Handle conflict productively: take risk aversion into account

(This is part 3 in the series Leading people through conflict)

To lead people safely through conflict, you have to be aware of risk aversion as a factor. If you don’t, it might prevent people from following your lead.

This is the third article in a series that addresses the question: How to lead people through conflict? Effective leadership in handling conflicts allows you to utilise the unused potential of conflict situations.

In the second article in this series, Getting Your Message Across Successfully, we focused on the importance of trust in communicating your message. We noted that the manner in which you communicate is at least as important as the content of what you communicate.

In this third article we elaborate on how the perception of what you communicate is influenced by an important emotional factor: risk aversion.

Risk aversion as a factor in handling conflict

As we’ll explain, risk aversion plays a large role in the cause and course of conflicts. Trust in you, as a leader handling conflict, is dependent on factors perceived under the influence of emotions. Many of these emotions rise from a bias of risk-aversion and a corresponding need to assess personal safety.

Risk aversion is a bias that is present in most situations that are perceived as carrying potential risk. Conflict is one of those situations where people feel unsafe, or in other words: a situation that they perceive as a potential risk.

People estimate intuitively what level of risk they perceive, and what it means for them personally. This in turn decides what action people take, or do not take. You have to be aware that people base this decision mainly based on emotional, non-rational factors. The decision is largely informed by the desire to avoid risk.

When people perceive a risk, they decide what NOT to do

It turns out that once people decide what a situation means to them assessed from the personal risk involved, they decide above all what NOT to do.

Unfortunately, for the development of truth telling to power and achieving results, NOT doing what is asked of you isn’t the way to make a career. That is why people will not tell you they are not going to do what you ask them.

People will find a way to act as if they’re doing what you ask, while in fact being busy with not doing what you ask. Clearly this can’t be the way to handle conflicts productively. Or for that matter doing anything at all productively.

Trust: the critical success factor in handling conflict successfully

This means that when you find yourself in a situation that may be considered a possible risk to the people involved, such as a conflict situation, it is important to be aware of risk aversion as a factor. Risk aversion means people will be cautious in following your lead. They will rather do nothing, than do something that they perceive as being risky.

People will first assess their level of trust in you. Is your proposition safe to be followed?

Granting most people’s natural bias of risk aversion, it pays off to accept that people assess each other instantly on a personal scale of trust.

Again and again it appears that two things determine the outcome of this personal assessment.

To gain trust, you need to be credible and predictable

People ask themselves, mostly unconsciously, if the situation and the proposition at hand is:

  1. Credible (do you hear and address my safety concerns?)
  2. Predictable (do I know that what you offer as a solution is doable for me?)

This question about the level of safety is intuitively and therefore instantaneously answered. The person assessing the level of trust doesn’t take the time to think about the content of the message or the rational arguments and facts.

The focus instead is on factors judged under the influence of emotions. These emotions rise from what is perceived as a result of the bias of risk-aversion.

Take the lead in establishing safety

Unfortunately, you as the leader proposing something about the conflict, will intuitively be seen as the representation of the possible risk. This possibility of risk is perceived to be greater in conflict situations than in normal interactions. Emotions in conflict cases will play an even larger role in assessing situations and people.

Summed up: this intuitive decision-making is based on risk aversion. It rules whether you, the leader, and the proposition you make is deemed trustworthy or not.

Going through conflict, trust is the critical success factor.

You have the possibility to positively influence the level of trust. You do this by actively taking care of the credibility and predictability of your proposals. The key is to look at your proposals as they are perceived by those you ask to follow you. The fact of addressing these issues openly will lead to a lowering of the emotional tension. This in turn will mean a higher level of trust in you as a leader.

By Rudi de Graaf and Iris Dorreboom

About us: 30+ years of international experience in executive coaching, working with CEO’s, their colleagues and direct reports. We provide you with an experienced, unbiased outside perception, and results focused advice.

We focus on handling conflicts productively, because we know they hide unexploited opportunities for growth.

Please feel invited to ask us how we can assist you in handling conflicts productively and leading people safely through conflict. Contact us directly, or ask us to contact you by using the contact form below.

Read part 1 and 2 in the series Leading people through conflict:
Leading people though conflict
Getting your message across successfully while handling conflict

or go to Part 4 in the series: Leading people through conflict: how to create safety

Interested in handling conflicts productively?

Ask us to contact you for more information.

  • We only use your e-mail address to answer your question.
  • (You can ask us to call you)

How to organise an effective conversation to resolve conflicts

This article is the 8th in the series on leading people through conflict productively.

