7 Leadership Tips for Navigating Conflict

February 25, 2012 — Leave A Comment

“If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” ~ Mother Teresa

As a leader, there are a few lessons you learn very quickly. One is that people are beautiful. The other is that people are messy, and leading them a messy business.

I’ve yet to work with a leader who didn’t have to grapple with significant relational conflict within his or her organization. Like it or not, it comes with the territory. But rather than resist it or deny it or try to wish it away, I challenge leaders to see conflict for what it really is: an essential element in God’s developmental work in every human soul, and an opportunity for authentic transformation.

So how do you navigate conflict in a way that produces genuine transformation? In my work with leaders and their teams, it’s not uncommon for us to spend many weeks working through deep conflict issues in a way that results in God-inspired change. The process is delicate and rarely easy. But it begins with the leaders learning to follow these foundational guidelines:

  • Don’t talk triggered. ~ It does little good (and often great harm) to try to resolve a conflict when you are emotionally triggered ~ that is, when the part of you that is angry or hurt is driving your behavior. Hold off the conversation until you have calmed down and a measure of peace has returned to your heart. It’s okay to still feel anger or hurt when you talk with someone; what matters is that your feelings are not “running you.”
  • Don’t assume malicious intent. ~ Think about the number of times in your life you have maliciously intended to hurt someone by your choices or behavior. Chances are the number is very small, if not zero. In most organizational cultures, when people hurt people, it’s rarely intentional. Until you know otherwise, give the other person the benefit of the doubt by assuming there was no malicious intent.
  • Own your own story. ~ When someone hurts you, your mind immediately creates a story about it. It happens so fast, we barely even notice it. We create these narratives as a way to try to make sense of what happened. But the story we create is just that ~ a story. It’s not necessarily the truth; in some cases, it may land far off the mark from what is actually going on. But despite all of this, the story we tell ourselves feels like the truth, and too often we respond as if it really is. To engage in conflict resolution in a transformational way, you have to own the story you’re telling yourself about what happened, and recognize that it is just a story, and not the final truth.
  • Get clear on the outcome you want to create. ~ Before you talk with the person or people you’re in conflict with, get clear on the outcome you actually want the conversation to produce. Too often we step into conflict resolution with a much too short-sighted intention ~ for example, to prove you are right or they were wrong, to let them know how much they hurt you, or to get them to change in some way. But achieving those outcomes can be tantamount to winning the battle but losing the war. Before engaging in the conversation, ask yourself, “What kind of relationship do I ultimately want to have with this person (or these people)?” Let your answer to that question become the guiding goal of your conflict conversation.
  • Get the problem “out in front.” ~ Standing face to face and pointing fingers almost never produces any meaningful transformation. Rather, try sitting side by side and placing an object that can represent the conflict out in front of you both, so that you are looking at it as a team, rather than as opponents. The truth is, in any conflict, YOU are not the problem, and THEY are not the problem. The problem is the conflict that exists in the space between you.
  • Be curious. ~ In any relational conflict, most people would say that they want to be proved right. But the deeper truth is really that they just want to be genuinely heard. That’s why there is nothing as disarming in a conflict as genuine curiosity. If you are not only willing to listen, but be actively curious about the other person’s experience in a conflict conversation, you will reach resolution far more quickly, and will be much more likely to produce a transformational result.
  • Look for the “Third Story.” ~ As I already mentioned, we each come to a conflict with a story we’ve already made up about what happened and why. Your story may have some truth in it (but probably not all), and their story may have some truth in it too (but again, probably not all). But out there in the ether between you there is a third story, the story that neither of you know and that is the True Story of what happened. As you talk thru each of your personal interpretations (stories) about what happened, work together to identify and move toward the Third Story ~ the story that holds the larger truth that you both can stand in, together.

My own pastor, John Burke, once summed up the goal of this kind of transformational conflict work in this simple statement:

“Don’t fight to win the argument. Fight to win the relationship.”

It’s good advice, and a great guiding principle for effective leadership.

What advice would you add to the list? What other skills or principles have you employed in your leadership to help you navigate conflict in a transformational way?

Michael Warden

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