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Posts Tagged ‘Conflict Competence’

Mergers, Acquisitions and Conflict

Monday, March 26th, 2012

Despite the difficult economic climate major mergers have been in the news.  Several large pharmaceutical mergers have been in the news, and IBM’s recent effort to acquire Sun Microsystems captured headlines this past week.

Firms are very good about conducting due diligence around the financial aspects of such mergers.  As a new report from The Ayers Group in New York suggests, the firms do not spend enough time considering the people side of the equation.  The Ayers Report, entitled Harnessing the People Factor, indicates that less than 30 percent of deals result are successful in enhancing the values of the merged firms. The problem is lack of attention to dealing with the cultural issues that can keep people from working well together.

Conflict is one of the key factors that can undermine efforts to effectively integrate two companies.  Natural faultlines exist between members of integration teams from the two companies. (1) Research has shown that these differences can lead to destructive conflict and behavioral disintegration in the teams.  When this occurs integration of the companies slows down, competitors will begin to lure away talented employees, and the success of the merger is put in jeopardy.

While conflict is inevitable, it doesn’t have to lead to bad results.  To manage the conflicts effectively teams need to be able to create a climate that promotes open and honest discussion of issues.  This involves developing new attitudes towards conflict, developing trust among team members, working collaboratively, and enhancing the team emotional intelligence.  Once the right climate is established, team members need to use constructive communications techniques to make sure things stay on the right track.  This includes listening carefully, sharing thoughts and feelings, and collaborating to develop creative solutions to problems.

Integration teams can use these techniques to foster a more successful start to the merger.  The same approaches can be used more broadly as the merged company begins to execute its new business plans.

Craig Runde

(1) Li, J.T. and D.C. Hambrick, “Factional Groups: A New Vantage On Demographic Faultlines, Conflict and Disintegration in Work Teams,” Acacemy of Management Journal, 2005.

How We Describe Conflict

Monday, March 5th, 2012

When doing a program on conflict management, I’ll often ask people what words come to mind when they think about conflict.  Typically responses include: frustrating, stressful, anger, upset, fear, and anxiety.  Participants, when asked to characterize their responses, almost always describe them as negative.  At the same time they almost always give a few words that could be viewed as positive such as: opportunity, growth, and resolution.

From 2003-2005 we asked people being certified in the Conflict Dynamics Profile to share words that described conflict for them.  They shared over 170 words which depicted a wide range of attitudes towards conflict.  Most of them were negative but a number were positive.

List of Words Used to Describe Conflict:


acceptance always there ambivalence anger
angst annoying anxiety anxious
argue assertiveness attitude avoid
avoidance balance banter barriers
battle beneficial best solutions bogged down
bring it on build up calm cautious
challenge change chaos collaboration
comfort zone communication compatible complex
confrontation confusion control constructive
conundrum costly courage creative tension
creativity curious debate defense
delay destructive differences different opinion
difficult disagreement disappointment discomfort
discontent disharmony disruptive disturbing
disunity diversity draining dynamic
educate elevate emotional end
energizing engagement enlightening equality
essential exciting exhausting fascinating
favoritism fear fearful fight
focus freak-out fruitless frustration
fun growth grueling harmony
hate heat hide high energy
honesty hostility hurt feelings impediment
inevitable injury innovation instigator
intense interesting interpersonal intimidating
irritate justice leadership learning
legitimacy liberating listening loss of control
mad manageable messy misreading
misunderstanding mobilizing natural necessary
needs negotiation non-conformity obstinacy
opportunity out of control pain painful
peace perception personality perspective
persuasion pettiness positive possibility
problem solving progress relationships relief
resentment resignation resolution retaliation
revealing right/wrong risk risky
rough run from sad scary
searching signal solution status quo
stimulating stressful style success
synergy tension tough tricky
trust turmoil unavoidable uncertainty
uncomfortable uncooperative understanding violence
withdraw yelling


We encourage people to consider how their descriptions of conflict may influence the way they act when conflict emerges.  People who look at conflict as a negative thing often say that they tend to avoid dealing with it.  This is not a surprise given that people usually avoid negative things.

If you are able to see possible upsides of conflict, you may be more willing to deal with it when it occurs.  It is still necessary to learn effective conflict management techniques to address it effectively, but at least your attitudes may no longer get in your way of trying to manage it.

Polarization and Conflict

Tuesday, February 28th, 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.