Break through the deadlock of conflict

While handling a conflict, it is essential you, as a leader, have a conversation with all those who are involved in the conflict situation. In this article, we sketch what you need to have an ideal conversation. This kind of conversation will break through the deadlock of a conflict situation and will enable people to move forward in focusing on the business goal.

The ideal conversation to resolve conflicts

Ideally a leader confronted with a conflict situation would be able to fully explore all the aspects of the situation on conflict related aspects. The conversation with those involved should be aimed

  • first at understanding the situation from the perspective of those concerned,
  • while at the same time uncovering what drove the actions and the behavior,
  • and also what caused the consequences.

This ideal conversation would aim to clarify what the people involved in the conflict situation perceive and experience.

Subsequently the conversation would establish what people imagine and what is less than factual (mostly perception based, or hear-say ‘facts’). It would also establish what is indeed real and based on facts.

You, as the leader, need to discover a shared basis of experience and perception as a basis for handling the conflict productively.

Once this shared experience and perception has been established, the interdependence of the situation with the other causal relations that are the real drivers of the conflict becomes visible and understandable.

The results of this approach

The results of this discovery conversation make it possible to evaluate what issues you need to address. You will have discovered what is real. You have also discovered what is not real, but nevertheless important as a factor because people believe it to be real.

Potential personal risks

A complicating factor (which is why we stressed the above is an ideal conversation) is that often people perceive sharing what has been an individual experience as a potential personal and professional risk.

This perception of the risk of sharing personal perceptions even increases when the topic is related to a conflict situation. It is therefore a critical success factor to meet the need for safety or at least to identify this need and have a conversation about it. To be effective, the conversation should meet standards that allow the process to be experienced as transparent and invitingly open to the individual experience of those involved.

The proof is in the…

Saying you have an eye for safety is one, but the proof is in everyone’s actual individual experience. In order to provide the proof, your focus should be on the needs for safety of those involved in a noticeable, believable, and appreciable manner.

The reason you do this is not to please or assuage comments uttered in satisfaction reviews, but to release the right energy to accomplish the business goal. Achieving business and development objectives and attaining the goal is why we propose to leaders to act in this manner and with this method. It just works!

Release potential to achieve the goal by addressing safety concerns

The business goal ought to direct and give meaning to your actions. One of these actions has to be, in our view, insuring that the means are employable to their full potential.

In the case of conflicts, the means are the people. You have to meet their individual needs in order to release that potential. In the case of conflicts it is primarily safety that people need from you. Fulfill this need and you can handle conflict productively.

People are wired in such a way that makes it imperative that you at the very least acknowledge their safety needs. To meet these needs is to enable people to use their full potential to achieve the goal, cooperate accordingly, and evaluate and adapt based on an overlap of personal reality and actual reality.

Something new takes some time to get used to

As a rule of thumb you can safely assume individual safety needs were hardly ever discussed before, let alone met. Usually, there are neither organizational procedures nor cultural habitual practices to guide behaviour around meeting safety concerns.

This means you have to reassure people. The individual concerns have to be brought out into the open and discussed. It should be kept in mind that discussing these concerns about risk and safety is in itself something that people do not do easily. If you do it with care, the pay-off is huge, because addressing the need for safety and taking these concerns seriously is something essential that people do need, but hardly ever experience.

Most of the time, the simple fact you identified the need for safety and offered room for discussion is enough to put the common reflex of risk aversion temporarily at bay. The reflex itself will never be put to rest entirely, but it will be allayed for a while.

A crucial precondition is that what you propose to do proves indeed to have been predictably safe. The willingness produced by a bona fide effort to identify the safety needs and talk about it genuinely will lead to another step in handling the conflict productively.

The effort will prove to be a powerful mechanism driving regular business execution and any improvement program.

Two questions to facilitate the process

Two abstract questions should be made concrete and practical before you start the conversation about your leadership observations and how to facilitate the need for safety:

  • WHEN are people tempted to listen, discuss what is said, and share their views without complicating and obscuring their personal truth of the matter?
  • WHAT do people need to tell the truth about the situation, themselves, each other and the process without rendering what is said into a meaningless story?

You will most easily find the answer to these two questions by first answering them for yourself. Suppose when you do this that the situation at hand would concern yourself, without your leadership role and corresponding authority and power. With this focus you’ll find out how the people you lead probably experience the situation as well.

When you have found your answers, you are properly equipped and prepared to initiate the ideal conversation about the conflict situation that we alluded to at the beginning of this article. This allows you to explore all the aspects of the conflict situation, address the safety needs of those involved, and by doing so start handling the conflict productively.

