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Archive for May, 2012

Criticizing Your Performance in Conflict

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

One of the passive destructive behaviors measured by the Conflict Dynamics Profile (CDP) instrument is called Self-Criticizing.  This occurs when one obsesses over something they may have said or done in a conflict.  The CDP measures how frequently a person uses this response to conflict.  A little reflection about how you handled a conflict can probably be helpful by enabling you to learn from your mistakes.  At the same time focusing on your mistakes by going over them time and again in your mind can sap your energy and prevent you from moving forward.  How can you find the right balance?

No one is able to handle conflict perfectly all of the time.  At times we all make mistakes, get angry, forget to consider the other person’s perspective, avoid talking with the other person, or say inconsiderate things.  We are human – it is natural. So, it can be very helpful to review your actions in conflict setting. Whenever you want to improve your performance in any situation it is helpful to assess or evaluate what you did and how well it worked.  When there are things that didn’t go well, you can identify them and work on improving the next time. In conflict there will always be a next time so you don’t have to worry about getting practice.

So a little bit of reflection can be quite helpful.  The problem comes when reflection turns into obsession.  Many people have a hard time letting go of conflict and moving on to new things.  Sometimes this comes in the form of being overly self-critical about how they jandles themselves in the conflict.  They may think over and over about something they said or something they forgot to do.  In effective, they beat themselves up about not managing a conflict well.  This can prolong the emotional distress related to the conflict.

Psychologists describe this process as rumination.  Cows and other animals that chew their food over and over and called ruminates.  People who in effect “chew” over their conflict performance time and again are ruminating on the issue.

Recent research by Kevin Ochsner at Columbia University (Ochsner, 2005) has shown that using reappraisal techniques can help lessen the distress of ruminative thinking.  Rather that focusing on all your mistakes, take a fresh look at th conflict interaction to see it in a bigger context.  What things did you do well?  How did the other person seem to react to your positive behaviors?  With respect to things that you believe you could have done better, in what ways would you improve your responses next time?  What strengths do you have that could support your use of more constructive approaches.

Taking a new look at the situation, one that emphasizes more positive interpretations of what happened and seeks to build improved responses in the future, rather than wallowing in perceived deficiencies in the past, will help you overcome overly self-critical thoughts.

Developing a Positive Conflict Culture

Monday, May 21st, 2012

When discussing organizational culture, people often talk in terms of task and relationships.  That is, how does the work get done around here?  How do we implement plans and evaluate performance?  How are relationships handled?  How do we motivate employees?  Task and relationships are important issues when considering the conflict culture of an organization as well.  The “How do we manage conflicts?” question affects everything from productivity to interpersonal interactions.  This article explores tips for cultivating a positive conflict culture.

Look beyond traditional views of organizational conflict.  Traditionally, organizations have viewed conflict as a negative force which needs to be eliminated by imposing more structure or uniformity.  Today, though, successful organizations are more likely to embrace diverging views, realizing that they can lead to increased creativity, opportunities to improve, and greater productivity.  Rather than eliminating conflict, the goal is to better manage the conflict that inevitably comes with the open exchange of ideas.

Establish ground rules.   Having a set of guidelines as to how you’re going to resolve differences is very beneficial.  An example might be “We listen to each other without interrupting.”  Publish these guidelines and post them in a visible spot in the office.  In their book, Building Conflict Competent Teams, Craig Runde and Tim Flanagan suggest eight simple steps to this process:

  • Review the team’s mission and context.
  • Discuss the desired climate.
  • Brainstorm suggestions for creating the climate.
  • Combine similar suggestions.
  • Prioritize suggestions.
  • Behaviorize the remaining suggestions.
  • Record and distribute the list.
  • Review and finalize agreements.

Be proactive.   One of the most damaging responses in the face of conflict is avoidance or some other form of non-action.  Nothing frustrates people more than when a conflict comes to light, and nothing is ever addressed.  Even worse, the conflict may be acknowledged, but “stalling” tactics such as collecting more data or saying “it’s under consideration” are used.  When problems arise, don’t wait to take tangible steps to resolve them, particularly if you are the boss.


Be aware of clues that conflict is not being managed well.  Many organizations struggle with ongoing issues that lead to conflict:  limited resources, constant change, multiple communication styles, etc.  What differentiates organizations, though, is how they manage these common problems.  When you start to see the effects of unresolved conflict on a continual basis such as reduced collaboration, low morale, frequent complaining/arguments, and lack of productivity, it is time to intervene before these responses become systemic.


