Transforming Conflict into Progress

Conflict resolution is the issue that my Vistage members, independent of industry or profession, rank as their number one priority. And with good reason. Conflict is a huge barrier to real success. I believe that business leaders can make the biggest impact on their bottom line with the least amount of investment through learning and implementing effective conflict resolution techniques.

No one knows this better than Ken Clark. He is an expert Vistage Speaker, CEO of Chenal Family Therapy, and licensed therapist. With a reputation for extensive experience bringing collaboration to high-conflict environments, Ken has a unique ability to tap into the human elements behind complex situations and quickly move toward effective solutions.

“We want to learn to create forward motion when there is a logjam, without somebody having to accept blame. We can create a direction out of quagmires, out of being stuck, without someone being wrong or worse or first. If we can do conflict better, faster, with less drag, less scar tissue, less negative memory of the last fight, and with better hope or trust about the next conflict, then we impact the bottom line in companies. We are not just trying to solve the next conflict; we are trying to change the level of trust within relationships, in life and work.”

Conflict versus Communication

Ken believes we don’t have a communication problem in our companies in the 21st century. Actually, from a communication theory point of view—sender/receiver, channel/message—the message itself is often getting through very clearly. Our message—usually some level of disgust or disdain or revulsion—is registering very well with the listener.

We have a conflict problem, and the reason for this is that most of us are not taught or prepared to deal with conflict. Ken cites that “60% of employees have never received any conflict training (besides family of origin).” Most employees simply aren’t equipped to deal with the inevitable conflicts that arise at work.

The cost of being unprepared to deal with conflict is high.

  • 25% of employees miss work to avoid conflict
  • 15% of resignations cite conflict as the reason for their decision

“Technology and the environment we live in now have made us more avoidant than ever before. It is easier than ever to quit a difficult relationship and find a new one.”

The same is true within the work environment.

Conflict, not communication, is the biggest contributor to a winning or losing culture. To be successful in business, we have to learn how to deal with conflict.

The Root of Conflict

Conflict stems from not feeling heard or feeling that the other person doesn’t care. The impact of this shouldn’t be underestimated; our brains are designed to seek connection. When we don’t feel that the other person is listening, we often respond by getting louder, speaking in hyperbole, triangulation (bringing in other people into the conflict), and/or reacting passively aggressively. None of these actions will bring us to a connection or establish that we matter to one another, but we often don’t know any other way of being.

Quick tip: Watch the video The Still Face Experiment to understand the depth of our innate need for connection.

With our current ineptitude in dealing with conflict, it is often our attempt to deal with the problem that makes it worse. This stems from us treating symptoms, not causes.

“What if the quest for conviction, not poor communication, is the problem?”

Four Easy Tools

These tools will not only solve conflict but will allow for trust and create the possibility of rewriting the pattern that people use to predict what will happen. That is the key to authentic change.

1. “Squint to See”
To understand how to deal with conflict it is essential that you understand the drivers of all complaints. All complaints in the human experience can be categorized as one of three negative emotions: hurt, fear, or need. Most conflict is driven by the urge to resolve one of these three.

    1. Hurt (H) is a past tense measure and can be summarized as expectation minus reality.
    2. Fear (F) is a future tense measure, and it is the prediction/anticipation of injury or hurt based on a pattern of experiences.
    3. Need (N) is a categorical survival-based checkbox. It must be met for the person to be realized and happy.

Hurt, fears, and needs (HFN) manifest as symptoms, and if we address those symptoms instead of the causes, we miss the mark, and the problem continues.

When someone brings you a complaint or a demand, consider asking “Can you tell me what it is that you are hurt by, afraid of or need?” before you try to address or solve anything.

Quick tip:Ken believes that all services or products address a HFN. Ask yourself and your team, what hurt, fear, or need are we solving for?

2. Four Elements of Healing (MVEP)

To be able to de-escalate any conflict, the person with the complaint needs to know that:

    1. I am heard (mirror)
    2. I matter (value)
    3. I’m not wrong (empathize)
    4. I can hope for better (problem solve)

Mirroring (I am heard) is often taught as repeating the details of what has been said. Be direct and focus on the emotional language of the underlying problem, not the details. When presented with a complaint, mirroring emotional language would sound like, “I hear that you are hurt (or afraid, or need x).”

Value (I matter). Most complaints are nothing more than compliments and confusion in disguise.” Instead of combatting the details of a complaint with your details, consider validating that the person matters, regardless of whether you agree.

Empathize (I am not wrong). You can empathize with the feeling of the complaint without agreeing with them. The goal is to empathize with the HFN, not the details.

Problem-solving (I can hope for better) is a commitment to asking how to address the HFN instead of guessing. It is an invitation to collaboration.

Quick tip: Once you have gone through mirroring, validating, and empathizing, problem-solving is a question about what you can do to address their hurt, fear, or need. “What can I consider doing to help you feel less hurt/less afraid/get your need met?”

3. Off-Ramps

The scared brain does not listen or learn very well. One way to put the brain in a position to be open to engagement is to initiate the conversation by establishing that the person is safe (introduce the conversation by saying, “This is a serious but survivable conversation”) and offer them the opportunity to consent when they will have the conversation.

4. Gratitude

Systematizing gratitude decreases the severity and duration of conflict. Gratitude helps shift our reactions from the reptilian part of our brain to the frontal cortex and can work effectively even amid conflict.

Quick tip: Ritualize expressions of gratitude at work! Schedule them weekly, incorporate them into meetings, and make them a standing practice. This normalizes the regular expression of gratitude and makes it more likely to happen.

Conflict is inevitable, and with the right tools, it can be a rich contributor to culture and business success. I strongly invite you to consider implementing these tools.