Conflict management is one of 25 competencies, or soft skills, required for exercising leadership. In our three-part competency framework of Doing, Thinking, and Being, conflict management falls into the Doing dimension. It's a skill that can be learned, and there are common principles and best practices that can and should be applied for those who want to increase their mastery of conflict situations.
In our work with leaders from the C-suite to frontline supervisors, we have found conflict management to be one of the most needed and most desired skills. Leaders at all levels are constantly faced with the reality of conflict and tension at work. Most leaders I have worked with wish that they had more skill in this area.
There are a huge number of resources for models and training on conflict resolution. But what I want to offer in this space, today, is an understanding of three principles I believe to be essential for success in conflict management. Those are simply principles of engaging eyes, ears, and brain.
Engaging the Eyes
I like to ride my bicycle, and I have completed several long rides (150-200 miles) on highways and through cities. Cyclists learn very quickly to make eye contact with drivers around them. Studies have shown that when cyclists make eye contact, drivers are less likely to hit them. It's not just about drivers seeing that the cyclists exist. The added factor of eye contact somehow triggers the drivers to recognize the cyclist as a human being, and that changes the behavior of the drivers to be less aggressive.
In conflict management situations, one of your roles is to help the two parties to engage their eyes and see each other as fellow human beings. When we see each other as human beings, we are less likely to exhibit bad or harmful behaviors. Fellow human beings are understood to have flaws as well as dignity. By engaging our eyes, we can humanize each other and recognize the reality of the other person's experience.
Engaging the Ears
As an extrovert, I find it more natural to talk than to listen. But through my work, I have become convinced that listening is the foundational leadership skill and essential to the success of conflict management. No matter what conflict framework or approach you're using, you must engage the ears of both parties so that they begin to truly hear each other.
I have seen this done effectively through writing and reflection, through whiteboard work, and through the technique of active listening (reflective listening), where each party repeats back to the other what they heard and gives a chance for nuance or clarification. I have found that the act of listening has a powerful, calming effect and reduces the emotional heat of conflict by at least half.
Engaging the Brain
Recent advances in neuroscience have clarified a causal chain that dramatically impacts conflict situations:
- Conflict produces stress,
- Stress causes the brain to trigger the release of cortisol adrenaline and other hormones,
- The release of these chemicals short-circuits the brain’s own higher cognitive functions, and
- The lower brain takes over, focused on survival instincts of fight, flight, or freeze.
When we understand this causal chain, it's easy to see how the survival responses (fight, flight, freeze) are counterproductive to conflict resolution.
Whenever you see someone blowing up, shutting down, or acting in passive-aggressive ways, you can be confident that survival instincts have come into play. The skill of conflict management includes re-engaging the brain’s higher cognitive abilities. When that happens, even people in conflict can become remarkably creative, adaptive, and understanding.
As a leader practicing conflict management, your role is to engage the brains of the people in conflict so that they can calm down, restore their higher cognitive functions, and begin to solve problems on their own. This, of course, requires the leader to remain calm and not get triggered into survival mode themselves.
Keeping the End in Mind
As you begin to master conflict management, it's important to keep the end goal in mind. The end goal is not the resolution of the immediate conflict. The goal is to equip and empower those you lead to see, hear, and think in ways that let them grow; take responsibility for their work relationships, and resolve the inevitable conflicts that will arise. Whatever technique or approach you choose, you will find that engaging eyes, ears, and brain will yield better results in the short term and will increase the ability of those you lead to resolve future conflicts.
With our eyes, we see each other as fellow human beings: flawed but valuable. With our ears, we hear, listen, and validate the experience of the other party. And with our brains, we restore our higher cognitive abilities that go beyond survival instincts and self-protection. Conflict management may not be easy, but it can be learned. And done well, it is a powerful contribution to the health of any organization.
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