Recognising and resolving conflict

There are many definitions of “conflict” in the business world. It’s important to remember that conflict isn’t always visible. Some people might be “in conflict” with others, but instead of raising their voices and arguing, they withdraw inside themselves and go quiet.


I like the following definition of conflict:

Conflict is when someone is forced by someone else to operate in a way which makes them uncomfortable.
If you take this definition, then the topic captures quite a wide range of situations.

How does conflict start?
Conflict comes about when an event happens which makes someone uncomfortable, and when it then spirals unchecked into a breakdown in the relationship. It goes through 4 steps:
  • Situation: Something happens. One person does something the other person doesn’t like.
    • Example:    Your manager gives you a big piece of work at 3pm on a Friday and tells you to finish it before the weekend.
  • Physical reaction: The “fight or flight” response kicks in due to the recipient suddenly feeling pressure.
    • Example:    You tense up because you have a personal appointment at 6pm and you fear you won’t get there on time.
  • Stories we tell: Due to the hormones now rushing round the blood stream, the person starts telling themselves stories about what’s happening, and why.
    • Example:    You recall the last time your manager gave you a short deadline and start telling yourself that your manager is unreasonable, that they always do this, and that they don’t care about your work-life balance.
  • React: The recipient reacts to the situation rather than responding in a considered way. This might be anger, open disagreement, or simply rushing the work and doing a poor job.
    • Example:    You tell your manager that it’s not fair, at the top of your voice in the middle of the office. Others begin to take sides and there are hard feelings on both sides. Trust is damaged.
This then causes another situation, from the manager’s point of view. They see an employee ignoring instructions, making a scene in the office, etc. This causes the manager to experience stress, and the cycle continues.

Why does this happen?
There are a couple of things going on which cause these situations to happen. Firstly, perhaps neither party is aware of how conflict starts. Because of these, neither the manager nor the employee is self-aware enough to bring their reaction into check and to instead deliver a measured response.

Another cause of this, is a lack of empathy for the other person. When you observe the situation (step 1), you’re only seeing someone’s overt behaviours. You have no idea why they might be doing what they’re doing.

If you try to step into the manager’s world, you might realise that the manager is giving this piece of work for all sorts of reasons…
  • Someone’s just dumped something on them last-minute so they need to delegate.
  • A client’s called in with a last-minute request.
  • Something’s broken which needs to be dealt with.
  • The manager has forgotten that something needs to be done and is now firefighting. Yes – even managers are allowed to make mistakes!
Once you consider things from the manager’s perspective, things often become clearer.

Spotting conflict in others
There are a number of ways to spot whether someone is feeling “in conflict”. Beyond just being alert to arguments, some other ways are as follows:

Behaviour changes: Remember the personality types we’ve already looked at. When people are in conflict, their behaviour tends to change from their first choice style to their second choice (or third or fourth).

Care: When people are operating in their comfort zone, they tend to care for the other person, the task/problem, and themselves. As they enter into a feeling of conflict, the scope of that care diminishes until they’re in self-defence mode.

Come back next week to learn how to resolve conflict once you spot it.

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