Heather Bradley, CPCC, and Miriam Bamberger Grogan, CPCC, are the co-founders of The Flourishing Company, a workplace consulting firm which changes the way people experience work. They are the authors of Judge For Yourself: Clarity, Choice, and Action in Your Legal Career, published by the American Bar Association in cooperation with MCCA®. For additional information, visit: www.TheFlourishingCompany.com.
"I don't like conflict." "I avoid conflict at all costs." These refrains are common among lawyers regardless of title, experience, practice area, or work setting. Expert attorneys who would not hesitate to advocate passionately for a client avoid or retreat from interpersonal disagreements.
Previously, we have looked at ways to prevent conflict by exploring other lands, agreeing on expectations up front, and naming issues before they fester into full-blown conflict. But sometimes that is not enough. Sometimes, despite everyone's best efforts, conflict happens. Whether it takes the form of a knockdown, drag-out fight or clipped, monosyllabic retorts, conflict can be draining and exhausting. Now what do you do?
For this particular discussion, we will look at conflicts in peer-to-peer relationships where authority is relatively equal. While the mechanics of resolving conflict may be the same when one party reports to the other, those dynamics are much more complex and beyond the scope of this article.
Disagreement is not necessarily conflict.
Reasonable people can disagree. Some people enjoy "charged" conversations, reveling in the intellectual challenge. Other people see any disagreement as conflict. Two different lands, indeed! The truth is that different points of view encourage the rich diversity of thought essential for success. So long as a conversation is moving forward (even if the parties agree to postpone a discussion to ponder ideas or simply calm down), we would not label this type of exchange a conflict. By contrast, when either of the parties (or both) refuses to listen or consider the other party's perspective, the resulting stalemate prevents progress and promotes conflict.
Can this conflict be resolved?
Several conditions must be in place in order to resolve conflict. Isolating the dynamic within each condition will help break through the logjam of the conflict.
Consider Andy and Steve. They are both newly minted partners employed at two different firms, working together on a matter for a shared client. The client, having complete confidence in both firms' teams, figures outside counsel know the best way to divide the work. Andy and Steve begin to work as they always have—each assuming he is leading the project. Soon they start bumping heads.
Does the light bulb want to change?
How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change. It is an old joke, but the punch line is strikingly relevant. In this case, both parties must want to resolve the conflict. If one person does not perceive that a problem exists or does not want to address the issue, there is little the other party—even with the help of a qualified, independent third party—can do.
As the project unfolds, Andy and Steve become annoyed with each other trying to take over the case. "If only he would listen and do things my way," each one thinks. Small irritations grow into disagreements, which in turn become stalemates. "We don't have a problem," Steve insists to the senior partner. "I've got everything under control."
In the meantime, a senior associate from his firm has taken Andy aside and mentioned the observable tension and its impact on the rest of the team. "Steve doesn't think anything is wrong, so I can't do anything," Andy confides in frustration.
What, specifically, is the problem?
Often conflict occurs because the parties talk past each other. Identify the specific core issue in terms all parties agree on, so you can address it rather than attack each other.
If they were willing to explore the problem together, Andy might find Steve is trying to make sure all the details fit into the overall case strategy, while Andy is defensive because Steve has ignored his input. This conflict cannot be resolved at this point because Andy and Steve are engaged in two different discussions.
What is important about resolving this conflict?
Once you have identified the crux of the conflict, both parties need to ask themselves what is important about resolving this issue. Be sure to consider the other party's concerns. Focusing only on your own interests and motivations may point you to solutions that do not meet the other party's needs. By looking at the bigger picture together, you will uncover common ground, calm tensions, and allow room for constructive solutions to come forward.
Andy and Steve quickly recognize what is important about resolving their conflict: They need to work well together to serve the client. If not, either or both firms could lose the business.
Knowing when the conflict is resolved
With a common understanding of the issue that has caused the conflict, determine what a satisfactory resolution is for both parties. If one party thinks the issue is resolved and the other does not, the conflict is still brewing. Each party needs to identify its bottom line. What are your conditions for satisfaction? Where are you willing to compromise?
Steve, a big picture guy, does not mind Andy acting as the quarterback on a daily basis. But it rankles him when Andy sweeps in with a grand scheme without consulting him, and he responds defensively, trying to assert control. Andy, truth be told, knows he is more of a detail guy. He is grateful for Steve's vision, but he feels threatened when Steve tries to take over. Ironically, the parties often discover they want the same things. Steve wants to be involved with and recognized for planning the case strategy; Andy wants a more tactical role.
Are you willing to resolve the conflict without blame?
In Difficult Conversations,1 the authors note, "We assume we know the intentions of others when we don't. Worse still, when we are unsure about someone's intentions, we too often decide they are bad." When one party is blaming the other, the conversation will stay stuck. Communication shuts down as we focus on our next assault instead of attempting to resolve the conflict.
What we say next will probably surprise you: If you are not ready to resolve the conflict without blame, it's ok. Just don't try to resolve the conflict at this point.
When we blame, our perspective becomes "the truth," and we are unable even to look at the other person's point of view, preventing any kind of resolution. Our bodies react with a fight-or-flight response, and the physical response lowers our ability to reason. Recognize your desire to blame for what it is and release this energy by "clearing" to an uninvolved third party. As you sort out your thoughts and feelings, shift your focus by using "I" statements, such as "I feel…" and "I want…"
Feelings and Emotions
The last sentence may have stopped you cold: Talk about feelings in a professional setting?
Indeed, according to Stone, et. al., "Difficult conversations do not just involve feelings, they are at their very core about feelings." When emotions overwhelm the discussion, it is easy to lose sight of the core issue. But avoiding all emotions brings its own problems.
Often the core issue is the emotion. If feelings are not brought into the open and acknowledged, they will continue to bubble below the surface, and the conflict will fester or new conflict will emerge.
All of our previous experiences with conflict, memories, emotions, and experiences awaken when we find ourselves in it again. Watch the tendency to project the past onto the current situation.
The Flourishing Process™ can help you manage conflict effectively.
The Flourishing Process™