Check this out: Murray arrives late. Janine forgets her backpack. Bob visits with another table. And you arrive thirty minutes early with an outline to launch the group project. Organized? Or rather, have the seeds been sown for group conflict?
I once had to work with a hellish group. One woman and I clashed; we both wanted to lead our newly assigned group. I would have conceded, but she had a poor style of delegating tasks. She assigned not a single complete task, and none of the tasks connected to one another. But, the prof adored her—had the hots for her. So, I found another group.
But that other group turned hostile. The leader, my once dear friend, turned on me. To this day, I don’t know why. But I became the outsider. The prof too turned on me. He put me down for my disability; he would say, “I have no respect for those people.” He encouraged the class to gang up on me. Soon, every group presentation referred to me—in a bad light.
And then someone stole my great idea for my paper. When I ran my idea by the prof after class, a fellow student who sat behind me stayed and listened. Despite my paper getting a much higher grade, and despite me having consulted the prof on my idea almost daily, the prof still condemned me for possible plagiarism.
And then the prof gloated about an advocacy poster he once saw. He described the poster to the class in rich detail. When I told him that I hired an artist to make the poster, he called me a liar. So, I brought the disk with the poster in its various stages. He kept the disk, but never thanked me. A few classes later, he again gloated about the poster, not mentioning my name.
We’ve all had hellish groups, haven’t we? So, how can we best handle conflict, whether in groups, work, family, or life?
Ken Lawson, M.A., Ed.M., outlines ways to handle office conflict in his book Successful Conflict Resolution: (1) Understand the nature of business conflict, (2) Identify potential conflict scenarios, (3) Learn to diffuse conflict, (4) Foster an atmosphere of collaboration:
- Conflict is healthy: “Encourage staff to embrace conflict …. It’s healthy for people to disagree with each other and to lobby for different ideas” (p. 86).
- But when conflict arises, record it: “Ask yourself if there is a pattern in the conflicts that have occurred at your workplace this year …. Start a diary” (p. 75).
- And make guidelines for conflict resolution: “Do you have an official set of rules of conduct at work that employees can follow …. If you don’t have a system, why not consider creating one” (p. 76).
- Set rules for conflict management: “Establish ground rules …. There will be no abusive language or swear words …. There will be no derogatory comments or personal attacks …. Everyone will have an allotted time (no more than five minutes) to air an opinion …. During a speech, people will listen and not interrupt …. People should keep discussions to issues, not personalities” (p. 88).
- But what should you do if bad conflict strikes? First, “having admitted to yourself that the conflict is serious, you should approach the person with whom you have the disagreement. It is best to do this in private and in person” (p. 163). “You might have to wait until the other person is ready to talk” (p. 163).
- Once the person agrees to a conflict resolution meeting, Lawson says to suggest venues and times for a meeting but to show that you are open to suggestions (p. 164).
- During the conflict management meeting, “agree to spend at least ten minutes exploring several options. You might agree to voice them in turn or to spend some time scribbling them out and then reading them aloud” (p. 172).
- Compare and rate your listed options. But be neutral and open-minded: “When the options have been aired, it is important for neither party to say which option they prefer at this stage or to express outrage at any of the proposals” (p. 174). Each side then chooses the best option, the worst option, and most likely option for an agreement.
- Edit the other person’s best option for conflict resolution: “Both parties should revise each other’s preferred options” (p. 177). “By now, if there is room for agreement, it should be clear what items they agree on” (p. 177).
- If there is no agreement, consider arbitration (legal action that leads to a winner and loser) or mediation (action using an unbiased, impartial third party that leads to win-win or compromise).
I interviewed with a national corporation. The manager said her officemates hated but loved each other. Then she asked me how I dealt with conflict.
I thought to myself, I love to spar. I just don’t have a fighter spirit.
But we all can learn, can’t we? After all, out of the womb, none of us could read, write, or walk—nor box and bicker Mike Tyson style.