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Turning Conflicts Into Gold

Make the most of any workplace disagreement with these 10 conflict management tips.

We've all experienced conflicts that ended with disaster, but have you ever had a conflict with a friend or co-worker that ended on a truly positive note? Maybe a life lesson was learned or you felt a renewed sense of commitment to each other. Clearing the air can let you start over with a clean slate. Typically, though, before you can give your relationship this breath of fresh air, some very uncomfortable conversations need to take place.

Let me tell you a story about three women entrepreneurs fighting over a lemon. The first woman says the lemon was left to her in a will; the second woman says she has a bill of sale for the lemon; the third says the lemon was grown on land she owns. The women know that if they go to court there'll likely be a clear winner and a clear loser based on a judge's interpretation of who has the legal right to the lemon. Compromise would have them cut the lemon in thirds.

Sometimes compromise is a good option, but in this story, the women are willing to go beyond compromise and sit down and really talk to each other. They find that one woman wants the lemon seeds so that she can plant a lemon tree; another wants the rind so she can make some lemon cakes; and one woman wants the juice so she can open up a lemonade stand. Only by having an open and honest conversation can the women reach a resolution that gives each of them what they most want.

Conflicts as Catalyst
Basically, there are two different kinds of conflicts: task conflicts and emotional conflicts. Task conflicts center on what to do or how to do something. These conflicts often act as catalysts, motivating and inviting us to explore our differences. When we set out to resolve our task conflicts by engaging in dialogue and brainstorming, we're often able to figure out the best ways to achieve common goals or reach wise decisions.

Emotional conflicts--or personality clashes--are the result of psychological dynamics that operate underneath the surface. These are the conflicts that occur when one or both parties feel trivialized or devalued. Often, task and emotional conflicts will occur together or a task conflict can become misinterpreted and inflamed, creating suspicion, competition and emotional conflict.

The good news is that you can resolve even the nastiest of conflicts if both of you are willing to come to the table. Here is my 10-step plan to turn your conflicts into gold:

  1. Prepare. Make some notes about the situation and your feelings. Write about where you are, where you want to be and how you might get there.
  2. Call a truce. Be willing to come to the table and stay there. The other side will come if your message is, "I truly want to find a solution that works for both of us." If you can't carry the message, find someone who can intervene on your behalf and get you both to the table.
  3. Set the stage. Sit down at a time when you're both clear-headed and able to give this important conversation the time and energy it deserves.
  4. Speak from the heart. Let go of blame. Instead, focus on finding a solution that works for both of you. This is collaboration.
  5. Listen, listen, listen. Listen as if you're an outside observer with no prior knowledge of the situation. Twenty years in the mediation business has taught me that there are at least two sides to every story. You may be surprised when you hear the rest of the story.
  6. Give yourself time to think, process the information and cool down.
  7. Define the emotions. At the root of almost every human conflict, be it two kids in the schoolyard or two nations at war, someone feels dismissed, discounted, disenfranchised or disrespected. Sometimes, just defining your emotion and realizing that you both feel the same way is enough to resolve your dispute.
  8. Be willing to apologize. The closer the relationship, the more likely you are to have stepped on each other's toes. If you can't bring yourself to apologize for anything specific, at least apologize for the distress the other side has been living with and anything you did to contribute to it.
  9. Don't leave conflicts unresolved. An agreement to disagree is resolution. Leaving the conflict open sets you up for future fights.
  10. If all else fails, hire a professional. Often, an outside opinion sheds light on your blind spots and can help you reach an agreement. Consider bringing in a mediator when the relationship is important.
Elinor Robin, "The Relationship Mediator," has more than 18 years of experience in mediation while working within the public and private sectors.
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