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DEFINING CONFLICT COMPETENCE

Conflict competence is the ability to develop and use cognitive, emotional, and behavioral skills that enhance productive outcomes of conflict while reducing the likelihood of escalation or harm. The results of conflict competence include improved quality of relationships, creative solutions, and lasting agreements for addressing challenges and opportunities in the future. As with all competencies, people can learn ways to improve, change, and develop.

We believe that those with a keen sense of self awareness are well positioned to develop conflict competence. This requires honesty and objectivity. It requires seeking feedback from others. We recommend using assessment instruments for a thorough analysis.

It is also helpful to understand how conflict begins and unfolds.  Cognitive understanding of the “mechanics” of conflict can help to demystify the impact of conflict. In addition, preparation for conflict is critical. In almost all cases, we find that those who are best prepared for conflict have the best outcomes, the fewest issues, and the most satisfying relationships with their conflict partners.

Most importantly, we believe that developing skills, learning mental models, and applying basic principles are the keys to developing conflict competence. Our model is simple and involves three key steps—cooling down, slowing down, and engaging constructively. We will address the components of the model fully in the pages to follow. In short though, the model suggests that those who deal well with emotions, are mindful of the ramifications of conflict, and use effective skills during conflict have the best chance of productive outcomes.

Ten Principles of Conflict Competence for Individuals, Teams, and Organizations

Conflict competence applies to individuals, teams and organizations. It is relevant at work, home, and in community settings. The following principles capture the key elements of conflict competence and can be used to frame effective training efforts.

  1. Conflict is inevitable and can lead to positive or negative results depending on how it is handled.

When we talk with people, they readily admit that conflict is inevitable. Their life experience has confirmed that when people interact with one another their different perspectives and needs lead to conflicts. They are keenly aware of the negative aspects of conflict but less so about its potential benefits.

  1. While people generally see conflict as negative and prefer to avoid it, better results can emerge from engaging it constructively.

Research in organizational conflict has identified various types of conflict which lead to different outcomes. Two important types include task conflict which focuses on resolving the issues that stem from differences and relationship conflict that emerges when people are more interested in placing blame than they are solving problems. Task conflict can lead to creative solutions and improved decisions, whereas relationship conflict almost always leads to interpersonal tension and poorer performance. People have more experience with relationship conflict and as a consequence see conflict as a negative to be avoided. This often leads them to respond ineffectively and guarantees that they experience the dysfunctions that come with that type of conflict. When they are able to engage conflict effectively though, they are more likely to attain the benefits that can come from task conflict.

  1. In order to overcome reluctance to address conflict, people need to believe it is important to do so—thus recognizing the value of managing conflict effectively is critically important.

Motivation is as important as knowledge in developing conflict competence. Changing established beliefs and patterns of behavior is difficult and unless people see value in doing so it won’t happen. Helping them understand the benefits that emerge from managing conflict effectively is critical in providing the rationale and impetus to undertake this work.

  1. Individual conflict competence involves developing cognitive, emotional, and behavioral skills that enable one to cool down, slow down and engage conflict constructively.

When faced with conflict, people respond in a variety of ways. They think about what is happening. They experience emotional reactions that are influenced by the ways they view and interpret the conflict. They also take action to address the concerns that the conflict raises. In order for a person to be able to deal effectively with conflict, they need to be able to improve their cognitive, emotional and behavioral skills so they can cool down, slow down, and engage the matter constructively.

  1. Cognitive skills include developing self-awareness about their current attitudes and responses to conflict and an understanding of its basic dynamics.

As with most leadership skills, self-awareness plays an important role in becoming more effective in dealing with conflict. This includes an understanding of how people currently view conflict because their attitudes can affect their responses to it. Self-awareness also involves understanding what triggers a person in the first place as well as how they respond when conflict emerges. This awareness allows them to leverage effective responses and at the same time work on improving areas where they are using ineffective behaviors. This development work plays out better when people recognize some of the fundamental dynamics of the conflict process.

  1. Emotional skills include understanding one’s emotional responses to conflict, regulating those responses to attain and maintain emotional balance, understanding and managing the emotions of one’s conflict partners, and when necessary slowing down to allow extra time to cool down.

In order to be able to use constructive behavioral responses to conflict, a person first needs to be able to manage his emotional responses. This allows him to become curious and curiosity is such a key factor in engaging one’s conflict partner constructively. Conflict is all about emotion and being able to manage one’s emotions provides a foundation from which to choose and use constructive behavioral responses.

  1. Behavioral skills include engaging constructively by understanding others’ perspectives, emotions, and needs; sharing one’s own thoughts, feelings and interests; collaborating to develop creative solutions to issues; and reaching out to get communications restarted when they have stalled.