(Our view is based on more than three decennia of international cross-cultural experience in all sorts of organizations, met by the experience of other consultants, and is in line with scientific data. It really works and is worthwhile to try out).

By Rudi de Graaf and Iris Dorreboom

About us: 30+ years of international experience in executive coaching, working with CEO’s, their colleagues and direct reports. We provide you with an experienced, unbiased outside perception, and results focused advice.

Handling conflicts productively

We focus on handling conflicts productively, because we know they hide unexploited opportunities for growth.

Please feel invited to ask us how we can assist you in handling conflicts productively and leading people safely through conflict. Contact us directly, or use the contact form below to ask us to contact you.

Read the first 7 articles in this series about Leading people through conflict:
Leading people through conflict
Getting your message across successfully while handling conflict
Handle conflict productively: take risk aversion into account
Leading people through conflict: how to create safety
Conflict and predictability: the first step towards trust
Handling conflicts: how to get to the truth
How to transform unproductive handling of conflicts

Interested in handling conflicts productively?

Ask us to contact you for more information.

  • We only use your e-mail address to answer your question.
  • (You can ask us to call you)

Conflict and predictability: the first step towards trust

Conflict situations are seen as unpredictable and risky

Conflict situations are perceived as unsafe and risky. They are thought to be unpredictable in their course and involve a lack of control. Lack of control is a risk people generally want to avoid.

Instead of rationally assessing what can be done to control the situation, people tend to react to conflict situations in a stress-related manner. They freeze or fight, or take to flight.

None of these reactions are productive in handling the conflict. What do you (as someone who has to lead people through a conflict situation) have to do to counter this perception of risk?

(This is Part 5 in a series Leading people through conflict, where we address the question of why people would follow your lead in a risky situation like a conflict.)

Predictability is the first step towards trust

To counter the perception of risk and lack of control you have to make the process of handling the conflict predictable. Predictability is the first step towards trust.

Predictability offers control of the process. If you show people undeniably that control of the process of handling conflict is feasible, the level of stress decreases correspondingly. People will again be able to assess the situation rationally. They will act in a manner that will lead to productive results.

(Read more on the importance of predictability in the article where we introduce the Predictability of Safety (POS) approach to conflicts: Leading people through conflict: how to create safety.)

How to achieve predictability in a conflict situation

To achieve predictability, the focus of execution as you show it in the totality of your attitude will have to consist of three equally important and interconnected points. These points concern:

  • Attention
  • Interaction
  • Decision

Together they form the acronym AID.

This threesome should guide the focus of the leader in leading his or her group through the conflict. The focus involves questions about the following:

  • Where is the Attention of the group directed?
  • At what is the Interaction aimed?
  • What Decisions are taken or implicitly not taken?

When these questions are realistically considered, you provide real time AID to the group in the process of navigating through conflict.

Evaluate your position

When you share your description of the situation and your proposals to get through conflict, you need to be predictable as well. People need to know you are aware of how they perceive the situation. People also need to know you are equally aware of their perception of possible risk.

The above means the leader needs to consider objectively what he or she does, and how the group possibly perceives this.

In this regard, the following have proven in our experience to be the questions that you have to get a positive answer to from all involved:

  1. Is my description of the situation (as leader) appreciable as a representation of the personal day-to-day reality of how it really works here?
  2. Does my description make the personal perception specific and do I acknowledge the possible reality of the personal risk involved?
  3. Does my description allow for the personal need for a doable, that is: safe, next step? This is a step that is set within the current business execution framework. However, it is aimed at new objectives that handle the conflict productively.

When these questions are answered truthfully, it becomes possible to design a predictable next step to get through the conflict.

The questions are both a guideline and a safety line.

– A guideline for the leader to focus on what the group needs in the conflict situation.

– A safety line for those you are leading through the conflict, because you provide predictability. This is the first step towards trust.

By Rudi de Graaf and Iris Dorreboom

About us: 30+ years of international experience in executive coaching, working with CEO’s, their colleagues and direct reports. We provide you with an experienced, unbiased outside perception, and results focused advice.

Handling conflicts productively

We focus  on handling conflicts productively, because we know they hide unexploited opportunities for growth.

Please feel invited to ask us how we can assist you in handling conflicts productively and leading people safely through conflict. Contact us directly, or ask us to contact you by using the contact form below.

Read the first 4 articles in this series about Leading people through conflict:
Leading people through conflict
Getting your message across successfully while handling conflict
Handle conflict productively: take risk aversion into account
Leading people through conflict: how to create safety

Or go to Part 6: Handling Conflicts: getting to the truth

Interested in handling conflicts productively?