Dealing with Longstanding Conflicts

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

In situations where a conflict has been going on for a long time, it is often because one or both parties have been avoiding a true resolution of the problem.  Whether it is because they don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, risk damaging the relationship, or are just plain fed up in dealing with an annoying issue, people often become complicit in an unacceptable situation because it seems easier than addressing it directly.  The truth of the matter, though, is that unresolved issues rarely go away by themselves.  Usually, they fester and get worse over time so the better approach is to deal with them openly, honestly, and as soon as possible to ensure the relationship doesn’t continue to deteriorate.


One of the first steps in addressing a longstanding conflict is to fully evaluate the situation---the background leading up to the conflict, previous conversations, your role in the conflict getting to the place it is today, etc.  Over time, you may have replayed the situation in your mind a thousand times, and it’s likely you’ve made the other person the villain and underplayed any part you may have had in the conflict.  It’s important to realize that in any conflict situation, both parties contribute to the misunderstanding although the contributions may not be of equal weight.  Acknowledging your own contribution to the problem is critical because it communicates to the other person it’s not just about him/her; it’s about you as well.  This, in turn, enables the other party to non-defensively do the same.  Then the problem becomes something more like a pattern you’ve both allowed to happen over time and one which you can now commit to change.


The second step is to plan how you’re going to get this relationship back on track.  Review in your mind what has transpired up to this point.  What did you do that seemed to work?  What kept you from communicating more honestly?  What thoughts and emotions did you experience?  What could you do differently this time?  What could you say to make it more “safe” for the other person?


In addition to these kinds of “content” issues, it’s also wise to plan from a logistical standpoint.  Do you want to communicate in person, over the phone, or by email?  When and where do you want to have this conversation?  Would it be best to invite the other person to lunch, or just have a private conversation in an office?  Should you describe what you’re thinking and ask the other person if he/she is willing to discuss it with you?  Would a third party be helpful?  Again, it’s best to plan out some of these details rather than just responding off the cuff.


Along these same lines, it’s good to practice the actual words you’re going to say and prepare for a myriad of different responses from the other person.  For instance, think about what emotions might arise from the situation.  What if the other person gets angry or cries?  What if he/she refuses to talk?  What are your options then?  Role playing some of these different scenarios helps lay the groundwork for a better conversation.



  • Keep in mind the costs of not addressing the conflict.  Strong relationships often evolve from tackling the tough issues and resolving them, not by avoiding them.
  • Be prepared to apologize for what you’ve done in the past that made the relationship difficult.  Apologies can be a great first step in moving the relationship forward.
  • Be patient.  Understand that the conflict has been going on for some time, and the other party may not immediately respond in the manner you’re expecting.  Allow for some initial defensiveness or confusion, but remain open for further dialogue.

The Use of Questioning During Conflict

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Conflicts often begin because people are wedded to their own positions and don’t want to take the time to truly understand someone else’s point of view.  In other words, we spend a lot of effort, time, and energy defending our own agenda or trying to convince other people to change their minds rather than creating a conversation where ideas are truly explored or illuminated.

 Effective questioning during a conflict can change the outcome dramatically because it

  • Promotes better listening
  • Deepens understanding of all the information being presented, and
  • Increases overall learning.


Several studies have demonstrated the importance of listening in handling conflicts because nothing makes a person feel more acknowledged, validated, or loved than really being listened to.  When people listen to us to really understand us rather than just for the purpose of articulating their next response, we feel as though our side of the story actually matters, it’s not all about their agenda, and they really care about what we think.

 What better way to prompt ourselves to listen than by asking a question?  Asking a thoughtful question automatically turns the conversation back in the direction of the other person.  Again, instead of advocating support for your own perspective, you’re now in the position of having to listen carefully to the answer, thus opening up the possibility of a follow-up question, and the dialogue continues.


One of the best benefits of asking questions during a conflict is that it shows the other person that you believe there are various ways of approaching the issue---that no one way is absolutely right.  Questioning demonstrates a level of openness and curiosity that is crucial to creating a “shared understanding.”  Imagine the different response you might get from saying, “You definitely should do…” to “I wonder what would happen if you…”.   Asking questions such as “Can you say more about how you see things?” or “Can you explain to me why this is important to you?” deepens understanding from both parties.


Finally, questioning leads to multiple exchanges and contributions from both sides, thereby enhancing the overall learning.  When people ask questions of one another and listen to each other’s responses, it deepens the exploration of the topic at hand and new meanings can emerge.  Whether the conversation ends in agreement or not, everyone comes away with new information and clarification.  Asking questions also keeps us from making faulty assumptions, which can immediately shut down further dialogue.