Considerable research and publishing have been done in the field of conflict and there is considerable agreement about the kinds of behaviors that work well to resolve conflicts. These include listening to understand how other people see an issue, sharing one’s own perspectives, working together to develop effective solutions to problems and keeping communications going. When these behaviors can be used, conflict can move in more productive directions. Of course, it can be a challenge to use these behaviors. If it were simple, people would already handle conflicts better.

  1. Engaging constructively also involves reducing or eliminating the use of destructive behaviors characterized by fight or flight responses to conflict.

One of the reasons that responding constructively can be such a challenge is that people are more likely to default to destructive fight or flight behaviors, either because these are the kinds of responses they have learned to use or because they are upset and turn to reactive behaviors in order to protect themselves. Reducing the use of these kinds of responses depends in large part on developing and practicing new, more constructive approaches and on regulating emotional reactions to conflict.

  1. In team settings, conflict competence includes creating the right climate to support the use of the cool down, slow down, and engage constructively model among teammates so they can have open and honest discussions of issues.  Creating the right climate includes developing trust and safety, promoting collaboration, and enhancing team emotional intelligence.

In order to manage conflict effectively team members need to be able to discuss issues openly and honestly. When they can robustly debate issues without turning a task focused conflict into one involving relationship conflict, they can develop better, more creative solutions. This is not easy to do and requires developing norms that produce the right climate for managing conflict constructively. This includes changing attitudes about conflict so that it not just something to avoid. It also means creating a safe environment where team members trust that what they say won’t be used against them. Working together with team spirit produces collaborative effort that can enable people to give others the benefit of the doubt when conflict emerges. Managing emotions is important in teams settings as well as in individual contexts because emotions are contagious and if not addressed can spread tension throughout the team. Team members also need to use constructive behaviors when addressing conflicts in order to keep a solution- oriented focus to their discussions.

  1. In organizational contexts, conflict competence involves creating a culture that supports the cool down, slow down, and engage constructively model.  This includes aligning mission, policies, training programs, performance standards, and reward structures to reinforce the conflict competence model.  It also includes creating integrated conflict management systems to support these cultural changes.

In order to be conflict competent an organization needs for its leaders, managers, supervisors, and employees to be individually conflict competent. At the same time it needs to align its conflict management processes with its mission, values, policies, performance standards, and reward structure in order to reinforce the kind of conflict behaviors it wants its personnel to use with each other and with its vendors and customers. This involves creating systems to reinforce its conflict model and to provide multiple avenues for employees to use to address conflicts, preferably at the lowest possible level at the earliest possible time.

 Individual Conflict Competence Model

Our model of individual conflict competence looks at cognitive, emotional, and behavioral aspects of how people respond to conflict. Key elements of the model are shown in Figure 1.1.

Figure 1.1      

Cool Down relates to strategies to help regulate emotions so a person can maintain or regain emotional balance before proceeding further. If you are upset your cognitive faculties are impaired and it is easy to slip into use of destructive behaviors. So a key first step is to make sure that your emotions are managed effectively. Since emotions can come and go rather quickly, it may be necessary to cool down several times during a conflict.

Slow Down involves developing a strategy for what to do when Cooling Down is not working. Strong emotions can be challenging, and despite our best efforts there will be times when our efforts to calm down will not be entirely effective. In these cases it is important to have ways of being able to slow things down. Taking a time out to enable your emotions to calm down is way better that going too far and saying something you will later regret. These comments that are accompanied by having your foot in your mouth usually escalate the conflict and prove very hard to undo.

Once you have used Cool Down and Slow Down to allow you time to gain a more balanced state, you can then move on to engage the other person using constructive behaviors.

 Engage Constructively

The key behaviors associated with the engage constructively part of the Individual Conflict Competence Model are reaching out, perspective taking/listening for understanding, sharing thoughts and feelings, and collaborating to create solutions.                                                                                                            

Reaching Out is a behavior described in the Conflict Dynamics Profile. It involves working with the other person either at the very start of conflict to get communications moving or later on to get things back on track.

Perspective Taking and Listening for Understanding involve listening for how the other person sees the situation, using empathy to understand how the other person is feeling, and asking about what they want. Through this process you can develop new insights about the conflict and help lower tensions.

Sharing Your Thoughts and Feelings involves telling the other person how you see the situation, how you feel about it, and what you want for yourself and the other person.

Collaborate to Create Solutions involves trying to find answers to the issues raised by the conflict that will work for both parties. It includes reflecting on the merits of alternative solutions, brainstorming with the other person to develop new approaches, and remaining flexible so you can make the best out of whatever solution is devised.