Ask us to contact you for more information.

  • We only use your e-mail address to answer your question.
  • (You can ask us to call you)

Leading people through conflict: how to create safety

The Predictability of Safety Approach

Conflicts are generally experienced as unsafe situations. In order to lead people through conflict, you need to be able to provide safety to those you lead.

In order to provide this safety, you need to be credible and predictable in what you propose. (See our article on how to Handle conflict productively: take risk aversion into account).

What does it take to be credible and predictable and create enough trust so people will follow your lead through conflict? We introduce you to the Predictability of Safety or POS approach to conflict. This is a step-by-step approach to handle conflict in a way that makes people trust your leadership.

(This is part 4 in the series Leading people through conflict)

Getting through conflict: is it safe?

In this series on leading people through conflict we use a recent event during an off-site to illustrate our points. The guide in the story represents you as a leader in a conflict situation. The situation our group encountered represents the conflict you need to get through.

During a mountain walk, we encountered a partially collapsed part of the path. There was no way around it. We had to cross there. This looked fairly dangerous. Our guide had crossed the gap, and had told us what to do. However, the group hesitated to follow him.

This is were we explain how the Predictability of Safety (POS) approach helps to get people to follow your lead in a situation they perceive as risky, like a conflict.

Leading people through conflict: What does the situation look like to them?

We use the position of the guide to illustrate the factors you, the leader, need to be aware of when leading people through conflict.

The guide standing on the other, safe, side of the partially collapsed path (the conflict situation) should first of all be aware of how the others perceive the (conflict) situation.

He or she should also be aware that they experience him either as an exponent of possible risk, or as someone providing safety. He or she has to notice they need to trust him or her to be able to judge their own situation as safe for themselves.

Basically the guide/leader must be conscious there is a crucial distinction between being told you can do something and the self-knowledge, feeling or personal certainty that you are in effect are capable to do this thing.

The guide has to be able to understand how it feels to be standing at the other side, feeling insecure. He or she has to translate this emotional empathy into an accurate description of what to do.

But he or she also has to acknowledge clearly the reality as those at the unsafe side experience it. This means that people will trust the guide/leader when they perceive his or her attitude as:

  1. Accurate in what he or she says, and
  2. Accurate in representing their experience of the situation and their level of self-confidence.

To manage, and if necessary enhance, the level of trust in the guide/leader, use the POS (predictability of safety) approach: be credible and predictable in your representation of the situation and the actions you propose.

The POS (predictability of safety) approach

When the stakeholders recognize themselves in what you propose, they will have the necessary level of trust to follow you or at least enter in a conversation. This enables people to take a next step.

To understand the functioning of this approach, picture an X and an Y-axis. Trust is located in the upper right hand corner.

Put Credible on the Y-axis.

  • Credible is when you show empathy for the position of the other (need for safety) and invite trust through your manner and process of interaction.
  • The question people ask themselves about your process of interaction is: ‘Are my safety concerns heard and addressed?’

Put Predictable on the X-axis.

  • Predictable is when something that was offered as a safe and doable next step proves to be indeed safe and doable in the execution.
  • The question people ask themselves about your process of interaction is: ‘Do I know that what is being offered is doable and safe?’

You begin at the bottom left hand corner in building trust. Each next step first has to be safe beyond any doubt. This safety needs to be credible. Each next step also needs predictable in that it accurately describes the safety and feasibility of the execution.

A step-by-step approach to creating trust in your leadership

When your focus is on providing credible, predictable safety, this will lead to trust. Each step you take builds on the last, safely realized step.

Understanding your credibility and predictability as other perceive these, and knowing where the blind side is in your self-image, are critical success factors in handling conflict productively.

This doesn’t imply you have to change. Just be yourself in a truthful, empathic manner so that someone is able to relate to you in a mature way. It’s all about conducting yourself in a way that is invitational.

All stakeholders have to feel free to tell the truth about themselves, their experience, and their point of view. Once this is established the content of your message gets a chance to be properly understood. Then it can be examined what the next safe and doable step should be to get through the conflict.

By Rudi de Graaf and Iris Dorreboom

About us: 30+ years of international experience in executive coaching, working with CEO’s, their colleagues and direct reports. We provide you with an experienced, unbiased outside perception, and results focused advice.

We focus on handling conflicts productively, because we know they hide unexploited opportunities for growth.

