• Sara & Colin Taylor

Conflict - Part 1

The word conflict often conjures up negative thoughts, but it doesn’t have to be that way. What does it conjure for you? Anger, frustration, hurt, worry or unhappiness? Do you think it's possible to reframe it to compromise, progress, resolution or satisfaction? Let’s delve into it a bit.

As it turns out, no matter what our immediate thoughts are about conflict, it simply can’t be avoided. As Pam Marshall says in the Executive Summary of the Conflict Resolution Primer from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, “Conflict is an inevitable consequence of living and working in a world inhabited by people of differing cultures, values, goals and needs.”

What is conflict? We prefer the definition clearly stated as a “clash of interests”. Given this description, it’s not hard to see why it's a pervasive issue in work environments. If you think back - maybe even to yesterday - you can likely think of a situation rooted in conflict. Some common causes voiced in our medical culture include the following:

  • Lack of clarity around expectations: As Brené Browns says in her book Dare to Lead, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” It’s pretty hard to know what is expected of you when it isn’t verbalized. This is not an uncommon source of conflict that learners face.

  • Ineffective Communication: We communicate with others more than just with our words. Of course, words often count the most, and how we say them is just as important as what we say. However, body language and silence can often speak louder than words. Raise your hand if you’ve been on the receiving end of an icy ‘silent treatment’!

  • Personality clashes: This is so common and yet so challenging. We're all unique with our own experiences and values that play a significant role in our personalities. It can become a monumental challenge to work with someone that you don’t share the same values with, day in and day out. At some point, it usually becomes a problem that needs to be addressed.  

  • Stress: Need we say more?! Being under a lot of stress at work, for instance, can often translate into picking more fights at home. Have you ever noticed that we become a lot less tolerant of our loved ones when we're under a mountain of stress?

  • Heavy Workload: This is an all too common source of stress in the medical workplace, and in medical education, and is a significant contributor to burnout. So many examples stem from this, but one that comes to mind for us is the conflict that can arise when you don’t have control over your patient bookings, and as a result, find yourself double and triple booked, and in turn, drowning in more work!

As we know based on life experience, everyone has their own way of dealing with conflict and it often varies with the context it exists in. For simplicity sake, most of our discussion pertains to the workplace, however, many of the same principles cross over into our personal relationships.

Overall, as described by the Thomas Killman Instrument (TKI), how we approach conflict seems to be pretty consistent. These approaches include: avoidance, competition, accommodation, compromise and collaboration. 
In some instances, we may engage in multiple approaches or responses.  

As part of conflict management, having awareness of how we respond can be quite helpful in approaching a “crucial conversation”, a well recognized concept taught through Vital Smarts based on the best selling book series Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When Stakes Are High. A crucial conversation is defined as follows: “a discussion between two or more people where: the stakes are high; opinions vary; and emotions run strong.” We realize that this topic is way too juicy and deep to wrap up quickly, so please stay tuned for Part 2 next Thursday.

“Two people can see the same thing, disagree, and yet both be right. It's not logical; it's psychological.” ~ Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change


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