The Collaborative Approach to Handling Conflict (and why it works so well)

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Engaged Leadership

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There are 5 personal styles of conflict management, and every leader gravitates toward a different one. Our 20+ years of experience working in companies all over the globe has shown us that the collaborative style is the most valuable approach to working through potential conflict. Viewing conflict with a mindset focused on working together to find a solution is a useful and healthy approach and allows you to move forward in a way that builds trust and creates a lasting solution. Leaders who harness conflict and view it as a productive part of business, achieve a real competitive advantage. While the collaborative approach to conflict does take some effort and some skill, it creates long-lasting results. 

Adopting a Collaborative Approach 

The adoption of a collaborative approach takes practice, patience, and work to achieve. Sadly, many leaders don’t have a natural bent toward collaborating with others. Early success at work is often based on individual accomplishment. But as responsibility grows collaboration becomes more and more important. 

There are two common conflict management styles that predominate with most people (leaders included):

1. Niceness 

This conflict management style functions by the “out of sight, out of mind, let’s not rock the boat and just move on” rule. In an effort to not create tension in their relationships, leaders will take a highly non-confrontational approach to conflict. This is often because they think that if they avoid conflict situations they won't risk offending team members or creating even greater conflicts down the road. Sadly, the opposite usually happens. The “nice” approach to conflict might work in the short term, but eventually, those problems and tensions will rise to the surface, and they’ll be much more complex than they were when they first began. 

2. Aggression

This conflict management style takes the “niceness” mindset to the other extreme. Leaders who use aggression to solve their problems often have strong personalities and aren’t afraid of conflict. They have found that by pushing hard when disagreement occurs, others will often back down and let the aggressor have their way. This can be a valuable quality, but it can easily be taken too far, damaging relationships and trust and eventually isolating the aggressor.  

The good news is that there’s a middle ground, and that’s collaboration. This approach takes the positive elements of niceness and aggression and blends them into one method that serves to build trust and strengthen relationships. 

The goal of a collaborative approach is to ensure all parties feel heard and considered so that together you can find a more optimal, immediate solution, AND all parties walk away far more committed to supporting whatever decision eventually gets made. This last benefit – “ongoing support” – is often overlooked, but without this, the initial decision typically fails.

People, by nature, think differently from one another and therefore disagreements is inevitable. Leaders who understand that conflict is both natural – because no one thinks or feels exactly the same – and necessary for progress to be made will find conflict less intimidating and actually see it as a useful tool for growth. In taking the collaborative approach, both parties can find common ground without letting disagreements keep them from moving forward.

4 Steps to Collaboration 

A collaborative approach sounds great, but what does it really look like in practice, and how do we achieve it in our own conflict management?

1. Make a connection

You can’t collaborate with someone if you don’t share any common ground. In extreme situations where there are strongly held and differing points of view, the common ground is simply (and yet powerfully) the shared intention of fully hearing and understanding the other’s point of view. This connection by itself is often sufficient to create a stronger relationship. In more typical work situations there are many points of foundational agreement – why solving the problem matters, moving forward in a way that supports the company’s values and mission, etc. 

Creating connection points minimizes the threat that your team member may feel because it creates space to reframe why the conflict is happening and why working towards a solution is so important. It decreases the reliance on “getting your way” as the ultimate outcome. 

As an example, rather than saying “Everything is going to fall apart if we don’t figure this out today”, say “I want us to collaborate so that I can understand your point of view and you mine. Then we can come to a solution that we both can support.”

2. Uncover the whole story

This step is all about listening well. There are three basic approaches to do this: 

  • Discovery-based questioning:
    Asking intentional questions will create space to let the other person talk freely about what they’re really feeling and thinking.
  • Non-judgemental listening:
    Seeing your role in a conflict and emotionally charged situation is to act as a guide, helping the other party reach a point where they feel safe and therefore able to operate from a rational frame of mind. Repeat their words back to them to ensure that you fully understand everything they just said to you AND to show them you heard them. BOTH ARE IMPORTANT.
  • Respectful Assertion:
    You’ve taken time to understand their point of view, and now you can share yours. This is an opportunity to be clear and direct while maintaining kindness and respect. While you share your perspective, focus on owning your point of view and maintaining a logical frame of mind, not simply looking to refute other points of view.

3. Align on the issues 

Summarize the issues that both sides explained, and go over the conflict in plain language, as well as definitions of any vague wording to ensure that everyone is on the same page. 

Next, determine a buy-in for a solution. Clearly and calmly ask if they are now willing to work with you on the issues you’ve discussed.

4. Solve it together 

This last step is where you can empower other parties to participate in and support the decision-making process. The more they have ownership over the collaborative solution, the more committed and more satisfied they will be in not only working with you in the future but in supporting the eventual decision as it is implemented.  The most important notion here is to make sure they know their opinion is heard and valued every step along the way. 

There are few things more satisfying than experiencing the shift in perspective, confidence, and ultimately improved results when leaders move from seeing conflict as something stressful that needs to be avoided or conquered.

EngagedLeadership loves helping leaders implement healthier conflict management styles. If you want more tools to foster collaboration within your company, schedule a call with us today!

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