Please feel invited to ask us how we can assist you in handling conflicts productively and leading people safely through conflict. Contact us directly or ask us to contact you by using the contact form below.

Read the first 3 articles in this series Leading people through conflict:
Leading people through conflict
Getting your message across successfully while handling conflict
Handling conflict productively: take risk aversion into account

Or go to Part 5 of the series: Conflict and predictability: how to create trust

Interested in handling conflicts productively?

Ask us to contact you for more information.

  • We only use your e-mail address to answer your question.
  • (You can ask us to call you)

Handling conflicts: how to get to the truth

How do you get people to be open about their concerns?

Handling conflicts successfully is for a large part the result of being aware that people generally consider conflicts to be risky situations. This perception of risk makes it harder for people to express their true concerns.

However, to handle conflicts productively, it is imperative to make the true concerns of people transparent and address them adequately. This means a leader handling a conflict situation needs to make sure that all parties involved feel safe enough in the process to share their concerns.

In this article, we address two obstacles to openness that you will probably encounter when you are handling a conflict and try to get people to share their concerns. It is the 6th article in a series about Leading People through Conflict.

Two obstacles to openness

There are two common obstacles for people in sharing their true concerns. These hindrances exist in ‘everyday’ professional circumstances as well. They are strengthened in conflict situations.

The two obstacles to openly sharing your concerns are these:

  1. The difficulty of truth telling to power
  2. The usual reticence in professional settings to be open about safety concerns

Being aware of these mind-sets and addressing them in an appropriate manner has an important impact on your ability to handle conflicts productively.

Truth telling to power

The first obstacle to openness is the difficulty of truth telling to power. Truth telling to power is not that easy for most people even in non-conflict situations. In conflict situations, the risk of truth telling to power is deemed even greater.

As we mentioned, conflict situations are generally perceived as high risk. This has to do with uncertainty about the outcome, possible negative consequences and loss of power, but also with emotional discomfort and investment around the conflict.

To those who are involved in a conflict, the leader is part of the potential risk. This is due to the hierarchical position and to the inherent capacity to dictate what happens that comes with the leader’s position.

How to make truth telling to power easier

The leader that is aware of his or her position of relative power and how this may impede open communication has the option to address this by doing the following.

1. Actively seek to understand the positions and concerns of the others before voicing an opinion yourself. You do this while being aware of the generic inclination to be reticent or evasive about the real concerns (see below for more on this issue).

You have to make sure, both in words and manner, that people don’t feel this as something that will be used against them. They will have to know and believe it is meant to include their concerns in the process of handling the conflict productively.

2. When giving your own opinion, take the following questions into account:

  • Does the manner how I describe what to do, and the content of what I propose, fit the needs and concerns of the others in this situation?
  • What must be certain for the situation to be considered safe by the others?
  • How do we know that we all feel safe about the process and share our true concerns?

The difficulty of speaking truth to power is only the first obstacle to the truthful sharing of concerns. The second obstacle to openness is the reticence that is natural in most professional settings.

Reticence about safety concerns in a professional setting

Most people will be inclined to be transparent about their needs for safety or reassurance in the private sphere sooner than in a professional setting.

From the private sphere to the professional circle much changes, especially in the presentation. Social and peer safety concerns grow, especially the social ones about reputation, influence or recognition. These concerns are much less expressed where and when they occur in a professional setting.

Think about it: would someone in your professional circle happily share a personal truth when it deviates from the norm?

In our experience, most people will be reticent, or use a white lie. The socially accepted norm in these cases is to work around the issue by putting forward and endorsing what is acceptable in the culture. Regarding conflicts this phenomenon results in avoiding the conflict or sitting it out.

Once you set out to handle a conflict, these socially accepted norms gain in strength. That is why it is important to be extra vigilant in conflict situations of what concerns may remain hidden or unexpressed, because voicing them is perceived as entailing too much risk.

What is the risk of not dealing with these obstacles?

As a consequence of these two obstacles to openness, there is a risk that the habits that led to the conflict will remain the same. They will not be addressed the way they should be, because the risk of doing so is thought to be too high. The continuation of similar kinds of conflicts and the accompanying restrictions in effectiveness and productivity is thereby virtually guaranteed.

This is unfortunate, because conflicts include the potential to learn that they can be handled productively without real risk. Moreover, most conflicts hide unexploited possibilities for business, personal, and professional growth. The growth potential remains hidden when the focus of those involved in the conflict remains on risk-aversion instead of on handling the conflict productively.

