Minimizing Conflict Intensity
by Scott Weaver
I'm good friends with two brothers, Larry and Samuel, who are as different as they are alike. Neither is a master of conflict management. Each is an accomplished, terrific person whose friendship I've grown to cherish over seventeen years, so it's sad to consider the time they've lost when conflict has dominated their relationship and damaged both their individual and shared interests. Sometimes their disagreements have escalated from holding opposing views to emotionally-charged warfare. When that's happened I've been like Switzerland: neutral and friendly to all parties. Especially so the time they lawyered-up against one another. What I've seen happen with Samuel and Larry I have also seen happen in organizations, and it confirms that conflict is natural, as leadership experts Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal point out.
Leaders must accept the inevitability and normality of conflict, and develop their skills in making it productive rather than destructive. What makes conflict normal and inevitable is the diversity of resources, ideas and outlooks that are a natural outgrowth of our differences in background and experiences, beliefs and preferences, and goals and perceptions (Bolman and Deal, 173). When we can keep conversations verbal and consciously about differences in thought, then we are more in disagreement or opposition of ideas than we are in a state of outright conflict, according to Dr. Elias Porter, who developed Relationship Awareness Theory. Opposition of ideas can be highly productive. It stimulates creativity and innovation, which can lead to new ideas and approaches to problems that may produce beneficial change.
Frequently, though, conversations about differences in thought shift toward "hot" cognition. When that happens our attitudes, goals, and stereotypes start adding subconscious, emotional charges to our perception that change how and what we are hearing, seeing, and feeling as well as altering the content of all we are communicating (Bolman and Deal, 174). The internal ground covered during this shift is the boundary zone between productive conflict (opposition of ideas) and unproductive, outright conflict that leaders seek to manage. There are two approaches that don't work, and one that has better results.
Attempts to smooth-over differences—avoiding, minimizing, denying—or to squash disagreement through coercion don't work. Typically, these approaches just push opposition underground where it smolders and on-going resistance erupts later as "unregulated warfare." Organization, team, and individual performance goes down. Success is in jeopardy because people are not giving or doing their best: innovations founder, targets and goals go unmet, and results don't get delivered.
Confronting conflict in ways that enable settlement and commitment is an approach that does work. Commitment means whole-hearted support of a decision even when one disagreed beforehand. Bolman and Deal break the approach into seven elements:
- Applying interpersonal skills.
- Gaining an initial agreement to establish negotiating or bargaining goals and procedures that will enable sides to work toward settlement.
- Productively expressing the conflict.
- Searching for common interests (stepping beyond the defense and attack of positions).
- Testing potential solutions.
- Accepting one's own fallibility, or that of one's side.
- Treating differences as a shared, group responsibility, rather than falling into "us" versus "them."
Our preferred ways of thinking and doing—expectations of how people should interact—and what we are listening and looking for from others, all shape our perceptions. Everyone else's perceptions are likewise shaped by their individual makeups. This insight allows us to get at the core elements of managing conflict by finding the common interests and productively expressing the conflict.
Productively expressing the conflict involves expressing ideas directly and "minimizing the intensity." Of course, this is easier said than done. People are willing to go into unproductive, outright conflict over things that are important to them (Porter). More complicated still, what's important changes, based upon the intensity of the conflict. That boundary zone where "hot" cognition starts is what Kerry Patterson calls "the hazardous half minute," in Crucial Conversations. Thirty seconds, more or less, where we or others perceive that something we feel matters (an idea, a value, or institution) is under threat or attack.
What happens if you're driving and someone unexpectedly swerves into your lane? Hopefully, your reflexive reactions immediately help you avoid a collision. Collision avoided, you now have a strong emotional, physiological response that's affecting your driving and perception, too. When approached with opposing ideas in ways that we don't instinctively perceive, interpret and evaluate the world—we also have an emotional, physiological response. We go "on guard," often subconsciously, when someone does something, says something, or acts in ways that don't fit how we expect people to behave or what we need them to do in order to feel safe.
Ideally, we want to respond appropriately rather than react inappropriately in that moment when we've gone "on guard" or inadvertently put others on their guard. Minimizing the intensity will involve taking an approach that aligns expectations and needs. Increasing the intensity will likely be confounding, unproductive and possibly destructive.
In a disagreement where ideas clash at a low degree of conflict intensity, we focus on the relationship, the problem at issue, and ourselves or the organization (Porter). Should the conflict intensity increase, and emotion begins to be engaged, then our focus narrows to just the problem and the self (or organization). If the conflict intensity increases still further, then we may only be able to focus on self-preservation. At the highest degree of conflict intensity, we focus only on our emotions. At a low degree of intensity we are consciously and verbally wrestling with ideas in opposition. We enter "hot" cognition and "the hazardous half minute" at the higher degree of conflict intensity, and are pulled toward perceiving the situation emotionally, rather than deliberately and rationally. In this moment, roughly thirty seconds, our interpersonal skills can work to minimize the intensity and move the conversation back toward the conscious and verbal.
I like the way I heard it expressed recently: "A wise person accepts, a less-wise person insists." In past instances, Larry and Samuel have been more insistent than wise. Each has, upon occasion, said and done things to drive the intensity of one of their conflicts off the meter. During one two year period their only communication was through their lawyers. That's an expensive way to hold a conversation, but the best they could manage. Since resolving that disagreement (fortunately without ruining their business) they've done better at keeping their common interests in mind, and being respectfully direct. That's helped them keep the intensity minimized. Still, occasionally, I get to practice being like Switzerland and I hope Samuel and Larry never stop being themselves.
Bolman, Lee G. and Deal, Terrance E. (2017). Reframing Organizations (6th Edition). John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
Scudder, Tim and LaCroix, Debra (2013). Working with SDI: How to Build More Effective Relationships with the Strength Deployment Inventory. Personal Strengths Publishing, Inc.
Terry Goodwin. Relationship Awareness Theory (Autumn, 2014). The New NURTURING POTENTIAL in Education, Personal Growth, Health, Business, Ecology, and the Arts, 2(3). https://www.nurturingpotential.net/relationship_awareness_theory.htm#Porter,_E.H._
Patterson, Kerry, Grenny, Joseph, McMillan, Ron, and Switzler, Al (2005). Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior. McGraw-Hill. https://sa1s3.patientpop.com/assets/docs/85484.pdf