Dr. Jack N. Singer, Ph.D.
Managing interpersonal conflict in
organizations is among the most critical and important skills that
employees on all levels of the organization can possess.
Job insecurity, fueled by fears of downsizing, mergers and an
unknown organizational future, produces fertile ground for the
development of conflict. Moreover, advances in technology,
which often are viewed as threatening, magnify the potential for
anger and frustration in the workplace.
Unresolved or insensitively managed conflict negatively impacts
productivity and morale. Ultimately, the bottom line is affected. On
the other hand, allowing conflict to surface and skillfully
resolving it can be a platform for enhancing employee trust, team
building and creativity.
The good news is that managers, trainers and human resources
directors can easily learn conflict resolution strategies, put them
into practice, and teach them to their employees.
The following three-step program for assessing and implementing a
conflict resolution program is a proven, successful plan of attack:
• STEP 1. EVALUATING CONFLICT MANAGEMENT STYLE
Several self-assessment questionnaires have been developed over the
years giving people insight into how they react in typical conflict
situations. The insight derived from scoring these questionnaires
provides an understanding of what "buttons" get pushed when a person
• STEP 2. IDENTIFYING CONFLICT MANAGEMENT BEHAVIORS
People resort to behavioral habits when experiencing conflict with
others. These reactions include:
Non-productive behaviors, such as: confronting, dominating,
defending, using sarcasm, hostile humor, repressing emotions,
insisting on being right, stonewalling, and blaming;
Neutral behaviors, such as: avoiding, cooling off,
apologizing, and giving in or backing off to avoid confrontation;
Positive behaviors, such as: active listening, empathizing,
disarming, inquiring, using "I feel" statements, and recognizing how
your internal dialogue impacts your emotional reactions
The goal is to eliminate negative and neutral behaviors and practice
positive confrontation reduction skills until they become new
habits. On the average, these skills can be learned in only 21 days
of concentrated practice!
• STEP 3. LEARNING POWERFUL CONFRONTATION REDUCTION SKILLS
Active Listening. The key to all interpersonal communications
is genuine listening, as opposed to defensive listening, where you
plan your retort while the other person is
talking to you.
In order to begin to really listen, paraphrase what the other person
says in your own words, without judging, agreeing or disagreeing.
Listen to and reflect the content, needs and feelings of the other
Next, ask for feedback to determine whether you interpreted
correctly. If you have not, ask for clarification. Continue this
process until you are sure that you have heard what the other person
is saying and how he or she really feels emotionally.
Once you are certain that you understand the message and feelings
expressed by the other person, respond. The other person then
listens and paraphrases for you. This process continues until you
have both clarified your positions and are certain that the other
person really heard you and understands.
Empathizing. This involves putting yourself in the other
person's shoes and trying to see the world through his or her eyes,
taking into account cultural, racial, gender and experiential
Disarming. The fastest way to defuse an argument is to find
some truth in what the other person is saying, even if you do not
agree with the basic criticism or complaint. For example, saying "I
can understand how you'd feel angry with me since you believed that
I started the rumor" acknowledges and validates the angry person's
feelings without actually agreeing with what was said. This opens
the door to clarification, feedback and reconciliation.
Inquiring. By asking for clarification of ideas, needs and
feelings you signal a feeling of respect and can then work toward
mutual understanding and compromise.
"I Feel" Statements. This is a primary skill in interpersonal
communications. Expressing yourself with such statements as, "I feel
angry because you seem to be avoiding me" is much more productive
than the accusatory, "you made me angry and it's your fault that
I've had a bad day at work today." In the first scenario, you take
responsibility for your own feelings and share them; in the second,
you escalate the confrontation by blaming and putting the person on
In addition, you tell the other person specifically what you need
that will make you feel good or what can be done to improve the
relationship and avoid further misunderstandings and confrontations.
Internal Dialogue. The key to analyzing your vulnerability to
being provoked into confrontations is to understand how your
automatic thoughts, including your assumptions and conclusions,
cause every emotional reaction.
Examples of these distortions are: "I should have gone to work
despite being ill" ( using should, must, and have to in judging your
actions); "My boss doesn't care about me...only about my
productivity" (reading your boss' mind about what he must be
thinking and feeling); "They'll probably eliminate my job soon" (catastrophising
or fortune telling about what negative
things will happen to you in the future; and "I'm stupid for
allowing this to happen to me" (negatively labeling yourself instead
of describing your behavior as unfortunate or unproductive).
Once you learn about the distortion habits in your automatic
thinking, you can learn how to challenge them and develop more
rational, alternative thoughts. The end result is actually
dissolving negative emotions and a healthy, more reasonable outlook
on every situation in which you find yourself.
Interpersonal conflict is healthy when it brings a rich
sharing of ideas, mutual respect and an understanding and
appreciation of diverse opinions, needs, and values. Teaching your
employees to understand how they traditionally react in conflict
situations and how to use confrontation reduction skills leads to
greater trust, less stress, more creativity, and can ignite the
team. The ultimate benefits are enhanced quantity and quality of
products and services!
Dr. Jack Singer
is a member of the Family & Marriage Counseling Directory
and a practicing Clinical Psychologist and Professional Speaker. You
can reach Dr. Jack directly at (800) 497-9880 and email: