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When Things Get Tough: Handling Difficult Situations, People, And Ourselves In Conflict

When Things Get Tough: Handling Difficult Situations, People, and Ourselves in Conflict

Hunter Stanfield

Kansas State University

Over the past few years, I’ve had opportunities to work with small and large business, non-profits, schools, camps, universities, and even extension professionals to address a topic that wreaks havoc among employees in those organizations.

To many, that topic is a dirty, four-letter word that we call conflict.

In one seminar for human resource professionals, the attendees were polled about how much time they spent on average per week dealing with conflict in the workplace.

Their answers ranged from about 5 to 40 hours per week.

They were then asked how many hours of annual training they provide for their employees on managing conflict. The average of their responses was zero…nada…zilch…none.

Some mentioned maybe devoting one morning out of a year for some of their managers to the topic.

Others noted that while they would want to make it a priority, they don’t currently have the time or resources within their organization to do so well.

What these professionals reported is not unlike others I’ve worked with over the years.

They spend a significant amount of time addressing each week attempting to make the best of something that their organization also provided little-to-no training on how to do well.

In reality, most of us did not receive any real training on how to best manage conflict during any formal education pursuits.

It is usually something that we have to “figure out” as we trudge along, but if we were lucky, there was maybe an opportunity as part of our organization to attend a week-long workshop on addressing conflict or hone some savvy communication skills.

From what I’ve heard and experienced over time, there’s a great irony is how a large number of organizations and professionals handle conflict.

It is this thing that can create considerable anxiety and dread for everyone, but it is not something that most any of us want actually to deal with until maybe it is too late.

Well, guess what?

It doesn’t have to be like that.

The ability to manage conflict well is not something you were born with or not born with.

Instead, it is a set of skills that can be learned or muscles that can be developed.

And like any new skill being learned or attempt at developing your muscles, there will be growing pains.

But, over time as you make a concerted effort to try out these new skills in your organization, it becomes easier, simpler, and better yet, less anxiety provoking for you and for others you may be experiencing conflict with.

So how does one even start managing conflict better?

First, it is acknowledging that how we think about conflict informs how we deal, or don’t deal, with it.

If we think conflict is horrible and unproductive, then likely we will do everything possible to avoid it or make it go away quickly.

Or, if we view conflict as a puzzle or problem to be solved, then we will likely take an opportunistic or collaborative approach to address it more effectively.

Second, recognize that the person you have the most ownership over is you.

Taking as much responsibility as we truthfully can for our actions, whether we believe them to be small or insignificant, allows us to recognize that we play a part in the how a conflict is resolved or exacerbated.

Third, attempt to understand before attempting to be understood.

This will keep us from putting our foot in our mouth, and most importantly, help us create some goodwill with others that we may be experiencing conflict within our organizations.

Remember, there’s always one more fact in every person’s story that we know nothing about that perfectly explain how come they may be doing what they are.

And we need to do our part to understand others in situations of conflict as best we can.

Those three steps are an essential starting place, and in taking any of those as a first step, we can begin to transform conflict from a dirty, four-letter word into an opportunity to grow and develop our organizations into something more capable of empowering those that we serve daily.

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