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Conflict Resolution

Alternatives to Conflict

Mike Scantlebury asked:

n’t any. Okay, whoah, I know that’s not what you wanted to hear. If you’re reading this article, then you’re looking for someone to tell you that all you have to do is (i), (ii) and (iii) and you’ll never have a problem again. Sorry, I don’t believe that. I think conflict and dispute is as natural as seaweed, and as common as flies in the summertime. The only thing you can do – if you want to avoid it altogether – is agree with everything anyone else says, ever, and all the time. Failing that, I mean if you actually have an opinion about anything, or a personality, then you have to face up to the fact that there is always going to be some sort of difference of opinion going on in your life. The thing that you might want to do is learn how to mitigate its impact, and look for ways to resolve your disputes, before they get lethal.

The main thing you can do, for starters, is actually work out what is going on. It’s true. This is the single most important thing in any dispute, because, for some inexplicable reason, when human beings conflict, the truth usually flies out the window. Stop, ask yourself, ‘What’s happening?’ Then ask the person you have the problem with. You might be surprised to hear that they see things differently. Ah, if it’s simply a matter of differing viewpoints, then maybe you can allow yourselves, both of you, differing points of view. Sort that out first. ‘What is the problem here?’ is a good place to start.

As a help to answering that question, there are four main issues that are usually behind a conflict, one way or the other. The first is envy, a vicious vice. When I found myself arguing with colleagues in the office a few years ago, it took me quite a while to get them to admit what the real problem was. When it came out, it was a shock. The dispute started the day the boss bought me a nice, new, shiny computer. They were jealous. After that, they found all manner and means to criticise me, but basically, they wanted a new computer too. It was envy, plain and simple.

The second is exaggeration. One time, I was told off for being rude about a funding organisation our company was working with. My boss told me that ‘3 people’ had heard me ‘ranting and raving’ at a training session, in front of several other organisations and public officials. I thought back. Strange, I couldn’t remember it at all. I tried and tried, and eventually came up with the fact that I had made a comment about how difficult it was to get funding these days, and how complicated the forms were, which we were required to fill in. Was that ‘ranting’? It’s easy to say, and grows every time the story is reported, but the fact was, it was a gross exaggeration. Fortunately, there were witnesses. It wasn’t like that at all, they said. It was an exaggeration, they told the big boss, and the issue died right there.

The third issue is simmering resentment. This is a toughie, as it’s something you often can’t see. It’s there, in the background, for so long, that you usually think that there’s no such thing, it doesn’t exist. If someone points it out to you, you laugh dismissively. If you confront anyone about having it, they fob it off. But it can be there, sometimes for years, until it literally explodes, taking you with it. My example is from an employment situation again. I had been told to think of ways to promote our organisation, publicise it, and get it out there and in the News. My idea was to follow the lead of sports teams and buy ourselves a mascot. For reasons too long to explain, it ended up with me purchasing a giant squirrel suit. It went down fine, and was particularly popular with the children; wherever we went, kids would gather round, and that meant the parents would follow. We got to speak to hundreds of people, using that squirrel, and I counted it as one of the best things I did in that job. My boss didn’t agree. He didn’t say anything at the time, as is often the case, but when we had a row, fifteen months later, he brought it up. You know, like ‘And what about the squirrel? What a waste of money!’ Why hadn’t he mentioned it before? Why hadn’t he complained? Because he couldn’t. I had done precisely what he asked for, provided publicity. Unfortunately, it wasn’t his idea and he didn’t like it. It just took over a year for me to find that out. What was the issue that brought it into the open? I don’t remember. What I do recall is the vehemence with which he finally nailed me on the mascot. His resentment had had many months to build up, and when it came out, it was dangerous.

The fourth and final issue that lies behind many disputes is what we sometimes title a ‘personality clash’. It’s when one person does something one way, you do it another. My example? I sent out some letters to customers. I wanted to make them friendly, showing us to be uncritical and approachable. My efforts were called ‘unprofessional’ and my boss ripped them up in disgust, substituting her own letters for mine. Couldn’t we say, ‘You say potato, I say potah-toe’, well no, not in this case. Of course, that was an employment situation and then resolution is fairly easy: the boss wins. If you don’t like the system, you walk. That’s one way to resolve issues – the person with the biggest stick wins. An alternative is to leave before you’re kicked out. Same result: you’re not there any more to argue.

My point is simple: in order to get to that point, a resolution, you really need to know what’s going on, and my checklist above is a reasonable place to start. If you can understand why the person in front of you is all red-faced and seething, you have more chance of achieving a solution that you can live with than if you really don’t know ‘what all the fuss is about’. Ignorance never does go down well, especially when someone wants to argue with you.

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