Conflict Resolution

November 2, 2011

When the going gets tough, the tough… compute, avoid, accommodate, compromise, and, finally, collaborate. That’s the positive progression in moving from a confrontational situation to a solution. Learning how to communicate effectively in such situations is a key component in leadership development. During the Friday afternoon session of the ASCE 2011 conference, Kyle Twitchell presented a number of techniques for resolving conflicts.

The first thing to recognize about conflict is that perception is not reality. It’s relatively easy to sway someone’s perception by controlling the inputs. Kyle demonstrated this with a quick memory test. He quickly flashed a vocabulary list of about twenty items related to sleep and asked the attendees to memorize as many as possible. He then quizzed the group to see how many people remembered seeing the word “sleep.” About half the audience thought it was on the list; it was not. We’re just conditioned to associate one thing with another.

Another problem with perception is that we tend to read too far into each other’s thoughts. This may have been best demonstrated by the closing remarks of Dave Barry, humorist and ASCE 2011 keynote.  Dave’s story followed the diverging thought process of a dating couple. On a car ride home the man becomes visibly concerned while thinking about whether his car needs to be serviced. The woman, on the other hand, assumes that he’s contemplating their relationship and probes the situation with awkward questions obfuscating her own concerns. In the end, the relationship suffers and both parties leave completely confused.

Perception and memory change with time, and usually this contributes to misunderstanding. Kyle put it this way: each time you think about something, some information is lost. Humans have a tendency to try to look multiple steps forward in a conflict. Unfortunately, we seldom have enough information to make an accurate decision, and the more we revisit the situation, the more detail we overlook or imagine.

There are two routes that we can take when faced with a confrontational situation. The more common but ultimately ineffectual route proceeds from giving lip service to becoming defensive, adversarial, interrogating, complacent, and finally impatient. If you can recognize that you have become impatient with another person’s argument, that’s a good indicator that you need some time to cool off and restart at another time. Experts have identified a second path of accountability to help leaders resolve conflict. It starts with being present in the conversation, then taking ownership of shortcomings, and building trust. One must be self-reflective and open, and then collaboration can occur.

While having these conversations, it’s important to employ attentive body behavior to demonstrate a positive approach to the issue. You might also avoid terms with negative connotations, including saying thing like “you always” or qualifying each statement with “but…” Identify the participants in the dispute as “we,” and use the conjunctive “and.”

To help challenge our preconceptions and get on the path to effective conflict resolution, Kyle guided the group through two activities. Both role-plays will require you to find a partner to work with. One person will read from the pink sheet (see link below) and the other from the blue sheet. Read the background information of the person whose part you will play. Be true to the script but try to employ the accountability loop. Good luck!

Conflict resolution activities provided by the ASCE Committee on Professional Practice’s “Supercharge Your Career campaign.”

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