Key to Managing Conflict: Shared Language
I was delivering a conflict resolution training program the other day, and one of the participants told me that she absolutely hated conflict. There are lots of people in this boat, of course, but I asked her more about it, and she explained that when people disagree over ideas or what to do or how to handle things--that's fine. But conflict? She'll run into the other room if there's conflict.
This confused me. The two things she was describing (in my mind anyway) were the same thing. People disagreeing about what to do? That IS conflict. I probed more and she explained that conflict is when people yell at each other or get emotional, and that's what she can't stand.
It reminded me of the importance of shared language. In my organization (since conflict is my background), I talk about conflict a lot, and I have told people on my staff that I like having conflict. What I might not realize, is that some of the staff may be dreading it--associating the word conflict with drama, emotion, raised voices, and hurt feelings. I need to remember to "unpack" some of the words I use and make sure we are on the same page. If we define conflict more clearly (for example, establishing that disagreement over ideas is to be welcomed and encouraged, but we are going to maintain some ground rules about raised voices), then we'll be more effective. It takes some work to establish clear definitions of terms, but it pays dividends over time.
The same is true in managing conflict situations. In much of my work I use tools like the ladder of inference, because they give the parties a framework they can use to slow the conversation down. Taking time to go over the framework up front and explain the dynamics involved in how we make assumptions and interpret "reality" makes those tough conversations much easier because both parties share the language that drives the conversation.