  • Ask open-ended questions that generate deeper dialogue.
  • Listen for the purpose of understanding, not to formulate your next response.
  • Approach the conversation with the intent to “learn” rather than “being right.”

Demeaning Others - An Active Destructive Behavior

Monday, February 6th, 2012


Have you ever been in a meeting when all of a sudden someone says something that has an edge to it that is directed towards you or another person?  It might not be something that is said – perhaps it is a gesture, like someone rolling their eyes at something you said or laughing at someone else’s argument.  Most people have experienced these kinds of behaviors, and it can make one feel very uncomfortable. In the Conflict Dynamics Profile (CDP) model, this type of behavior is called Demeaning Others.

Why Do People Act in Demeaning Ways

It is interesting that many people are not aware that they are behaving in a way that dismisses or diminishes someone else.  While there are certainly cases where people purposely put someone else down (often in an attempt to boost themselves), it is just as likely that people do not realize they are acting in this way.  Sometimes they will say something negative and only become aware of its toxic quality after they have spoken.

Often these demeaning behaviors arise from suppressed emotions.  A person will become upset about some issue and instead of sharing those feelings with the person with whom they are having the conflict they decide to keep the emotions to themselves. Rarely do the emotions go away just because the person is holding them inside.  The emotions tend to fester and grow over time.  Eventually, they leak out as demeaning behaviors.  Since the emotions can fester for some time, there is usually a period between the initial incident that provokes the emotion and the display of demeaning behaviors.  This make it more difficult and confusing for the person who is on the receiving end of these behaviors.

How to Reduce the Use of Demeaning Behaviors

Since the demeaning behaviors are often driven by underlying negative emotions that have simmered for some time, learning to recognize and address those emotions provides a key strategy for reducing demeaning behaviors.

Being aware of one’s emotional state is a key component of emotional intelligence.  The CDP helps people with this by helping them identify and explore their Hot Buttons.  These are typically behaviors of others that when encountered irritate or upset us.  By recognizing our Hot Buttons, we are less likely to be caught off guard when someone behaves in a way that we are aware upsets us.  This early warning measure allows us to be more aware when we are triggered so we can take steps to keep the emotions from getting out of control.

Once aware of the onset of emotions, a person can then use cooling techniques like centering or cognitive reappraisal to lower the intensity of those emotions.  They can also learn to use the CDP active constructive behavior of Expressing Emotions to share the way they are feeling with the other person.  By sharing how they feel with the other person, they escape the trap of suppressing the emotions which leads to them festering and eventually coming out in destructive ways. People are sometimes reluctant to express their emotions to another for fear of looking weak or perhaps of escalating the conflict.  By using specific techniques like the Situation, Behavior, and Impact (SBI) model used at the Center of Creative Leadership these problems can be overcome.

Generational Conflict

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

A couple of recent items caught our attention about generational conflict. Deanna Hartley addressed the subject in an article in the November issue of Talent Management entitled “How to Resolve Generational Conflicts in the Workplace.” In her article Ms. Hartley emphasized the misunderstandings that emerge when people from different generations make assumptions about one another and when they expect people from other generations to necessarily share their own values.

Dr. Rick Voyles presented on the subject at the Southeastern Summit on Conflict Resolution in Atlanta in September. In his talk Rick contrasted the values of people in the Boomer and Gen X generations. He showed how these values developed from the different situations people experienced in their formative years. He also explained how those value differences can be at the source of many conflicts.

The Millennial generation may be the most diverse. This group is accustomed to quick answers, a constant flow of information, new ideas and immediate gratification. These characteristics can conflict with those of the other generations. While these groups have the capacity to work very well together, the differences can be a hinderance. Awareness is a first step to uncovering ways to see differences as a potential strength as opposed to a stumbling block.

While generational conflict presents a new perspective on workplace issues, many of the approaches for addressing it are similar to those used with other forms of conflict. As Ms. Hartley mentions in her article, people need to take time to listen to one another in order to better understand the nature of their differences.

When members of teams coming from different generations find themselves in conflict, it is a good idea to slow things down and begin to listen more closely to one another. In fact, it is important for the team to develop norms for how they want to handle conflicts regardless of the source. People need to feel safe in discussing issues with one another. Spending time getting to know one another as people can help build trust and enable people to give one another the benefit of the doubt when differences are raised.

