Leaders face conflict. Conflict simply is a matter of fact. The presence or absence of conflict has very little to do with whether a leader is successful or not. Instead successful leaders know how to transform conflict into opportunity. So, the question is not how to avoid conflict but how to engage it and how to find the opportunity for break through thinking and development that conflict represents. Don't rob your organization of powerful and transforming potential by either power over or ignoring conflict. Mark Gerzon, in his book Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities, outlines four essential questions for approaching conflict. Make a habit starting your approach by asking yourself:
- “What else can I learn about this situation?”
- “Is there some useful, perhaps vital, information that I lack?”
- “Do I truly understand the way others see the situation?”
- “Should I consult with others before I intervene?”
Leaders who make a habit of asking themselves these questions avoid the impulsive decisions that generate years of regret later. I am not exaggerating when I say, "years later." I have worked with leaders who described significant turning points that cost time, money, and tons of emotional energy in colossal set backs. Rather than ask themselves these questions they responded to in hast and anger. We can and should learn from similar examples.
Ask yourself these questions then you are more ready to engage conversation with the source of the conflict. The goal in engaging any conflict is to listen generatively and not reflectively. Generative listening listens from the context of the whole system while reflective listening only hears from inside one's self. The pitfall of reflective listening is that subjectivity pushes leaders down the rabbit hole of Wonderland and end up with a distorted view of reality. Generative listening on the other hand provides the leader an opportunity to move from simply managing conflict to engaging transformation. Generative listening uses several important skills. Invite someone with whom you have strongly disagreed to talk with you while you listen – take the following steps.
- Find a good space. Choose a place to talk without distractions.
- Take the time. Let the other person tell their story.
- Respond (versus react). Choose your body language, tone and intention.
- Show interest. Make eye contact; focus on the person speaking; don’t answer your phone or look at your BlackBerry.
- Be patient. It’s not easy for people to talk about important things.
- Listen for content and emotion. Both carry the meaning at hand. It’s OK sometimes to ask, “How are you doing with all this?”
- Learn. Listen for their perspective, their view. Listen for their experience. Discover or learn a new way of seeing something.
- Follow their lead. See where they want to go. Ask what is important to them (rather than deciding where their story must go or how it must end).
- Be kind. Listen with heart as well as with mind.
After doing this notice the difference this makes in how you feel about your relationship with the other person. The act of listening not only brings clarity for both people in the conversation it often brings items to light that have never been considered before. One conversation does not have to resolve all issues however; a good act of listening goes a long way in bridging seemingly unbridgeable differences.
Leadership i.e., the ability to create a new vision for group action amid competing perspectives, values, and allegiances; is all about getting through conflict.