• Sara & Colin Taylor

Conflict - Part 2

Last week we began to discuss conflict, as it pertains to the workplace, looking at causes and our approaches when it arises. As part of an introduction to conflict management, we finished with the concept of a crucial conversation where, “the stakes are high; opinions vary; and emotions run strong.” Now let’s dive in a bit deeper as to what to do in times of conflict - where there's a clash of opinions, actions, values or ideas.

Obviously, the possible scenarios involving conflict are endless, especially when faced with different personalities over things that matter. Given that a one-size-fits-all approach to conflict management isn't possible, many different frameworks exist including the 4 R's- Recognize, Respond with respect, Resolve and manage, and Reflect. We've complied some approaches into 3 digestible steps: 

  1. Actively listen: From the wisdom of the late Stephen Covey, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This involves a great deal of attention and mindfulness on our part. It also means reflecting back what we heard without immediately trying to think of a rebuttal. If we truly listen, we may gain appreciation for the motivations of the other person. In turn, it's helpful to explore what our own motivations truly are. For instance, if a colleague changes the call schedule, which from the outside looks self-serving, only to find out they're tending to a sick family member, it make us question our own thoughts and motivations about the situation.

  2. Weigh the outcomes: We can’t always predict the outcome, but we often have an idea as to “A” versus “B”. For instance, option “A” say nothing, versus option “B” say something. In this case, sometimes the best approach, not the easy one, is to have to the difficult conversation. As Overton and Lowry say in their article Conflict Management: Difficult Conversations with Difficult People, “It is important not to confuse the perceived difficulty of the conversation with determination of whether it will be beneficial and appropriate to proceed.” The flip side is that sometimes saying nothing, taking a breath and at the same time “taking the high road”, will lead to the best outcome.

  3. Collaboration is key: As the primer from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada says, “In most situations, the best outcomes are achieved when the parties involved in the problem work toward resolution in a collaborative way.” This way of finding common ground or a compromise, may take some level of exploration and brainstorming. Sometimes just hashing out the details affords some light on the situation that one or both parties hadn’t considered. From this, we can reflect on how to change the outcome moving forward and also how to keep the resolution in place.

As Brené Brown describes in Dare to Lead, if we avoid tough conversations at work, we may find, “lack of clarity, diminishing trust and engagement, and an increase in problematic behaviour, talking behind people’s backs, pervasive back-channel communication (or “the meeting after the meeting”), gossip, and the “dirty yes” (when I say yes to your face and then no to your back).” Dare we say, this sums up a lot of the problems within the medical culture. Ultimately, when it comes to managing conflict, it starts with our own self. Looking at how we approach conflict; why the situation is a source of conflict for us; what our motivations are behind it; listening to the other side, or at least considering it; and doing what is best, not what is easy. Ideally collaboration with the other person(s) is the best outcome.


“As much as others may need to change, or we may want them to change, the only person we can continually inspire, prod, and shape - with any degree of success - is the person in the mirror.” ~ Kerry Patterson, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High 

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