect the people.

Though conflict often has a negative association, it’s important to remember the benefits of such disagreement. Conflict can:

  • Focus attention on problems that have to be solved, and energize and motivate you to solve them.
  • Clarify who you are and what your values are.
  • Help you understand who the other person is and what his or her values are.
  • Result in an agreement that often allows all participants to achieve their goals.
  • Strengthen relationships by increasing their respect and trust for each other.
  • Increase the ability to resolve future conflicts with each other constructively.

In every conflict there should be both the concern to satisfy our own needs and goals as well as maintain the relationship with the other person. Both are essential for a successful resolution to a conflict.

To successfully resolve conflicts all of the elements of clear communication and respectful behavior are important. These include:

  • Listen with an open mind to fully understand the other person’s perspective. Don’t stop listening in order to plan how you will defend your position versus theirs. Instead, listen attentively and then take a moment to put yourself in his or her shoes before responding. See if you can find common ground.
  • Paraphrase to demonstrate you correctly heard and understood the other person. This alone goes a long way towards deepening the understanding, which enables the opportunity for win-win solutions. It also demonstrates that you care about what the other person said and this is incredibly helpful.
  • Mind your body language to physically show you are actively engaged in resolving the problem. Remember that the majority of what we communicate is through our body language—regardless of whether we are speaking. Be mindful of posture that indicates you are open and receptive.
  • Stay with the problem, especially when it gets hard. Despite how emotionally charged and sensitive some conflicts can become, you will be rewarded with a lasting solution if you are able to continue working on it until fully resolved. Though there will be times when it is important to take a time out, always return to working on the problem rather than let it go unresolved.
  • Whenever possible, choose to be assertive and cooperative in reaching a synergistic solution. Having a win-win perspective means you are equally concerned with your and the other person’s needs and goals as well as maintaining the relationship you share. Clearly state what is important to you and work to find areas of common ground that allow for a compatible solution.

Keep these points in mind as you enter into conflict. As writer James Baldwin once said, “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

The key is to embrace conflict in order to move forward with a sustainable solution as well as to continue growing in relationship.

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About Mark Craemer
Craemer Consulting specializes in workplace communication, organization development and leadership coaching.

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