Conflict Management Training: Opening the Window to New Ideas

Conflict and Creativity: Opening the Window to New Ideas

by Jay Rothman, Ph.D.

When management trainers claim to give workshop participants immediate and usable skills, they may be promising both too much and too little. They promise too much because real learning (learning to give up old practices and adopting new ones) takes a lot of time. On the other hand, they promise too little because new skills are often simply mechanical devices. New skills are like better widgets: to use them effectively, people must learn how to use them and why they should be used. More fundamentally, people must want to use them. They must identify the problems with old approaches and foresee or, better yet, experience the benefits of the new ways. This is particularly relevant with conflict management training, where thinking differently about conflict is a prerequisite for acting differently towards conflict (i.e., surfacing and engaging in conflict as an opportunity for learning and development, instead of the common “fight or flight” response).

Conflict management training provides more effective ways to think about conflict. What seems like a destructive burden can be viewed as a creative possibility. Training can show people how to see old problems through “new eyes.” In short, training should focus not just on teaching new skills, but on new ways of thinking and analyzing that make new skills necessary and useful.

Training in conflict management is, in many ways, quite similar to conflict management itself. In both, a complete and rich diagnosis (or learning to think differently) precedes solution seeking. Before promoting new ways of dealing with it, effective conflict management and conflict management training should begin with a careful and thorough diagnosis of conflict. This diagnosis should begin by answering several questions (e.g., what is conflict?; at what level of depth and complexity does it present itself?; why does it occur?).

Only after gaining new insight about conflict can new tools and models for addressing it be effectively introduced. Finally, specific ideas and plans for implementing new ways of handling conflict can then be developed.

Step One:

Diagnosis The first step in effective conflict management and conflict management training is the art of “going slow to go fast.” Given that most people tend to have a natural and conditioned aversion to conflict, managers often see themselves as professional problem solvers. The problem arises when they commonly rush to solutions before fully understanding the parameters and causes of the conflicts they seek to solve. This is particularly the case when it comes to conflict, since rushing to conclusions and solutions often results in solving the wrong problems. Instead, managers need to learn and trainers should provide new frameworks for fully defining and analyzing conflict before choosing an appropriate intervention strategy. Such “tools” can be taught.

One such tool, the ROI Diagnostic, helps managers define the primary level at which a conflict resides prior to seeking a solution. This tool helps people in a conflict or third parties (including managers), to do a full but relatively quick diagnosis of a conflict’s primary presenting level. The three levels of the ROI Diagnostic include:

  • Resource level (a tangible good or ser-vice)
  • Objective level (the purpose or goal of an individual)
  • Identity level (the values and beliefs that motivate people)

jay rothman(This use of ROI is related to the other well-known ROI acronym in that they both are associated with improving a company’s bottom line.)

Suppose a window office becomes available in a certain department and there are two people with the same job classification who qualify for the office. How do you decide who gets it? Is this a resource-, objective- or identity-based conflict?

On the surface, this type of conflict seems like a resource-based conflict: two employees are fighting over the office. However, the conflict could also be about conflicting objectives among office personnel. Perhaps one person sees the window office as providing necessary space for doing his or her job better. Or, is it rooted deeper in people’s sense of self-worth (e.g., “I didn’t get an office window because the boss doesn’t think I’m as valuable to the company as others.”)

Why is it happening?

Having diagnosed the primary level at which the conflict resides at the moment (knowing that these levels can shift, usually downward, and that most conflicts exist on several levels simultaneously), a manager should then analyze the causes of the conflict. This is especially so if the conflict is determined to reside at either the objective or identity levels, in which case motivations and concerns are usually fairly complex. By asking the appropriate questions (why does this problem matter to you so much?; what do you think some of its causes have been?), and utilizing the self diagnosis of conflict participants, managers can begin to develop insight about the causes of deeper problems. Only then should managers start to design, or better yet, elicit from the disputants themselves, an approach to address the conflict.

If we look at the window conflict, we can decide why each person might think they should get the window office. If viewed simply as a resource, the office designation might be based purely on seniority, or who’s been there longest. If it is viewed as an objective, then after probing more deeply to understand what function the office might serve, we must find ways to have that function addressed (with or with-out the office). For example, the desire for the window office might be based on health concerns, like someone who may get headaches from artificial lighting, or the need for a larger space for holding meetings. If it is seen as primarily an identity issue, the concerns might be based on the feeling of not being valued by the company, and thus these deeper problems must be addressed on a wider, more systemic level.

How should conflicts be addressed?

Sometimes conflicts should be solved and sometimes they should be managed. However conflicts should just as often be fully and safely “engaged” where they are surfaced, studied, and generally seen as a learning opportunity. Learning itself may be all that is necessary, or possible, with some conflicts. Given that “learning organizations” are increasingly proving them-selves ready to ride the rough waters of change and development, conflict may be a gift in disguise.

However, in the case of the window office, a concrete solution, or at least a way to concretely address the concerns, is needed. This question would be approached differently depending on the responses the employees express to the manager concerning why the window office is important to each of them. If the issue has more to do with their feeling of being recognized and valued as an employee, perhaps there are other ways that recognition could be bestowed upon the person who doesn’t get the window office. If the question has to do with health concerns, perhaps there are lighting alternatives that could solve the problem. If it’s about seniority then it’s clear who deserves the office!

Step Two:

The ARIA Framework* Diagnosing a conflict’s primary level and causes is not a very complex or daunting process, nor one that takes much time out of a manager’s day. A full and thoughtful diagnosis allows a manager to begin to develop a full intervention strategy for addressing the conflict. The ARIA process is designed to assist in this and help trans form the dissonance of conflict into the resonance of creativity and cooperation. The ARIA process consists of four steps:

Surfacing Antagonism.

What got the parties in conflict the first place? What is the presenting problem? In the case of the window office, both parties feel they deserve the office for different but equally valid reasons.

Fostering Resonance.

What does each side care about most and is there any overlap between their main concerns? They both feel that part of their argument for the office includes addressing their needs to feel appreciated by the company.

Generating Inventions.

What type of solutions should be applied to converting the negative dynamics of conflict into opportunity and creative change? By sharing their concerns, they realize that they can creatively solve their problem where they will both be satisfied.

Planning Action.

Design a specific action plan for clarifying who will do what, why, when, and how. After agreeing that the possibility of sharing the office by splitting the space in two is a realistic solution, the two then put the plan into action by writing a proposal to their manager.

Once the ROI level of the conflict has been determined, managers can select what phase in the ARIA process to start with. As you can see from Figure 1, if it is an identity-level conflict, antagonism will have to be safely surfaced before resonance can be fostered and solutions can be designed. If it is an objective-level conflict, resonance should be fostered before moving on to solution seeking. If it is a resource-level conflict, then inventing creative solutions for mutual gains can begin immediately.

The ROI-ARIA tool kit provides a frame-work for managers to work with conflict and transform it from a destructive burden to a creative opportunity for organizational learning, growth, development, and planned change. Conflict management training and intervention share one essential feature: both open a window to looking at conflict in a new light. Through this window, managers may gain powerful new ways of seeing, analyzing, and ultimately addressing conflict. It is through an actual change in organizational thinking, beginning with managers, that new conflict resolution methods can best be used.