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What can leaders do to manage conflict and improve a situation? Learn to replace destructive behaviors with constructive behaviors, and you will see a difference in how conflict plays out around you.

In their book, Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader, Craig Runde and Tim Flanagan of Eckerd College (an affiliate of CCL) describe seven constructive behaviors: 4 of them active, and 3 of them passive.

The 4 active behaviors all involve some overt behavior and typically reduce tension. They are:

1: Perspective taking. Perspective taking means trying to understand the other person’s point of view, and constitutes the most powerful of the constructive behaviors. To gain perspective:

  • Focus on the other person’s words and behaviors, not your assumptions.
  • Ask yourself, “I wonder why he thinks that?” rather than “That’s a ridiculous point of view.”
  • Listen to the other person with the intent of understanding rather than debating; don’t interrupt.
  • Summarize the other’s point of view about the conflict.

2: Creating solutions. Creating solutions means working with the other person instead of focusing on who is to blame. Begin with an issue that is easy to solve and work toward more difficult ones. To do this:

  • Identify multiple solutions with your conflict partners – never stop with just one potential solution.
  • Be willing to compromise. Remember: you’re looking for a solution, not a victory.

3: Expressing emotions. Expressing emotions is important because feelings are often at the core of a conflict. While many people are uncomfortable talking about emotions in the workplace, Runde and Flanagan suggest that it is better to express emotions in a forthright, appropriate way rather than having pent-up emotions gush out. Of course, you’ll want to consider the right time and place: not when tempers are running hot. To appropriately address emotions:

  • Express information in a way that casts no blame.
  • Be sure that expressing emotions is helpful.
  • Don’t let your own hot buttons interfere with the process.
  • Be specific. Instead of “I feel bad,” say “I am frustrated because … “
  • Use the “I” word instead of “You,” as in: “I am disappointed that the conflict came to this point.” Not: “You are to blame for this mess.”

4: Reaching out. Reaching out requires you to take the first step to make amends. To reach out you will want to:

  • Make the first move to resume communication.
  • Attempt to repair emotional damage caused during a conflict.
  • Offer an apology or make amends.

Remember, a leader may initiate a constructive behavior, but the effort always involves dialogue and discussion among the people involved.

The 3 passive constructive behaviors described by Runde and Flanagan involve withholding actions in order to reduce conflict.

  • Reflective thinking. Reflective thinking means weighing the pros and cons of the particular situation. It is closely associated with Perspective Taking since it is difficult to adequately weigh the pros and cons of various approaches without appreciating the issues and needs of both sides. Remember the motto TLC: Think, Listen, Communicate.
  • Delay responding. This involves calling a time-out to let the situation calm. Delaying responding does not mean avoiding or ignoring the conflict – it just means taking a break so that people are better able to listen to one another. During a timeout, replace stressful thoughts with calm, reassuring ones.
  • Adapting behavior. Adapting behavior means staying flexible and trying to make the best out of the situation. Not every conflict can be solved in a totally satisfactory manner, but leaders who are adaptable can make adjustments to prevent problems in the future.

Adopt a positive attitude towards the conflict, find the best in people and in the situation, and maintain your sense of humor. Absorbing these lessons will make you a leader who is able to calm conflict.

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