No one has ever accused me of being a conflict management guru. I don’t like conflict. I don’t like raised voices and emotional exclamations. I don’t like being involved in conflict and I don’t like having to manage it. Putting my head in the sand would be my preferred approach to conflict management but if you didn’t already know, ignoring conflict doesn’t make it go away. Also in the “didn’t work” category are shouting over it, silently willing it to end, and declaring it to be over when it’s not. I’ve finally learned several effective conflict management strategies, but my most important achievement is conflict no longer inspires me to run and hide.
If conflict doesn’t make you crazy, you’re ahead of the game. There are people who aren’t immediately intimidated by it but for many, possibly most of us, conflict often feels like an emotional bomb threat. We rarely invite it into our lives. It often overshadows our ability to respond wisely. The face of conflict can be threatening and even fearful. But there is opportunity to be discovered by the leader who can disarm it and transform it.
Years ago, I had a transformative experience, it quite literally gave me new perspective on conflict. It didn’t turn me into a guru of conflict resolution, but it did take away my fear. I was in my office, minding my own to do list, when someone hurried by and saw me. They stopped and said, “Aren’t you going to go outside?” I’m sure I looked confused and said, “Why?” The response was something on the order of, “Really? You don’t know what’s going on? Yikes! You need to get out there.”
As I got up from my desk, already feeling anxious, because even with such limited information, I knew something disruptive was happening. I wasn’t wrong. Chaos had erupted, the police had been called and were already on site. The incident itself wasn’t the lesson in conflict management. The soon to emerge conflict was between me and the police officer. There had been a mental health crisis and some threatening behaviors were a part of it. Protocol in Nashville, like many cities, is to call the police and a mental health crisis team.
While we were waiting for the crisis team, the officer on the scene had decided to proceed with measures not indicated for this situation. There is no intent in telling this story to be critical of law enforcement. In fact, one reason many cities have mental health crisis teams is because law enforcement shouldn’t have to also be mental health practitioners. I can tell a dozen stories of how officers on the scene immediately helped us secure and resolve mental/behavioral health crises. This doesn’t happen to be one of them.
The crisis team had not arrived thirty minutes or more into the incident. It was mid-summer and the heat of the day wasn’t helping anyone feel more calm. The person in question wasn’t actively destructive and didn’t have anything that could be used as a weapon but continued to pace and be threatening. The officer made it clear he had better things to do than wait on the crisis team. He announced he was going to “cuff him and take him downtown even if it meant using the taser.”
I arrived on the scene in the middle of that. There were probably twenty people watching and trying to figure out how to help. As soon as I stepped into the middle of it, the assumption was, of course, I’d take care of it. All eyes were on me. Inside my head, the conversation sounded like this “Well, damn. I hate this. I really hate this. C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, calm down, be OK as I tried to telepathically slay the dragon of a probable hallucination. Why can’t magic wands be real? OK, Donna, get it together. Figure this out. It’s not your happy place but it is your job.”
Outside my head, I walked to the officer and introduced myself. “Thanks for coming. This is unusual. I’m not sure what happened, but hopefully the crisis team can help and hopefully they’ll get here soon. Let me find out who called them and see if there’s an ETA.” The officer was already over it and he definitely did not want to continue to wait. His response was “Ma’am, I don’t have all day and I know exactly how to handle these situations. I’m going to cuff him and take him downtown. If he appears aggressive as I approach, I’m going to taze him.”
I felt instantly frustrated because for whatever reason this officer didn’t understand protocol for this kind of situation, but I also felt nervous and a little intimidated, trying not to show it. I tried to sound reasonable and authoritative. “Officer Smith, if you take him downtown for processing, they won’t. Nothing has happened here that anyone is going to press charges over. He needs to be evaluated by professionals. If you take him downtown you will inevitably have to transport him again to an emergency room. We really need to wait. He’s agitated but he isn’t hurting anything or anyone at this point.”
I thought it was a reasoned response. He thought I just didn’t get it. After a few more exchanges of “I know what to do”, “No, I know what to do”, I was getting supremely frustrated but also feeling huge waves of anxiety. This might go belly up if I couldn’t figure out how to handle it. Damn it Donna. I needed a different approach.
Not a super funny person by nature, I don’t know why I decided on using a little humor as my first option conflict resolution strategy, but I did. I moved in a little closer, wanting to use a much quieter voice. I said, “Look, I really do need your help with this. But for this situation, I’m pretty sure I know the best way to ride it out. If you want to keep going back and forth to figure out whose dog is bigger, let’s just agree that today mine is.” Like I said, I’m not super funny and he didn’t know exactly how to take me, but it did diffuse the situation. He laughed, sort of, raised his hands and said, “OK, we’ll wait a few more minutes, but as you already know, sometimes the crisis team can take hours. If they don’t show soon, I’ll try to approach him and ask him to take a ride with me. If he does, can you have someone follow to the ER?”
And that’s what happened. Boom. Conflict resolved.
What did I learn? Two things.
- Conflict is not nearly as scary as it was amped up to be in my mind. I still don’t like it, but it doesn’t freak me out anymore. I learned when you put yourself out there, right in the middle of your own fear and discomfort, the worst thing you’ve imagined will almost never happen.
- It’s good to have identified some conflict management strategies before hand. Don’t misunderstand, there’s no magic bullet for conflict management. If there was, we wouldn’t be afraid of it. But there are deliberate and thoughtful skills to employ in the face of it. Conflict is almost always emotional, so it’s good to be patient and remain as calm as possible. The outcome of how a conflict is handled can be of little consequence or of great consequence. If the stakes are low, it might be in the interest of peace to agree to disagree and let it go. If the stakes are high, perseverance and strong negotiating skills may be required. Tried and true communication skills are also essential: listen, be patient, demonstrate respect, and yes, even try a little humor.
There’s much online writing about conflict in the workplace. These short, on point articles are a great place to start.