Spotlight on... Susan Gunn

Monday, January 30th, 2012

Name:   Susan Gunn
Title:    Owner
Company:    Working Dynamics
City:   Richmond, VA
Web site:
Phone:    804-353-9527
Years in this position:   13
Years in conflict training:  13

 What inspired you to pursue a career in coaching, training or consulting?

 I was working in the field of university career development in the early 1990’s when I became familiar with mediation. I became very excited about workplace mediation and its potential for leaders and teams. I started working then toward a career using mediation skills along with my counseling and professional development background. My actual move to owning my own conflict management business was a good eight years later after spending time building skills in workplace mediation and learning more through training classes and coursework.  By the time I formed my consulting business in 1999, I knew resolving workplace disputes would be part of my work going forward, but not the entire focus. I broadened the focus to include assessment, training, and coaching in order to work with leaders and teams helping them address conflict early and with confidence and skill.

 What do you like most about your career?

 Being able to work alongside others as they grow and learn is probably what I like most.  Whether I’m mediating, coaching, training, or consulting, I consider it an honor to be welcomed into others’ growth process. That aspect of my work is always gratifying. I also enjoy the independence and control that comes with running my own business.

 How do you measure your success? 

A couple of signs of professional success for me are the awareness my efforts have helped someone achieve their goals (awareness on my part and/or recognition from the individual) and knowing I’ve given my all on a difficult challenge. As a business owner, I feel successful if I see opportunities ahead and if I’m reaching the financial goals I’ve set for myself.

 How do you stay on top of your field? 

I try to take in as much new information on conflict as I can find time (reading, listening to speakers, conversations with colleagues, etc.). I’m always trying to learn new and more effective ways to deliver what I know and consider myself a continual learner in terms of being the best trainer and coach possible.

 What other resources do you recommend? (Books, magazines, web, etc.)

 I’m finding resources on the topics of mindfulness and practices that reduce stress interesting and ones my clients respond to. I find being able to help others be more aware in the moment and less reactive helps them. On my bedside table now are Man’s Search for Meaning (Viktor Frankl), Buddhism, Plain and Simple (Steve Hagen), Three Deep Breaths (Thomas Crum), and Conflict Management Coaching (Cinnie Noble).

 Tell us about a time/situation where you witnessed or were able to help an organization achieve a positive/constructive conflict resolution.

 I worked intensively with a hospital Surgical Services department for close to a year. At the start of the project, employees and leaders reported cliques, gossip, blaming, withholding information, abrasive comments, blow ups, resentment, and talking behind others backs. With increasing tension and mounting issues, the leadership team had become less confident and more reactive. The CDP (the CDP 360 and coaching for the leadership team and CDP-I and training for all team members) was the catalyst for understanding and culture change for this team. The work was intensive; the shift was gradual. At the end of the year, employees started handling conflicts with co-workers directly and leaders were visibly relaxed, confident, and reported fewer complaints, greater collaboration, and a decrease in tension.

 What has been most successful for you when selling CDP or BCC?

 I’m not usually successful selling a tool itself. I’m vastly more successful when I present a solution for a person or organization.  When a person or team is struggling with the ill-effects of conflict, I feel very confident recommending the CDP knowing the unique awareness and learning the CDP can provide for those who want a change. From my experience, the CDP along with coaching and/or training have been particularly helpful for persons, teams, and organizations that are conflict avoidant and want to gain the confidence and skills to engage constructively in conflict.

 What trends or changes are you seeing in workplace conflict? What do you think is the cause?

 Various factors we are all very familiar with – layoffs, more work for the remaining workers, unemployment, more pressure to produce/succeed, fear of losing one’s job, long-term economic stability, etc. – have put a tremendous amount of pressure on today’s workforce and leaders. We know the many negative impacts of this increased stress. One positive impact I think I’m seeing is leaders becoming more open about the presence of conflict in their workplaces. While the cost to the leader for putting his or her head in the sand and saying “we don’t have conflict here” might not have been great before, it surely is now. If today’s economic crisis and its many stressors result in just a few more leaders becoming more willing to discuss conflict in their organizations and address it, that is obviously a positive change.

 What do you think is the biggest mistake companies make when dealing with conflict?

 Companies make a huge mistake when they don’t anticipate conflict and have a plan in place for leaders and employees to respond to conflict skillfully and with confidence. All too often, companies are short sighted and wait until intervention is unavoidable and after a lot of damage has been done. Not preparing leaders and employees with self-awareness and skills to manage conflict they experience at work is a costly mistake for companies.

