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by Jack N. Singer, Ph.D.

Managing interpersonal conflict in organizations is among the most critical and important skills that employees on all levels of the organization can possess. Job insecurity, fueled by fears of downsizing, cancelled business in light of 9/11, the economy, mergers and an unknown organizational future, produces fertile ground for the development of conflict.  Moreover, advances in technology , which often are viewed as threatening, magnify the potential for anger and frustration in the workplace.  

Unresolved or insensitively managed conflict negatively impacts productivity and morale. Ultimately, the bottom line is affected.  On the other hand, allowing conflict to surface and skillfully resolving it can be a platform for enhancing employee trust, team building and creativity.

The good news is that managers, trainers and  human resources directors can easily learn conflict resolution strategies, put them into practice, and teach them to their employees.

The following three-step program for assessing and implementing a conflict resolution program is a proven, successful plan of attack:

Several self-assessment questionnaires have been developed over the years giving people insight into how they react in typical conflict situations. The insight derived from scoring these questionnaires provides an understanding of what  "buttons" get pushed when a person is provoked.

People resort to behavioral habits when experiencing conflict with others. These reactions include:   Non-productive behaviors, such as: confronting, dominating, defending, using sarcasm, hostile humor, repressing emotions, insisting on being right, stonewalling, and blaming;   Neutral behaviors, such as:  avoiding, cooling off, apologizing, and giving in or backing off to avoid confrontation;   Positive behaviors, such as:  active listening, empathizing, disarming, inquiring, using "I feel" statements, and recognizing how your internal dialogue impacts your emotional reactions.

The goal is to eliminate negative and neutral behaviors and practice positive confrontation reduction skills  until they become new habits.  On the average, these skills can be learned
in only 21 days of concentrated practice!

Active Listening.  The key to all interpersonal communications is  genuine  listening, as opposed to defensive listening, where you plan your retort while the other person is talking
to you.  In order to begin to really listen,  paraphrase what the other person says in your own words, without judging, agreeing or disagreeing. 
Listen to and reflect the content, needs and feelings of the other person.

Next, ask for feedback to determine whether you interpreted correctly.  If you have not, ask for clarification.  Continue this process until you are sure that you have heard what the other person is saying and how he or she really feels emotionally.

Once you are certain that you understand the message and feelings expressed by the other person, respond. The other person then listens and paraphrases for you.  This process continues until you have both clarified your positions and are certain that the other person
really heard you and understands.

Empathizing.  This involves putting yourself in the other person's shoes and trying to see the world through his or her eyes, taking into account cultural, racial, gender and experiential differences. 

Disarming.  The fastest way to defuse an argument is to find some truth in what the other person is saying, even if you do not agree with the basic criticism or complaint.  For example, saying "I can understand how you'd feel angry with me since you believed that I started the rumor" acknowledges and validates the angry person's feelings without actually agreeing with what was said.  This opens the door to clarification, feedback and reconciliation.

Inquiring.  By asking for clarification of ideas, needs and feelings you signal a feeling of respect and can then work toward mutual understanding and compromise.

"I Feel" Statements.  This is a primary skill in interpersonal communications.  Expressing yourself with such statements as, "I feel angry because you seem to be avoiding me" is much more productive than the accusatory,  "you made me angry and it's your fault that I've had a bad day at work today."  In the first scenario, you take responsibility for your own feelings and share them; in the second, you escalate the confrontation by blaming and putting the person on the defensive.

In addition, you tell the other person specifically what you need that will make you feel good or what can be done to improve the relationship and avoid further misunderstandings and confrontations.

Internal Dialogue.  The key to analyzing your vulnerability to being provoked into confrontations is to understand how your automatic thoughts, including your assumptions and conclusions, cause every emotional reaction.  

Examples of these distortions are: "I should   have gone to work despite being ill" ( using should, must, and have to in judging your actions); "My boss doesn't care about me...only about my productivity" (reading your boss' mind about what he must be thinking and feeling);  "They'll probably eliminate my job soon" (catastrophising or fortune telling about what negative things will happen to you in the future);  and "I'm stupid for allowing this to happen to me" (negatively labeling yourself instead of describing your behavior as unfortunate or unproductive).

Once you learn about the distortion habits in your automatic thinking, you can learn how to challenge them and develop more rational, alternative thoughts.  The end result is actually dissolving negative emotions and a healthy, more reasonable outlook on every situation in which you find yourself.

Interpersonal conflict is healthy when it brings a rich sharing of ideas, mutual respect and an understanding and appreciation of diverse opinions, needs, and values. Teaching your employees to understand how they traditionally react in conflict situations and how to use confrontation reduction skills leads to greater trust, less stress, more creativity, and can ignite the team. The ultimate benefits are enhanced quantity and quality of products and services!

Dr. Jack Singer is a professional speaker, author and Consulting Psychologist in Laguna Niguel, California.  He is President of Psychologically Speaking, and provides powerful and entertaining keynote presentations, training programs, and re-TREATS for Fortune 1000 corporations and for associations across the U.S. You can reach him at (800) 497-9880; Email:
[email protected]      

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