The benefits of creating openness

When you are aware of these obstacles, you can find ways to adequately address them. You will thereby not only get to ‘the truth of the matter’, but you will also have gained the trust of the others involved in the conflict. This gives you a sound basis to handle the conflict productively.

By Rudi de Graaf and Iris Dorreboom

About us: 30+ years of international experience in executive coaching, working with CEO’s, their colleagues and direct reports. We provide you with an experienced, unbiased outside perception, and results focused advice.

Handling conflicts productively

We focus on handling conflicts productively, because we know they hide unexploited opportunities for growth.

Please feel invited to ask us how we can assist you in handling conflicts productively and leading people safely through conflict. Contact us directly or use the contact form below to ask us to contact you.

Read the first 5 articles in this series about Leading people through conflict:
Leading people through conflict
Getting your message across successfully while handling conflict
Handle conflict productively: take risk aversion into account
Leading people through conflict: how to create safety
Conflict and predictability: the first step towards trust

Or go to part 7: How to transform unproductive handling of conflicts

Interested in handling conflicts productively?

Ask us to contact you for more information.

  • We only use your e-mail address to answer your question.
  • (You can ask us to call you)

Getting your message across successfully while handling conflict

This is the second article in a series that addresses the question: How to lead people through conflict? Effective leadership in handling conflicts allows you to utilise the unused potential of conflict situations. This article concentrates on trust as a factor for people to follow your lead through conflict.

Facilitating trust while handling conflicts

If you are handling a conflict situation, it is crucial that people want to follow your lead. Our contention is that in order to do so, people have to trust you.

One important element in creating trust is the manner in which you communicate your message. You have to be trustworthy to people. Then they will follow you, even through a risky situation like a conflict.

In this series, we use an incident that happened during a recent off-site to illustrate the point. During an outdoor trip, our group encountered a dangerous situation on a mountain path. We had to trust our guide to get us across the tricky bit.

What happened next is an illustration of what usually happens in conflict situations. The dangerous stretch in the road symbolizes the conflict. The guide is the leader who has to lead people through this situation.

The guide crossed to the other side of the dangerous part. He then told us to hold on to a branch and follow his lead. The guide’s instructions explained precisely what we had to do. They were spot-on and adapted to the level of experience of our group. Yet, many people in our group hesitated.

Explaining what to do

However accurate the guide’s description was, it focused only on the content of the message. This content made factually clear what the method of approach to the situation was, as seen from the point of view of the guide. He was of course an expert. But notwithstanding his knowledge and experience, the question we want to answer here is: was his method and approach trustworthy to those who had to follow his lead?

People decide what is trustworthy to them

It is of critical importance to accept or at least understand that people decide for themselves what is trustworthy to them.

Therefore you need to interpret what will be trustworthy as seen from the point of view of those who really experience the conflict.

It may look perfectly safe from your point of view (the point of view of the guide or the experienced leader), but is it also safe from the point of view of those you lead?

You need Content + Process of interaction

The content of the guide’s message was of critical importance. Without it there would be no game at all. No one would know how to cross the dangerous part of the path.

But to reach the moment of game on (i.e. actually crossing the danger spot) the process of interaction should consider trust as a critical success factor as well. Research proves that to gain trust, you need to adequately address both (WHAT you say) and the process of interaction (HOW you say it).

In other words: your content (what you say) and the way you take care of the emotional needs of your listeners (how you bring your message) both need to be trustworthy to them.

Two components of trust

The listener unconsciously assesses the message of the leader on the issue of trust. This concerns the next two points.

  • Can I trust what is said? (Content: method and approach)
  • Can I trust how it is said? (Process of interaction)

Again we use our outdoor story to illustrate these factors:

  1. Content (the What)

The branch is precisely where it should be to be able to pass safely. The guide has explained clearly what to do.

  1. Process of interaction (the How)

Although the branch is precisely where it should be to make it safe, and explanation of what to do was clear, does it feel safe for those you lead? Have you taken their point of view into account when you communicated your approach?

The content (the What) can be 100% correct, but you also have to touch personally on all the factors that establish trust (the How). You need to be sure you are trustworthy in both the content and the manner in which you communicate your message.

When you omit or neglect this as the guide (or the leader), people won’t feel safe. They will not think your message is trustworthy enough to follow your lead.

As a consequence people will take incomplete action, or no action at all. But in taking care of these factors you establish trust. People will follow you, even through a risky situation like a conflict.

By Rudi de Graaf and Iris Dorreboom

About us: 30+ years of international experience in executive coaching, working with CEO’s, their colleagues and direct reports. We provide you with an experienced, unbiased outside perception, and results focused advice.

