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Taking Action When It's Hard!

Conflict is inevitable. People have incompatible interests, goals, principles, and/or feelings — and thus "conflict." Despite our best efforts to prevent it, we all occasionally find ourselves in conflict with others. From time to time, we all find it difficult to take action in a conflict when we know we should.

Letting a reluctance to act become a pattern is where a real problem starts. Here are some of the symptoms:

  • The thought of talking out a problem is painful, so you substitute wishful thinking — "Maybe it will go away on its own."
  • When a reasonable opportunity to deal with the situation presents itself, you give the appearance that everything is fine. In reality, everything is not fine.
  • You spend time complaining about your situation, but you don't voice your concerns to the person with whom you are at odds.

Giving in to a pattern of non-action in conflict situations reflects badly on you. Others may see the passivity as a sign that you are not a team player and not a leader. Take steps to change the pattern to one of handling problems early, directly and constructively.

Step One requires self-analysis. Ask yourself if your inaction is a sign of anger, a need to retaliate, or a desire to control. Or is fear getting in your way — fear of conflict, fear of reprisal, fear of making the situation worse, fear of losing control of your emotions in front of others, fear of disapproval, fear of not being accepted?

Step Two calls for thinking that gets you moving forward and viewing obstacles as challenges. Even though it may feel awkward, give yourself a pep talk:
  • "A forceful style is sometimes necessary."
  • "I don't have to like someone in order to work with him/her."
  • "Taking the initiative to make a fresh start will reflect well on me."
  • "I anticipate doing well."
  • "Feel the fear, and do it anyway."
Take a moment to prepare yourself mentally.
  • Envision what you want; remember why taking action is necessary.
  • Focus on the things you have control over and can change. Push yourself to create solutions.
  • Consider the problem from the other person's perspective. Anticipate what others will question or resist, and prepare your response.
  • Set goals and deadlines for action, and then act on your plans on the planned date.
Step Three is action time! Take small steps, remember the importance of relationship building as you confront a conflict situation, and make every effort to act constructively. Here are some tips:
  • Make amends if called for, first privately, then publicly.
  • Start with easily resolved issues, then work up to more complicated ones.
  • Be respectful, courteous, and open-minded. (Putting oneself in another's shoes isn't always easy, but it is eye-opening — and mind-opening.)
  • Ask what you can do to improve the relationship. Listen to the answer; give your full and undivided attention.
  • Let the other person know diplomatically what s/he can do as well.
  • Give your full attention; show your attentiveness and receptivity by sitting up straight and leaning slightly forward. Do not cross your arms over your chest.
  • Signal that you are listening by nodding your head or saying "I see." (This doesn't mean you agree; it just means that you are listening.)
  • Don't interrupt.
  • Listen with your eyes. Observe the speaker's body language and maintain eye contact (without staring).
  • Mentally put yourself in the other's place and work to understand his/her point of view, motivation, reaction to the conflict, and approach to conflict resolution.
  • Avoid making assumptions; encourage the other person to talk or vent; and ask open-ended questions. Strive to learn what the other person needs.
  • Use various communication techniques to make certain you understand the other person's perspective (e.g., rephrase, restate, summarize, ask for examples to clarify, solicit ideas and solutions, and acknowledge the other's point of view without agreeing — "That's an interesting way of looking at it.") This active listening will improve your understanding and set a positive tone for the discussion.
  • Delay responding if you find yourself getting angry. Try deep breathing, counting to 10, requesting a break, and waiting until you feel ready to continue.

Step Four is taking time to reflect. Like Step One, this requires some self-analysis. Don't shortchange yourself and skip this step. You owe it to yourself to take pride in your accomplishments, identify aspects of taking action that you'd like to work on for the future, and assess where the actual conflict is in terms of resolution.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What did I do well?
  • What areas still need improvement?
  • Did I make steady, measurable progress?
  • How will others view my actions and me?
  • If the conflict remains, is it due to a lack of effort on my part?

Seek feedback from others you trust. Ask if your efforts at moving forward were direct and constructive and if you communicated openly, clearly, and with sensitivity.

Follow up with the person with whom you were in conflict.

  • Continue to take action and make steady progress. Remember, even small steps count.
  • Establish that your relationship remains professional and on good terms.

If the conflict remains unresolved:

  • First, allow some time to pass. Let emotions cool down.
  • Enlist others to look at the conflict objectively and help search for solutions.
  • Try again to resolve the conflict, either face-to-face or in writing.

Adapted from Managing Conflict Dynamics: A Practical Approach (2001) by Sal Capobianco, Mark H. Davis, and Linda A. Kraus and reprinted by Working Dynamics with the permission of Eckerd College Leadership Development Institute.

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