As members of this astonishing and often surprising generation, we understand that succeeding in life takes more than just academic achievement and extracurricular activities. Inter- and intra-personal skills are other ‘must haves’, whether you are applying for a scholarship or seeking for a job. Within the wide range of communication skills, there is one sub-skill you must not forget: the conflict management skill – the skill of planning to avoid conflict where possible and organizing to resolve conflict when it occurs.
Al Pilcher, a lecturer in the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University and a two-time Olympic athlete, recently explained to me the root of a conflict. All conflicts begin with the word “competition” – a positive, fair, and friendly process that brings out the best in people and stimulates new achievements.
Competition results in conflict, however, when it becomes unfriendly and bitter. Conflict, in contrast to competition, brings out the worst in people. It can be defined as a struggle between individuals or groups with opposing needs, ideas, beliefs, values, or goals.
What is important about conflicts is that the results are not predetermined. You can choose to interpret a conflict in many different ways. For example, a conflict can be considered to be good because it raises and addresses problems, energizes work on appropriate issues, and is a source of motivation. A conflict can also be bad, however, because it hampers productivity, lowers morale, stimulates more conflicts, and causes inappropriate behaviour.
According to the group development research done by Bruce Tuckman in 1965, the stages of team development involve the four following stages: 1) forming, 2) storming, 3) norming, and 4) performing. At the “forming” stage, we see politeness, insecurity, anxiety, excitement, and an attempt to define goals. The second stage, “storming”, conflicts emerge, ideas are criticized, and we also see some resentment. As we progress to the “norming” stage, we find agreement on rules and the sharing of information. Finally at the “performing” stage, most conflicts are resolved as team members work towards achieving the same goal.
Let’s elaborate on the critical stage of “storming” in team development. Storming refers to the process of brainstorming, where a number of ideas are generated in attempt to find a solution for a particular problem. It is also at this stage where the team lingers at a mutually exclusive situation. Team members debate between many ideas, attempting to finalize with one single idea.
One important method of narrowing down the numerous ideas while minimizing conflict is the idea of “fight or flight”: should you fight for your idea or should you conform to another? Neither is good nor bad. In fact, it is a personal choice – you may choose according to your conflict or how important the issue is to you. If you believe that the opposing idea may potentially be more successful, then you may choose to flight and avoid conflict altogether.
If both sides of the team are standing strong on their own idea, why not try to follow Thomas Kilman’s Conflict Resolution Grid? Five ways to deal with conflicts are suggested in the Grid: 1) Avoid, 2) Accommodate, 3) Compete, 4) Compromise, and 5) Collaborate. Of course, as mentioned earlier, it is best to avoid conflict if possible. If you value relationship and feel that it is better to respond to others’ interest, then you may choose to accommodate, or give in. However, if you feel that the value of the issue, justice, and the achievement of your own opinion is superior, then you may choose to compete, or work to get your way. This is not to say either way is bad.
But why take the solvable problems to the extreme when you can simply compromise and collaborate? To compromise, you must be willing to give and take. Figure out what is best in both your idea and the opposing idea, then collaborate on the best aspects of both to perform at the team’s best. Indira Gandhi, India’s first and to date only female Prime Minister, once said, “You can’t shake hands with a clenched fist.”
Conflict is inevitable in human nature. Instead of taking conflict to the wrong route and making it big, a more peaceful approach may be a better alternative. Listening, oral communication, interpersonal communication, and teamwork skills – all of which are part of the conflict management skill – are highly sought after by employers. In other words, the skill to avoiding or resolving conflicts is crucial in the path to success. Next time you are about to be engaged in a conflict, take a step back and remember Bruce Tuckman’s stages of team development, the fight-or-flight option, and Thomas Kilman’s resolution grid!
1. Myers, David. Psychology (7th edition). New York, NY: Worth Publishers, 2004
2. “Six Steps Toward Conflict Resolution.” Teaching Ideas Center. 2008: National Council of Teachers of English. Aug. 12, 2008. http://www.foundationcoalition.org/home/keycomponents/teams/conflict1a.html
4. “Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 2008: Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Aug. 13, 08. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forming-storming-norming-performing
5. “Thomas Kilman Conflict Resolution Grid.” 1997: Pepperdine University Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. Aug. 13, 08. http://www.nccmpi.org/assets/Nina_Lunch.pdf
KELLY KUNG was born in Hong Kong but has lived in Vancouver, British Columbia for most of her life. She graduated from Burnaby South Secondary School in 2008 and continued on to obtain her Bachelor of Science degree at the University of British Columbia. Kelly is also an alumnus of the program Shad Valley International at Carleton University in Ottawa.