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Conflict Management


It's probably not our fault we can't manage conflicts very well.

Recessions are wonderful breeding grounds for conflicts; as more emotions enter the workplace so what would have been once ignored or overlooked becomes a critical issue. Protectionism and defensive behaviour, a breakdown in communication and the inconsiderate use of authority all contribute to ‘hot-housing' conflict, exacerbating problems further.

The purpose of this short article is to demonstrate how we are almost pre-programmed to operate when confronted with conflict - something we learn all too early in life - and how we rarely find satisfactory solutions. After, to offer a brief structured alternative approach to conflict resolution that can be easily implemented in everyday business, or family life.

To start, an illustrative example; imagine you are a parent, and have prepared for your 4 year old child, Simon, cabbage soup. Simon hates cabbage soup. Your mother has brought along some ice cream for Simon. Simon has seen it wants the ice cream now and is refusing to eat the cabbage soup, an all too familiar scenario. Take a few moments to consider how you might to resolve this conflict.

I can well imagine that one or more of the following ideas are going through your head.

You are thinking, I shall say, ‘either you eat the cabbage soup or you don't get any ice cream'!
You are thinking, I shall say, if you eat half of the cabbage soup you can have some of the ice cream.
You are thinking, I shall explain that ‘the soup is good for you and that you don't want to disappoint Mummy - Daddy, by not eating it would you'?
You are thinking that you will ask Granny to intervene to support you in your demands.

These are all typical ‘parent type' responses; and, if you translate the scenario into a business context - e.g. encouraging a reluctant subordinate to act as you want them to, - ‘if you don't do what I say your bonus will be impacted' - they are all ‘typical manager' type responses also.

Let's analyse what is happening:

1. Is how most respond, typically creating an either, or, neither type argument based on differing wants. George Bush's whole presidency personified such an erroneous attitude. Verbally typified with, "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists"! You are saying, in other words, ‘either you do what I want, or you will be punished; because, for whatever reasons, I don't want to do it your way, and or somehow I award myself a higher authority on the matter; a standard command and control response.

2. Is saying the same thing, just verbally formulated in a more positive way; it remains, and is heard, as an either, or, neither argument though implicitly stated, rather than explicitly. Such trading will lead to a compromise - an unsatisfactory solution that will need to be renegotiated later.

3. Emotional blackmail is a poor trick and leaves you and or the other party feeling bad. The consequence is you feel you must acquiesce to their later demands, tit for tat, after you have coerced them into agreeing what you want, this time; another form of compromise.

4. An attempt at authority with very little legitimacy. With the hope of transferring any emotional blackmail to the co-party - your mother - and that their extra status or authority will force the other party into acceptance of your demands. Allowing you to use, ‘its not my wish but the wish of the boss', type arguments. ‘If it were up to me I would be happy with your suggestion'. This is lying to yourself and the other party, and the equivalent of threatening to use the courts to resolve a dispute - a debate about who has more rights under ‘the law' to their demands in the hope to find justice rather than fairness or a good solution.

All of the above are approaches based on your wants; Position Bargaining, as the Harvard Negotiation Project (HNP) terms it. Wants, or Positions, can only lead to either, or, neither type arguments and compromise. Either we do what you want, or we do what I want, or we do neither. Or, we do some of what you want and some of what I want. If we do what I want now we can do what you want later. We have to do what the law wants. Zero sum games are best left to sport and out of business and family.

Remember, getting what we want often does not always satisfy our reasons for wanting it! 

Stating first what we want and then trying to justify it, is like a scientist, stating a theory and after, inventing theses that the theory explains; the chances are, the theses will contradict the theory.

Conflict resolution is better approached by being based on the reasons why you want what you want; Interests, as HNP describes them. Interest based negotiation like science builds theses, then hypotheses and tests to find theories.

If we now revisit the above scenario using Interest based negotiation.

Ask yourself why you want Simon to eat the cabbage soup? You will most probably say, due to the vitamins, minerals etc contained therein; it is very healthy. Ask yourself why Simon doesn't want to eat the cabbage soup? Probably because he doesn't like the taste and it is stopping him from getting directly to the ice cream.

Now, let us brainstorm some ideas to satisfy all parties' reasons, yours for a healthy child and his for better taste and maximum speed to the ice cream. You will likely think of things like carrots, fruit, and other healthy options; all are valid, but they only resolve your interests, they are still perhaps too slow for Simon. Don't think like a parent!

In this circumstance I suggest a vitamin pill as the best solution, it gives you a guarantee of your interests and it is the fastest tasteless solution for Simon.

I can hear you saying, no, no what about roughage and he should learn to do things he doesn't like want to do; or, that's ridiculous etc... Such comments sound like a baseless attempt to justify your first attempts at Position Bargaining and to get what you want again. Simon doesn't like cabbage soup, perhaps you do and that's why you made it, so your lack of foresight initiated the conflict. They also illustrate the biggest problem that managers of conflict have to overcome; that is, not the other party, but themselves and their pride in not getting what they want, and not accepting that their ideas are, perhaps, wrong, or ill-conceived, or don't resolve the problem.

To prove my point, how do we know which solution is the best answer for the given Interests? We need good objective criteria, a test. For you, how can you guarantee that your cabbage soup, carrot, fruit etc has required vitamins, or the vitamins they did have are not dried up or boiled away? For Simon, what tastes best and what is the fastest to eat?  Lessons in morality, status and social etiquette were never part of your initial intent with the soup and should not figure now.

This is a simple ‘at loggerheads' type example; and despite its perhaps naive simplicity, it nicely illustrates that negotiations fail because people too readily just trade wants and rarely check assumptions, their own or others'; all of which lead to tit for tat solutions and zero sum games.

If, however, you seek Interests - reasons why - find multiple creative ideas to address these Interests and test your various ideas against honestly objective criteria - not your wants - you will reach better, longer lasting solutions that will also maintain the relationship.

Simon Quick CIArb.

Simon Quick was born and educated in the UK. He studied architecture and ran his own practice with 2 partners in Exeter, before moving to Switzerland to marry his Swiss wife Petra in 1999. During his early years in Switzerland Simon worked with Santiago Calatrava in Zürich on a number of his foreign projects before moving on to concentrate on his own business '' i.e. assisting others in bettering their essential non-technical skills of business - presenting and negotiating, managing teams, conflicts and cultures - the means by which all the technical skills are implemented. Simon is also a registered Commercial Mediator with the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators in London.