 If you could give companies one piece of advice regarding conflict resolution, what would it be?

 Consider how conflict fits with your organizational values and how it impacts your culture – how will it enhance your business and how can it hurt your company’s success? Then, look at how you can use that information to create a culture that encourages constructive conflict and next equip your employees with awareness and skills so they can use conflict for good.

Putting Out Fires

Friday, January 27th, 2012

 I’d rather run into a burning building than deal with conflict.  This is a reality for many of my fellow firefighters also.  To be fair, I should tell you that most firefighters would rather run into a burning building than do a lot of other things.  I’ll also set the record straight that risking injury and possible death as an option over dealing with conflict IS extremely excessive.  The simple point is that for many of us conflict is unpleasant so we would rather avoid it. 

Before learning effective ways of managing conflict, I would often avoid conflict and that only made things worse.  My memories of those early conflicts as a newly promoted Officer are still vivid even though they occurred about 15 years ago.  I felt so uncomfortable, had frequent headaches, an upset stomach, and truly felt helpless.  I am still shocked that my crew would blatantly break rules in front of me and even challenge me directly.  I now believe that they were just testing me to see how I would respond, which I have come to believe is a common team dynamic.  Many of my peers have shared similar stories of being challenged and they often responded by avoiding it or by lashing out, which also makes things worse.

Dealing with conflict is similar to a building on fire.  Like conflict, fires are much easier to put out while they are still small.  When avoided, both continue to grow causing greater destruction.  When fires reach flashover, which is an extremely dangerous stage of the fire where everything ignites at once, everything is lost and there are no survivors.  If we were going to continue with the comparisons, a relevant phrase regarding this stage of conflict might be ‘going Postal’.  The consequences of conflict can be as dangerous as a fire.  

It has been said that Fire Departments don’t hire heroes; we train them to be heroes.  As a whole, we do a pretty good job preparing our firefighters and Fire Officers to fight fires and save lives.  But like most organizations, we needed to do a better job in preparing our current and future leaders to deal with conflict effectively.  With that in mind, we reached out to and collaborated with the Center for Conflict Dynamics at Eckerd College.  As a result, a one day program utilizing the Conflict Dynamics Profile and realistic role playing scenarios was developed for current and future leaders.  Over a hundred firefighters and Fire Officers throughout Florida have participated in the program.

We followed up with many of the participants and were consistently told that they were able to utilize what they had learned.  For example, participants improved their ability to control their tempers using delayed responding and breathing techniques before engaging constructively in conflict.  Most importantly they learned how to listen to the other persons’ perspective.  All of this is evidence of the program’s success.  We’re not going to stop running into burning buildings, but it won’t be because we are trying to avoid conflict.


Randy Keirn, MPA, BSN, EMT-P

District Chief - Lealman Fire District
President - Fully Involved Consulting, Inc
2010 Florida State Fire Instructor of the Year

Leadership, Conflict, and Authenticity

Friday, January 27th, 2012

 As the 2012 election gets closer, many political commentators have identified “authenticity” as a critical attribute for potential candidates.  When it comes to leadership and conflict, what is “authenticity,” and why is it so important?

 The dictionary describes “authenticity” as “genuine” or “real.”  In other words, it means being true to who you really are, knowing your values, and living them out consistently.  In a world filled with new media and widespread access to data, people are constantly being bombarded with all kinds of messages.  It’s no wonder everyone craves knowing what is really true and trustworthy about a person.

 This is particularly the case when dealing with colleagues.  Authenticity is the cornerstone of establishing trust in any relationship, and trust affects everything from communication to productivity.  Without it, relationships break down, and collaboration becomes impossible.

 When conflict is involved, it’s important that you engage with the other person in a way that is consistent with your personality and character.  Ideally, you will have had a pattern of integrity over the years where being direct, open, and straightforward is not only accepted, but welcomed.  Don’t be afraid to acknowledge your weaknesses; a certain amount of transparency and vulnerability often deepens a relationship rather than having the opposite effect.  Also, understanding yourself, knowing what makes you tick, and communicating to the other person what you really think rather than what you think they want to hear will go a long way in solving the problem at hand and establishing a trusting relationship for the future.

 Tips for Ensuring Authenticity During a Conflict

  • Know yourself (values, passion, purpose) and behave consistently.
  • Listen to others, be attentive to their side of the issue, and pursue connection on multiple levels.
  • Show appreciation and respect even though you might disagree.
  • Be responsive to feedback, and always leave the door open for further dialogue.

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