Every leader has to deal with recurring conflict at one point or another. I've seen some ugly examples of it over the years: disagreements between feuding executives; that one team member who refuses to take advice to change an unwanted behavior; a hard-driving manager who clashes with direct reports despite complaints and threats of quitting.
The conventional advice on how to deal with these situations emphasizes "collaboration." You know, you're supposed to sit down, calmly talk through your differences, and find a solution.
But what if nothing seems to work, no matter what you do? What if the conflict is so intense, so deeply emotional, or so complicated that people can't even stand to be in the same room?
When situations resist resolution, organizational psychologist Dr. Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler has the answer: She teaches us to resolve conflict through conflict freedom -- based on her new book, OPTIMAL OUTCOMES: Free Yourself from Conflict at Work, at Home, and in Life.
6 Ways to Practice Conflict Freedom
Dr. Goldman-Wetzler brings 40 years of research to the table to expose our conflict habits. In a recent episode of the Love in Action podcast, she teaches six powerful ways to help us stop engaging in behaviors that aggravate conflict and, ultimately, free ourselves from it.
1. Notice your conflict habits.
"Your conflict habits arise based on how you have been conditioned or taught to approach the world," shared Dr. Goldman-Wetzler. In recurring conflicts, you might blame or avoid others, blame yourself, or seek to collaborate even when others refuse to cooperate. Your habits interact with other people's habits to form a conflict pattern that keeps you stuck. Dr. Goldman-Wetzler says, "Noticing your own habits is the first step to changing them and breaking free from the patterns that result."
2. Map out the conflict to increase clarity and complexity.
Due to our fight-or-flight impulses, we tend to view even very complex conflicts in simplistic terms. To gain a clearer and more realistic, complex understanding of a situation, Dr. Goldman-Wetzler instructs us to map it out. Example: Write down as many people, groups, events, places, influences, and other relevant factors on one page as you can. Use connecting lines to show relationships between them. What do you notice? This allows you to identify levers for change that were impossible to see before and develop approaches to the conflict that are different than if you were still looking at the situation in a simpler way.
3. Acknowledge the shadow values driving the conflict.
Unlike ideal values, which we're proud to hold openly, 'shadow values' are hard for us to admit, even to ourselves. Because we're in denial about them, we're often unaware that they lead us to speak and act in ways that exacerbate conflicts. "Ideal and shadow values differ widely from person to person, and they can conflict in multiple ways -- with other people's values, and within yourself," notes Dr. Goldman-Wetzler. Acknowledge the existence of your own and others' shadow values -- even when you don't like or agree with those values -- to help break the conflict pattern.
4. Reroute other people's emotional reactions back to them.
If other people express emotions in a way that is challenging for you, even if they are reacting to something you said or did, remember that their emotional expression is rooted in their own history and experience, not yours. "Don't take it personally," explains Dr. Goldman-Wetzler. "Ask what is going on for them. This reroutes their reaction back to them (and away from you), where it belongs."
5. Predict, prevent, and prepare for negative unintended consequences.
Think ahead about the potential unintended consequences of your actions. How can you prevent them? If they do happen, how you can mitigate their effects?
6. Remember to take reality into account.
Stop looking backward at what went wrong. To achieve an optimal outcome, imagine your best-case future scenario in detail. Then take reality into account. Will your ideal scenario work, given the people and other constraints involved? If so, pursue it. If not, revise your ideal scenario until it takes the reality you're dealing with into account.