May 18, 2009

Listening: The Cure for Ongoing Conflict

What happens during conflict? Usually people stop listening while each person tries to convince the other person, and/or other people that their position is the correct one.

Wikipedia defines conflict as the: “actual or perceived opposition of needs, values and interests.” Interesting that the definition includes the word perceived. Quite often we’re so busy trying to state and restate our own point of view, we neglect to listen and if we did, we would find that maybe we are really on the same side, just stating it differently.

Put any two or more people together day in and day out and there is bound to be conflict. Conflict does not always have to be a negative event. By questioning the status quo and having an alternative point of view, positive change can occur. How we handle conflict is the key to whether conflict is constructive or destructive to our relationships. The author Max Lucade, says: “Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional.” We have a choice on how we handle conflict and how much time we spend talking and how much time listening.

Consider the following conflict situation between two executives. One manages the quality function and one the operations department. There is a natural built-in conflict between these two groups which provides the checks and balances which are important for an organization. But in this situation, the two leaders let their personality differences interfere with their ability to listen and resolve differences. They were in an endless cycle of finding fault with the other’s ideas and actions. After a while they involved other people in their conflict by criticizing each other in company wide meetings and with each of their employee groups, forcing people to “take sides.” Six months into the conflict the organization now had two “camps” each trying to find things to complain about the other department in an endless game of “I am right and you are wrong.”

After several coaching sessions where each leader learned and practiced listening and conflict resolution skills, they jointly developed an action plan on how they would interact in the future. At the conclusion of our rather short session, since they both agreed so easily, one manager asked: “is that really all there is?” The solution seemed so simple. When they started listening and supporting each other, the destructive pattern of behavior had stopped.

Here are a few of the skills they learned:
· Manage Nonverbal Behaviors Effectively – Be aware of body language, inflection, tone, and facial expression. Do you appear open to other ideas? Remember it is not just what you say but how you say it.
· Benefit of the Doubt Approach – Giving someone the benefit of the doubt means that you don’t draw conclusions about what was said or did until you truly understand the situation. This helps to defuse defensive reactions.
· Inquiry Methods – Encourage others to explain their data, assumptions, and reasoning. Ask probing questions to make sure you understand their point of view before stating your own.

The two leaders are now in the process of becoming listening role models and coaches for the employees on their teams.

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