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Conflict Management

To manage conflict effectively, we must first understand what conflict is. Once we have that understanding, we can gain the knowledge and skills to prevent conflict or deal with it effectively when it arises.

This article provides a brief overview of conflict and strategies for:

  • preventing conflict;
  • assessing and resolving conflict; and
  • negotiating a win-win solution. Much of the information has been excerpted from the Head Start Moving Ahead Skills and Competency-Based Training Program. Other articles in this issue of the Bulletin provide more detail on these issues; the Resources section lists sources of additional information.

What is conflict?

Conflict can be viewed as a difference in perspectives: what you see, think, feel, and believe may be different from what I see, think, feel, and believe. Conflict is thus a part of all human interaction, and it can have a positive influence. We can learn from one another and benefit from a variety of perspectives on issues. In terms of our Head Start programs, the diversity of perspectives within each center helps to generate ideas, facilitate change, and generally make the program more responsive to the needs of children and families. If managed wisely, conflict is a source of vitality and an opportunity for positive change.

The most positive experiences in managing conflict require a safe and supportive organizational climate in which relationships are based on trust and mutual respect. Only then can people feel comfortable and safe in expressing differences of opinions and working toward a win-win resolution for everyone.

Creating a Supportive Environment

To cultivate a supportive environment in which people feel free to disagree and are encouraged to work constructively toward a mutually acceptable compromise, try the following:

  • Inspire with insights, reminders, and maxims. Post phrases, quotations, and cartoons as reminders of good conflict resolution habits wherever staff members gather; distribute relevant articles found in newspapers and magazines.
  • Encourage "Skill of the Month" activity. Since new behavior is reinforced when everyone focuses on it at the same time, staff can select one specific conflict resolution skill to work on each month, such as paraphrasing, calming down, brainstorming, naming one's feelings, or responding to anger or frustration.
  • Encourage reflection. Encourage individuals to reflect on their personal behavior in private journals.
  • Open up discussions. Supply staff with a video on personnel management, and facilitate a follow-up discussion on conflict resolution topics, such as conflict de-escalation techniques, family origins of conflict styles, and community mediation resources.
  • Model proper behavior. Be a good model for attitudes or skills you support before suggesting others adopt these behaviors. Nothing is more persuasive to staff than your own commitment to, and personal observance of, positive communication and conflict management skills.
  • Start small. People don't resist change. . . they resist being changed. Allow for different levels of readiness and acceptance of this shift in thinking. Set the stage for resolving conflict in every possible way, but allow people to find their own way in their own time.
  • Influence the organization. Consider how you might exert influence on resolving conflicts at organizational levels:
    • Build in rewards and punishments. What type of disputing behavior gets rewarded by your program? Are those who sweep problems under the rug until they spill over into everyone's work ever helped to see the effects of their "avoidance"? Do those who "name" a problem get treated as if they created the problem instead of appreciated for their courage in bringing it to the surface?
  • Look at who you hire. Does the program hire problem solvers? How well do job candidates understand the nature of conflict, and can they demonstrate experience working cooperatively with others to solve problems? Could your job descriptions be written to include a desire for abilities such as listening, flexibility, priority setting, and handling emotions, along with other related skills?
  • Finally, plan for "outbreaks" Are you prepared to handle simmering staff tensions that could erupt? What support can you count on? How can you prevent future eruptions? Since we learn best through experience, a crisis can be a unique learning opportunity for everyone when it is handled constructively.

Conflict-Prevention Skills

While conflict can be a positive influence, it is not necessarily something that people want to face every day. As the saying goes, too much of a good thing is ? well, too much! The following skills can help you prevent conflict or assist you and your team in managing or resolving conflict:

  • Help the team focus on the task and stay on track.
  • Be mindful of other people's styles.
  • Make suggestions on how to proceed.
  • Help negotiate.
  • Ask questions to clarify expectations, issues, and possible directions to take.
  • Help find needed resources.
  • Provide constructive feedback.
  • Share observations.
  • Coach staff.
  • Help team members plan how to implement their agreement.
  • Help team members evaluate their efforts and make needed changes.