Model positive conflict behaviors.  Of course it is essential that the senior executives in an organization model constructive behaviors when dealing with conflict because these people of influence set the tone for the entire organization, but it’s equally important that all employees buy into the “way we do things around here.”  Everything, including the daily routines, the rewards systems, the power structures, and the communication pathways, should reflect that differences are valued and respected here.  The Conflict Dynamics Profile®, an assessment tool that examines conflict behaviors, lists seven Constructive Behaviors scales that are critical for effective conflict resolution: Perspective Taking, Creating Solutions, Expressing Emotions, Reaching Out, Reflective Thinking, Delay Responding, and Adapting.  These kinds of constructive behaviors should be embraced throughout an organization.

Encourage humor.  With the ever increasing demands on today’s employees, work environments can be incredibly serious.  The chances of making mistakes or having a short fuse on any given day multiply.  Do your best to lighten things up when appropriate.  Having a little fun with your colleagues can foster connectivity and a common desire to work through tough issues amicably.

Polarization and Conflict

Monday, May 14th, 2012

During recent months heated exchanges that have been highlighted in the media have led some to describe a “coarsening” of our national discourse. The conflicts seem to point to polarization that could make collaboration unachievable.

In Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader, Tim Flanagan and Craig Runde introduced the concept of “intensity levels” of conflict.  On the lower end differences and misunderstandings are part of our normal experience and can be overcome by taking time to listen carefully to one another.  When these are not managed they can grow into disagreements which require more effort to resolve.

When conflict is avoided or concerns of others are ignored, conflicts can rise to the level of discord.  At this level conflict spills over from the original issue and begins to affect other interactions.  If this continues, it can turn into polarization which is characterized by severe negative emotions and behaviors and little hope of reconciliation.  At that point people are no longer willing to listen to understand one another.  Relationships are broken.

Has the country reached the polarization level?  The answer is not an easy one.  A large part of the population is still quite pragmatic and yearns for solutions to their real life problems more than ideological victories.  At the same time growing numbers of people, stressed by economic and social factors, are taking more strident stands.  The problem is not that they have strong feelings about issues, but rather that they are often unwilling to listen to those who have different views about these issues.  Differences are seen in terms of  a zero sum game – one side wins and one side loses.  So everyone gets busy trying to win.  This may include trying to disparage the other side’s position.  It rarely includes trying to understand it.

The media often focuses on the more sensationalized aspects of the conflicts which tends to make people dig in even harder.  Politicians often play into the conflicts and try to use partisan approaches to score points rather than find common ground.

At the same time there are many of all political persuasions who still seek collaborative solutions.  They recognize that there is more to gain from working together to find creative solutions to the issues raised by our differences.

Recognize common interests.  Rigorously debate issues of difference.  Develop creative solutions.  These approaches have served the country well for over 200 years.  They can serve us just as well today.

Craig Runde and Patricia Viscomi

Conflict, Emotions, and Resilience

Monday, May 7th, 2012

When we ask people to describe conflict, they often use terms like stress or frustration. It is clear that conflict is trying for many people.  Conflict often leads to negative emotions which themselves can contribute to stress.  They also make it more difficult to use constructive responses to conflict.

The Conflict Dynamics Profile (CDP) puts a lot of emphasis on the emotional elements of conflict. It measures hot buttons – behaviors in others that cause us to become upset.  The CDP also looks at ways that people respond to emotional upset.  It measures the degree to which they hide, express, or act out emotions. The CDP helps people understand what triggers them in the first place, as well as how they manage the emotions once they occur.

New measures are emerging to help people deal with their emotions more effectively.  These include the use of reappraisal and reframing to help lessen reactions caused by particular interpretations of the facts surrounding a conflict.  They also involve the use of centering or mindfulness techniques to help disengage from cycles of negative thoughts and emotions.

One particular approach to managing the emotional side of conflict is coming from a field called positive psychology.  One finding from this field is that positive emotions can help serve as antidotes to negative ones, something of particular interest in conflict settings.  In now seems that positive emotions may also increase our resiliency and help us rebound from the stress caused by conflicts.

An article entitled Happiness Unpacked: Positive Emotions Increase Life Satisfaction by Building Resilience appears in the June, 2009 issue of the journal Emotion.  In the article, five researchers present results about a study they did looking at connections between positive emotions and resilience.  In particular, they found that positive emotions seem to increase people’s ego resilience, which in turn can help them better cope with stressors like conflict.

Growing evidence shows that cultivating positive emotions can play an important role in improving your ability to respond well to conflict and to help manage the stresses it brings.

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