We focus on handling conflicts productively, because we know they hide unexploited opportunities for growth.

Please feel invited to ask us how we can assist you in handling conflicts productively and leading people safely through conflict. Contact us directly, or ask us to contact you by using the contact form below.

Read part 1 in the series Leading people through conflict

Or go to Part 3 in the series: Handling conflict productively: take risk aversion into account.

Interested in handling conflicts productively?

Ask us to contact you for more information.

  • We only use your e-mail address to answer your question.
  • (You can ask us to call you)

Leading people through conflict

(This is part 1 of a series on leading people through conflict)

How do you lead people safely through conflict?

Inevitably conflicts are experienced as unsafe, risky situations. To lead people through a conflict situation they need to have enough trust in the method and the approach, and subsequently in you, to follow your leadership.

This is the first in a series of articles that addresses the question: How to lead people through conflict? In order to do so, you need get people to trust your leadership sufficiently to follow your leadership.

This first article offers an introduction to the series and gives you an overview. We begin by sharing a story with you about a situation we recently encountered on an off-site. We use it to illustrate what we have to share with you regarding leadership and conflict, and handling conflict productively.

A dangerous crossing

This happened during a recent off-site. Picture us, a small group taking an outdoor tour with a guide to talk about the daily work affairs. On the second day, near dusk, we reached a narrow, partially collapsed footpath. Crossing the collapsed part would force us dangerously close to the edge of a steep ravine.

From stone to rock to gravel our guide jumped along the collapsed part of the footpath to the safe side. There he found a long strong branch and held it out to us waiting on the other side. He explained what we had to do.

The guide’s intention was that we would find the necessary safety crossing the dangerous bit by holding on to the branch. However, most people in our group hesitated to follow his lead. Why did these people hesitate to follow the lead of the guide?

That is the question you also have to answer when confronted with a potentially dangerous situation like a conflict. Why would people follow your lead?

You need to establish trust

The situation on the path is comparable to the situation where you have to lead people through a conflict. When you offer people a ‘branch’ to get to the other side of the conflict, they have to trust your leadership enough to take it.

That trust is adequate when those you lead will actually follow your leadership through a risky situation like a conflict.

Our goal in this series is to show you two things:

  1. Why people might hesitate to take your lead, just as a number of people in our group hesitated to take the lead of the guide.
  2. How you establish sufficient trust in you and your method for people to follow you through a risky situation like conflict.

Safety first

In the story of the off-site the guide represents the role of the leader handling a conflict. The reaction of the group represents the natural considerations people inevitably have in situations involving possible risk, like conflicts. The method, approach, and manner of the guide and what happens offer a human-interest example of what we propose about handling conflict.

The first point we want to make here is that people just need to know in advance about their safety. That is how we humans are wired by nature. Safety has a physical, psychological, and a procedural part. How we interpret what happens, both consciously and unconsciously, influences what and how much safety we experience.

As you lead people through a risky situation like a conflict, you have to make sure that you know what each of the group needs to feel safe. Without perceived safety, there will be no progress towards conflict resolution.

In this series we’ll address how you create safety for all participants in risky situations like conflicts.

Content AND Process

The second point is about the method of communication. Why did people in our group hesitate to take the lead of our guide? After all, the guide explained clearly what we had to do. What our guide overlooked was that the process of communicating what to do is at least as important as the content of the message.

There is a critical difference between communicating the content of the method and approach, and the process of interaction. This implies that although what you propose may be perfectly trustable content-wise, it still will not establish the required trust when the process of interaction is not taken into account.

In this series, we propose how you make sure your message comes across and handling conflict productively becomes doable.

By Rudi de Graaf and Iris Dorreboom

About us: 30+ years of international experience in executive coaching, working with CEO’s, their colleagues and direct reports. We provide you with an experienced, unbiased outside perception, and results focused advice.

We focus on handling conflicts productively, because we know they hide unexploited opportunities for growth.

Please feel invited to ask us how we can assist you in handling conflicts productively and leading people safely through conflict. Contact us directly, or use the contact form to ask us to contact you.

Read Part 2 of the series Leading people through conflict: Getting your message across successfully while handling conflict.

Interested in handling conflicts productively?

Ask us to contact you for more information.

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Reduce recurring conflicts

Recognising conflict as a ‘safety valve’ helps to reduce recurring conflicts

 

Conflicts are not always about what caused them. In some situations, conflict is used as a means to decrease the tension in the situation.

When it is used like this, the conflict works like a safety valve releasing the built-up tension, like steam from a teakettle. Recognising when conflicts are used as tension release helps to reduce recurring conflicts.

