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Wed, Feb 21, 2018

The i-Key to Solving & Preventing Ugly Conflicts

Conflicts consume precious resources, time and energy which otherwise can be put to better use. Not only that, they dampen emotions and put huge stumbling blocks against worthy goals. Some people like to say that conflicts are unavoidable. If you resign to such thinking, you will likely to live in a fire-fighting environment. In fact, there are managers in the workplace who find satisfaction in fighting fire. They love spending time being the hero who solves misunderstandings and quarrels. Little do they realise that they are not doing the company justice in how time is spent. The good news is that conflicts can be prevented in most cases. The key is dealing with the root cause. Assuming you are already facing a situation of conflict, let’s examine how we can solve it effectively.

Many conflicts have to do with intent, not content. Yes, intent – the i-key. I believe most people are nice people and want to be nice. It is when their “niceness” is being attacked, be it real or perceived, that they start to be not nice. That in turn gives the other party more bullets to justify how “not nice” they are. Then the conflict escalates. Whether in the workplace or family, people fight to preserve their reputation or treasures. When that is not working, they begin to attack the other party’s character. However these intents are hard to detect as they are presented through contents.

A small incident such as a wife forgetting to switch the light off again can escalate into a quarrel that brings up other incidents that took place years ago. When first being questioned, the wife’s intent is really to show that she is not an irresponsible person. But instead of agreeing that it should have been switched off, she lists out the things that she has faithfully done for the entire week and questions her husband why he did not acknowledge those? Now the husband feels that his effort in saving electricity is not being recognised and instead, he is being accused of being unappreciative. His intent is now to show that he is a person with gratitude. Instead of appreciating the things she has done, he laments the sacrifices he makes for the family through the long hours and stress at work. He adds that he does not bring these up and that she would not understand. Now she feel slighted and wants to show that she understands work stress. So she exclaimed how she was holding a full time job while managing the household chores in the early years of their marriage but he does not help at home. Slowly the quarrel turns from justifying oneself to attacking the other person. You catch the drift

Conflict Resolution
How do we solve a problem like the one above? Assuming the quarrel reached where she commented that he does not help at home, he needs to stop dancing to the music and to understand her intent. He would clarify that he does not mean that she does not understand what it means to work out there. He just wanted to say that he loves the family and would not want to burden them by sharing the stress he faces in his work. This will satisfy her intent of showing that she is not ignorant about work stress. He would add that he is aware of and appreciates her responsibilities at home. This satisfies her intent of refuting the idea of her being irresponsible. Finally he can add that perhaps she is handling so many things that she forgets to switch the lights off again, and that he will help should that happen again. Will this kindness cause her to intentionally leave the lights on in the future? Unlikely. In the same manner, finishing the conversation by reminding her to “remember the next time!” does not necessary ensure it. Worst still, the quarrel may be revived with such reminders!

Such occurrences are common in the workplace too. It takes active listening and observation to uncover the intents behind what people are saying (contents). Once you have identified the intents, you want to quickly give credit and affirmation to where it is due. You would also clarify what the issue is really about and how everyone can help to solve it. Never let the contents exchange go out of hand. The moment attacks are launched at characters, whether directly or indirectly, it is going to be a long war. Everyone is a loser. Well technically, there may be a winner… your competitor.

Conflict Prevention
While conflict resolution is important, conflict prevention is better. This needs no explanation. Using the same principle, we would always first identify the intent we want to achieve. Next we use the right contents to communicate this intent. Using the example of the couple above, the husband wants his wife to know that the light has been left switched on again. Instead of just questioning her why, he can anticipate her reactions and address those intents first. Hence he can say something like this instead – “Honey, thanks for taking care of the house. Guess you were so busy that you left the light switched on. Is there anything I can help to make it easier for you to remember?”. Here, the wife has just received affirmation and appreciation. It is true that she forgot and there is nothing really to fight about. In fact, he has offered to help. Compared to the first scenario, this one may take two more sentences and a dose of sincerity and appreciation. But the result is strikingly and positively different.

Good leaders often take the extra mile to affirm before correction. They understand the importance of self-esteem and dignity to the people under their care. Every correction will inevitably hurt their self worth. But discipline and correction is necessary for growth and maturity. The key therefore is to know how to take the right approach which involves understanding diverse motivation, needs and personalities and apply it differently to different people. Let your workplace be one that is free from unnecessary and preventable conflicts so that you can achieve more together.

Thought Leadership