A few years ago while traveling with my family and two of our friends in Italy, we visited the spectacularly beautiful island of Capri with its lush Gardens of Augustus, its Blue Grotto, its narrow, charming streets and its chic [expensive] shops.
Early in the afternoon, we stepped onto a full-size city bus to ride up to the lovely little village of Anacapri. The size of the bus is significant because the roads were very narrow.
When we reached the village, we were aghast to see another bus of the same size coming from the opposite direction. After a short time, we realized that both drivers were adamant; they were not going to "back down."
Our driver spent a minute or two yelling and gesturing from his seat before he got out of the bus and began ranting at the other driver, who had also left his vehicle. From our perch at the front of the bus, we saw people from the village come into the tiny street to watch the commotion. The two drivers continued to gesture wildly and rant at one another. My companions and I were somewhat concerned. We could not imagine how this was going to end.
Suddenly, I was shocked to see our bus driver, still in the midst of heated discussion, look up at me and wink. He was clearly enjoying this spectacle.
Later, after the other driver backed up his bus a number of yards and we returned to Capri, our friend Tom referred to this performance as street theater, a type of entertainment I had never witnessed with such drama.
Never before had I considered conflict as a form of participatory entertainment. In fact, from my Southern U. S. female roots, I considered conflict a thing to avoid at all costs. I was uncomfortable with it and I certainly did not consider it entertainment.
Since that time, however, in a number of educational, coaching and consulting roles, I have had the opportunity to experience and study conflict in a variety of situations—when students were suspended from school, when staff disagreed about policies, when employees resisted change, when community members questioned personnel decisions, etc. My attitudes about conflict and how to approach it have definitely changed.
I see that one's attitude about conflict does not have to be the one I previously held. I also see that conflict can be managed and can even be beneficial. I have never reached the performance plateau of the bus driver in Anacapri, but I have approached personal and professional conflict with a very different point of view. That view includes some of the following suggestions once conflict situations arise:
- Focus on how to maintain the relationship. Keep in mind that it is possible to detest an action and even the words someone speaks and still honor the person.
- Recognize that you could be mistaken. Often, saying that you could be mistaken deflects anger—even if you are not mistaken.
- It's not always about me. Remembering that another person's opinion or attitude is most often a statement of their own needs and wants reduces defensive and sometimes offensive comments.
- Be a duck. Allowing the other person to vent reduces the level of emotion in the discussion. I have pretended I was a duck, imagining that whatever an angry person said was rolling off my back. [Students in my leadership classes found this very useful. After I told one group about this strategy, a couple of them bought little rubber duckies for everyone in the class to remind them to pretend they were ducks.]
- Recognize and discuss your emotions and allow the other person the same opportunity. Discussing the emotions involved helps to discover real issues and concerns. It also frequently improves the relationship.
- Listen for underlying interests and needs. What does the other person really want? Sometimes the issue is not the method one uses but the intended outcome. Sometimes the issue is simply the method. On occasion, it may also be “street theater.”
- Honor yourself. Are you clear on your own interests and needs? Have you stated them in a matter-of-fact way?
- Consider a variety of alternative. How can both individuals or both groups win?
- If the disagreement becomes abusive, explain that you are going to leave or ask the other person to leave until both of you can discuss the conflict rationally.
- It is a leader's responsibility to manage his own conflict situations and often to mediate conflict between others. It is also a responsibility to model appropriate conflict management skills so that other people see how to do it effectively.
If a leader works to reduce the potential for conflict and makes it clear that conflict can be used to improve a situation for everyone's benefit, others learn how to manage conflict in appropriate and even productive ways.
After a number of clients and students in my leadership classes mentioned that they would like to learn more about how to deal with conflict, I compiled a guide to managing personal and professional conflict situations for individuals and groups. It includes the nature of conflict, how to prevent conflict situations from arising, how to manage one's own conflict, steps to mediate conflict between groups of people, and additional conflict management resources.