Additional ways of preventing or managing conflict include:

  • Setting ground rules for discussion.
  • Teaching reflective listening skills to team members.
  • Teaching mediation skills.

Separating Interests from Positions

One of the most important steps people can take in learning to prevent or resolve conflicts is to become aware of and sensitive to the difference between interests and positions. Interests are the needs, concerns, and values that motivate each person. They represent why a person wants something, and they get at underlying issues. Positions are the actions a person will take to meet his or her needs and achieve a desired outcome.

The ability to separate interests from positions is key to resolving conflict for these reasons:

  • Focusing on positions often creates a competitive, even combative, struggle in which each party is determined to win.
  • Separating interests from positions assists parties in focusing on the underlying issues rather than dealing with ideological or situational reactions.
  • Focusing on interests rather than positions increases communication and the possibility of agreement.
  • Identifying interests requires taking a step in defining and analyzing the conflict: such a step is necessary to reach a resolution.

Tips for Separating Interests from Positions

  • Change your focus.
  • Clearly state your interests rather than your position.
  • Ask questions to elicit and clarify the other parties' interests?the needs, concerns, and values that motivate their position.
  • Express your understanding of the vision or purpose of the group.

In Head Start, we have some fundamental common interests and values related to the well-being of children and families. Keeping our "eyes on the prize" can often help us to get past positions and back to the fundamental interests at stake.

Reaching a "Win-Win" Solution

Traditional methods of negotiation?holding discussions to arrive at a compromise that is acceptable to everyone?are based on power relations in which one party wins and another loses. The "win-win" strategy involves collaboration and negotiation. It is based on interests rather than positions. It can lead to agreements that satisfy all parties.

Use these principles to reach a "win-win" solution:

  • View participants as problem solvers.
  • Separate the people from the problem.
  • Be soft on the people, hard on the problem.
  • Focus on interests, not on positions or the bottom line.
  • Help participants create multiple options for mutual gain.
  • Use objective criteria.
  • Reason and be open to reason; yield to principles, not to pressure.

Assessing and Resolving Conflicts: A Sequential Process

Like most problem-solving processes, the conflict management process can be broken down into steps. The Head Start Moving Ahead training program identifies a six-step sequential process for assessing and resolving conflicts:

Stage 1 - Define the Problem: Clearly define the nature of the conflict and the fundamental issues. Show appreciation for what is working well.

Stage 2 - Clarify the Needs: Clearly identify the needs of everyone involved. By taking everyone's perspectives into account, you are likely to develop solutions that benefit everyone.

Stage 3 - Generate Possible Options: Generate a range of possible solutions. This will help everyone involved analyze the plausibility of different options and their potential viability.

Stage 4 - Evaluate Proposed Options: Develop criteria that can be used to examine and evaluate each option. Example of questions: Do all members understand the solution? Is it realistic? Are all members of the team committed to the idea? What could go wrong? What are the potential benefits?

Stage 5 - Develop an Action Plan: Choose an effective solution, ask these questions to develop an action plan:

  • What small steps can the team take to achieve the best results?
  • Who will take the lead for each step? Who else will be involved?
  • What is the time frame for each step?
  • What criteria will be used to evaluate the plan's effectiveness?

Stage 6 - Develop a Contingency Plan: Develop a written contingency plan in advance in case you encounter unforeseen circumstances in implementing the action plan.

While each conflict is unique, this basic framework can make the process of understanding and resolving the conflicts much easier.

Moving toward understanding conflict and using it to increase personal and workplace growth are the first steps to seeing conflict with insight and perspective. As educators and administrators, we need to step out of old beliefs, ideas, and habits and see with new eyes. Using our new-found conflict resolution skills, we can identify different types of conflict, examine and better understand them, and find a "win-win" solution for everyone involved.

