When we are in conflict, we often feel stuck, perhaps between a rock and a hard place! It’s important to remember, though, that we always have many choices about whether and how we respond in a conflict situation. Our first two obvious choices are: (1) do something, or (2) do nothing. Assuming that we would like to do something, then our choices really expand. We have options about what exactly we could do, when, how, where and with whom, we could do them.
Being a good conflict manager is about identifying the variety of choices we have about how to respond, and making an informed decision about what we do next (rather than simply acting in a reactive way without thinking through the consequences).
Here’s an example. Let’s say that someone you work with has done something to upset you. Perhaps you overheard them criticising your work to another colleague. You think this criticism was unfair, and you would prefer your workmate to discuss any problems she might have with you directly, not with other people behind your back. So what are your choices about how to respond?
Firstly, you have a choice about whether to raise this with your colleague directly or to do nothing. Is the matter serious enough to have a difficult conversation about it? If you decide not to talk to her about it, are you definitely going to be able to forget about it, or is it going to fester and change your behaviour around your colleague in the future, perhaps having a negative impact on your working relationship?
Assuming that you decide you really do want to talk to your colleague about what happened, then you have a wide range of process choices:
When would be the best time to talk to her? Sooner or later? On a particular day of the week? At a particular time of the day? During work hours or after hours?
Should you discuss this with her in person? Or by telephone? Or by email? Or though an intermediary (e.g. another colleague or mutual friend)?
Where would be the best place to talk with her? In the office? At a nearby café? At her desk? In a meeting room? In the staff room?
Who should be involved in the conversation? Just you and her? The other colleague who she spoke to about your work? Your supervisor? A mutual friend or support person? A mediator?
What, exactly, do you want to say to her? What are the main points you want her to understand? Do you have any questions that you’d like her to answer? What are some different ways you could frame your statements/questions in order to keep the conversation constructive and not escalate the conflict?
Once you start considering all the different options you have available to you, you can also think about the potential consequences of these choices. What would be the impact of each of these choices on you, on the other person, and on other people around you (e.g. your other work colleagues)? What would be the impact in the short-term and in the long-term of your various options?
Frequently, in conflict, we respond automatically, without thinking through our options and without considering the consequences of our actions. However, a little bit of planning and a proactive approach to conflict can make all the difference!