Communication skills

Conflict management techniques: What NOT to do

- March 29, 2010 3 MIN READ

I’m never short of an opinion, so when my forthright comments in a recent board meeting elicited a response that equated to “Shut up, Buttercup, and respect your elders”, my blood boiled.

Luckily, being as outspoken as I am, I’ve had a few opportunities to learn conflict management techniques and what not to do in a situation like this. Try them next time you’re fuming.

Don’t let your emotions speak for you

If I’d let rip with the words I was screaming in my head during that meeting, all anyone there would have heard would have been my feelings, red and raw. Plus, I would’ve had to watch them wipe spittle from their eyes. Yuck.

The thing to do at this point is to feel the feelings fully, but on your own, without vomiting them out onto others in a messy explosion.

Once you’ve let the storm dissipate, you can look more rationally at the issues and figure out how to present your side of the argument.

Resist the urge to win the war then and there

Having been told to get back in my box and then patronised with a deferential pat on the knee, I was ripe for a fight. However I’m quite certain that if I’d I insisted on crossing swords in that moment, I would have come off the worst, losing both my dignity and perhaps the esteem of my peers.

Taking the long view on the issue is far more effective than scoring points in a tit-for-tat battle of semantics. Knowing the ultimate outcome I wanted (to make effective, long-lasting change to an educational program) was far more important than arguing over the effectiveness of past programs.

You can’t change other people’s view of the past. You can shape a compelling vision of the future and invite them to join you.

Want more articles like this? Check out the communication skills section.

Don’t dismiss other people’s opinions because you’re angry

I may have been insulted and irritated, but that doesn’t mean my critics didn’t have a valid opinion. Take a step back and ask, “Is there anything I can learn from this?”

As it turns out I had missed a key strategic point my colleague was making – one that I actually agreed with. I was very glad I hadn’t pressed my argument more forcefully, only to realise later that I’d missed the point. Phew!

Mind your language

This is an obvious one: avoid swearing at or insulting your peers. Here’s a less obvious one: be careful how you express your views.

I have a tendency to use colourful, vivid language to make a point. (Maybe it’s my Canadian background seeping through). But even though I’m the queen of the campaign to banish mediocre language from our vocabularies, I’ve also learnt that some people don’t appreciate being told they ‘need a fire lit under their backsides’ when a simple phrase like, ‘focused motivation’ conveys my meaning just as clearly. Ahem.

Don’t forget – you’re all on the same team and ultimately want the same outcome

Personal development guru Chris Howard describes this conflict management technique as ‘chunking up’ an argument until you get to the place where you realise you want the same thing. Once in agreement about the desired outcome, you can drill back down to the issue where your differences come up, seeking common ground and a compromise. This can help take the sting out of disagreement and re-assert respect.

Make respect your common denominator

Even if you’ve been patronised, denigrated, or dismissed, you can still be a leader and respect your colleagues, agree to disagree, and concede your differences.

That’s all very well, but I still can’t believe someone actually called me Buttercup. I’m off to the gym to take out my frustrations on the step machine. What would you do in my shoes? Do you have any conflict management techniques to share?

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