Conflicts Have Value

Conflicts have value in a number of ways. They:

  • Focus attention on problems that have to be solved. Conflicts energize and motivate us to solve our problems.
  • Clarify what you care about, are committed to, and value. You only disagree over wants and goals you value. And you argue much more frequently and intensely with people you value or care about.
  • Help you understand who the other person is and what his or her values are. Conflicts clarify the identities of your friends, co-workers, and acquaintances.
  • Clarify how you need to change. Conflicts clarify and highlight patterns of behavior that are dysfunctional.
  • Strengthen relationships by increasing your confidence that you can resolve your disagreements. Every time a serious conflict is resolved constructively, the relationship becomes less fragile and more able to withstand crises and problems.
  • Keep the relationship clear of irritations and resentments so positive feelings can be experienced fully. A good conflict may do a lot to resolve the small tensions of interacting with others.
  • Release emotions that, if kept inside, make us physically and mentally sick. Addressing a conflict a day keeps depression away!
  • Add fun, enjoyment, excitement, and variety to your life. Being in a conflict reduces boredom, gives you new goals, motivates you to take action, and stimulates interest.

Adapted from David Johnson and Roger T. Johnson's article "Peacemakers: Teaching Students to Resolve Their Own and Schoolmates' Conflicts" published in the February 1996 issue of Children.

Definitions of Key Terms

Collaboration: A desire or need to create or discover something new, while thinking and working with others. It is a process of joint decision making among parties. It involves: different views and perspectives, shared goals, building new shared understandings, and the creation of a new value or product. Collaborations may address a single issue or a short-term concern.

Conflict: A situation where people on the same team have different overall goals.

Conflict Resolution: A process to resolve disputes between people with different interests. This resolution process can have constructive consequences if the parties air their different interests, make trade-offs, and reach a settlement that satisfies the essential needs of each.

Goal: A desired future condition, including measurable end results, to be accomplished within specified time limits.

Mediation: A process through which a third party assists the disputants in finding a mutually acceptable solution. In mediation, the role of the third party is to assist disputants in considering or exploring all the parameters of a conflict (interests, facts, possible solutions). The mediator is not authorized to impose a solution upon the parties; rather the mediator uses a series of joint and confidential private meetings to help the parties determine whether a set of solutions exists to which each party can say yes.

Negotiation: Direct talk among the parties about a conflict, conducted with the goal of achieving a resolution. The distinguishing characteristic is that the talk involves the parties themselves without the direct assistance of a third party.

Process: A series of actions by which something is produced. A set of interrelated activities that is characterized by receiving inputs and adding value to produce a desired output.

Creating a "Win-Win" Problem-Solving Environment

These days, more and more people are spending a majority of their time at work. And since many people end up spending as much time with their co-workers as they do with their families, the opportunity to work in a supportive environment that encourages growth is invaluable.

One way that people grow is through overcoming challenges and developing good problem-solving skills. And if work environments support new ideas and encourage constructive criticism in an open, blame-free setting, problem-solving skills are encouraged and nurtured. As leaders and professionals, we can facilitate and support a "win-win" problem-solving workplace by agreeing on specific ground rules and helping each other to follow them.

Ground rules can be simple or elaborate, depending on the needs of the group. At a minimum, your rules should include the following:

  • Look for and highlight good points.
  • Abstain from put-downs.
  • Listen. Do not interrupt each other. Do not speak too long or too often.
  • Volunteer yourself only.
  • Agree on confidentiality, when necessary.

Expect the group to discuss issues and find resolutions. Ask every member of the group to support the following approach:

  • Agree to be active listeners.
  • Give every participant time to explain the challenge as she or he perceives it.
  • Allow emotions to be expressed in a non-violent manner.
  • Agree to be open to new ideas and flexible to creative solutions.
  • Find a solution that addresses the consensus of the group.

Attempts to create a work environment that fosters "win-win" problem-solving will reduce group apathy and inspire creative solutions.

The group will see opportunities rather than problems.

Head Start Bulletin
Issue No. 68
by Kathryn Fernandez
Page last reviewed by on February 2, 2014