The University Record, June 11, 1996

Dealing with conflict is an essential part of work, personal life

By Julie A. Peterson
News and Information Services

Do you seek out and thrive on conflict in your work or personal life? Or do you find it scary and avoid it whenever possible?

If the latter, you are among the majority of Americans. As a culture, we are taught to be uncomfortable with conflict and find it difficult to deal with, according to Brady Mikusko, an Ann Arbor mediator and therapist. Mikusko presented an "Introduction to Conflict Resolution" as part of the Workplace of the '90s Conference.

"Conflict is natural and inevitable," said Mikusko. "Conflict is neither good nor bad; it is simply a predictable occurrence within any relationship or team."

Furthermore, she emphasized, "dealing with conflict is critical to success in all areas of your life. If you learn to start dealing with conflict and thinking of it differently, you will feel better about yourself."

Participants in the workshop said conflict is scary to them because they fear a loss of control, loss of self-esteem or affection, criticism and hurtful remarks, or anger and confrontation. Many people, said Mikusko, view conflict as inevitably having a winner and a loser.

She identified several styles of handling conflict including competing, or fighting for your way at all costs (the "winner"); accommodating, or giving in to another's desires for the sake of keeping peace (the "loser"); avoiding, or withdrawing from the conflict entirely; and compromising, where each party gives up a little to settle on some halfway point.

Competers may get their way frequently, but at a high cost to their relationships at work or at home. Accommodaters and avoiders may smooth over disagreements, but their needs may not be met and they may harbor resentments which eventually damage the relationship. All of these styles may be appropriate to use at times, but when used exclusively may result in unresolved or escalating conflict.

Surprisingly, compromise, a style favored by many people, may not be much more effective than the first three methods of dealing with conflict. When the parties in a disagreement compromise, said Mikusko, they may wind up with a solution that makes nobody happy.

Mikusko advocated a fifth style---collaborating, or "win-win." With this method, she said, "both parties gain something. They don't necessarily gain what they want, but they gain something they need."

Communication---talking about the conflict---is the first step toward resolving it. Mikusko offered a worksheet to help participants prepare for the negotiation process.

Sample questions include: What are the problems/issues to be negotiated from each person's point of view? What are my goals/needs? Their goals/needs? What common ground is there between us? What are possible options for resolution?

Participants who practiced using the worksheet said this method of dealing with conflict was "less threatening" and that they were surprised to find they had common ground with the other person.

"People have a lot of fear," agreed Mikusko. "They haven't talked about so many things that they don't realize they aren't very far apart."

She also offered a list of communication guidelines for negotiating conflict:

 

Find a time and place for the discussion where there will not be interruptions.

 

Neutralize or "detoxify" the issue by presenting it an objective way. Separate the problem from the person.

 

Set ground rules for the discussion.

 

Speak only for yourself; use "I" messages instead of "you" messages.

 

State your case calmly and forthrightly so the other person can understand it. Be assertive, rather than aggressive or passive.

 

Let the other person know you understand his or her point of view. Respect the person's problems, feelings and perceptions.

 

Listen and do not interrupt. Ask questions to check your understanding.

 

Don't get sidetracked into non-relevant arguments. Don't react in kind to emotional explosions or arguments. Keep the discussion moving toward agreement.