Is a conflict always a battle?

Is a conflict always a battle? It turns out some conflicts are just sham fights.

The origins of the word conflict is something forcefully stricken together. When something is ‘forcefully stricken together’ there may be sparks. But sparks only ignite something when there is flammable material around. The ‘flammable materials’ around conflicts are the emotions.

Precisely this emotionally flammable condition is an aspect you can control and even use to your advantage. You only need to know what these emotions are, and what purpose they serve.

A different way of looking at conflict

Usually, conflicts originate in an already tense situation. When people are under pressure they build up tension. Tension decreases through resolution of the issue. When there is no resolution, the tension builds up so much ‘steam’, it has to find a release.

Conflict may be used as a temporary mechanism to reduce tension that is otherwise impossible to resolve. The built-up emotions around a particular tense situation find an outlet in engaging in a conflict.

Conflict used as a ‘safety valve’

There are different reasons why a particular situation becomes increasingly tense. The subject may be undiscussable or deemed impossible to resolve. The setting or the structure may lead to a recurrence of particular negative behaviour, or of negative situations. These situations may lead to frustration and tension. These emotions are only heightened by the recurrence of the problems.

Conflict functions as a kind of ritual to reduce the tension in these situations. This ritual is not particularly liked or even sought after, but at least it is familiar in its course, interaction and ending.

The situation is usually still not resolved at the end of the conflict. But at least the built-up tension has found some diversion. The conflict  functioned as a safety valve. The built-up ‘steam’ escaped. The condition as it was before the conflict started remains more or less the same. There has been no real damage inflicted. But there has been enough decrease in tension to continue. Until the tension rises again…

Advantage and hazard

The mechanism of using conflict as tension reduction enables people to resume a normal social interaction after the conflict. Yet the habit of conflicts used as a ritual of tension reduction is corrosive. It will erode the structure, the system, and the strategy.

What is more, the effectiveness of the leadership and of the leader wears away as well. The real problem is still there and will return. As soon as the tension becomes unbearable again, a new conflict-as-tension-reducer will erupt.

Conclusion: how to take advantage of recognising conflict as tension reduction

To interpret a conflict as a ritual of tension reduction enables you to look at the mechanisms driving it. You recognise the ritualistic nature of the conflict when the conflict does not address real cause of the conflict. In situations where:

  • particular problems keep recurring,
  • no resolution is found, and
  • frustrations rise about this,

you may be sure the ensuing conflicts will serve as a safety valve.

Recognising this mechanism gives you enough distance to observe what actually precedes the conflict. It allows you to discover the real problem and break the cycle of recurring conflict. Instead of keeping the focus on the conflict, you can direct the focus to the real problem and find ways to prevent its recurrence.

By Rudi de Graaf and Iris Dorreboom

We are happy to answer your questions about this approach to conflict, and how it can assist you to handle conflicts productively. Please contact us.

How to transform unproductive handling of conflicts

…into productive dealing with conflicts

This is the 7th article in a series on leading people through conflict productively.

Handling conflicts UNproductively

In many professional cultures the risk of engaging in conflict is often deemed greater than the potential upside.

Where this is the case it expresses itself in a culture of consent and acceptation of proposals without real questioning or challenges. Problems that may lead to conflict are often dealt with on an ad hoc basis, in an attempt to get past the possible risk of an overt conflict.

The result is the use of socially accepted norms of avoiding or circumventing potential conflicts. This unproductive handling of conflicts in turn leads to unchallenged constraints on the way an organization executes its business processes. These constraints seem to be factual, because everyone endorses them by working with (or rather within or around) them.

Learn to recognise unnecessary constraints to execution

Unproductive handling of conflict is an unmistakable sign of the existence of these perceived constraints and of the adaptation to them. This is usually visible to outsiders, but not necessarily to the insiders. The process of cooptation defeats any inclination to challenging the perceived constraints. However, this need not be the case.

Handling conflicts productively offers an opportunity

Engaging with conflicts productively offers the opportunity to fundamentally change this way of working within perceived constraints. Conflicts, when handled productively, can be employed to show that the constraints are mostly imaginary.

This will lead to the undeniable experience that it is possible to disagree constructively. It will also demonstrate that much more is possible with much less effort. It can be shown that conflicts, when handled productively, may lead to new and more effective ways of doing things, and to closer and more productive cooperation.

Conflicts may be uncomfortable, but they need not be risky

What you need to handle conflicts productively is a way to convince people that conflict can be made safe enough to engage in and lead to a productive outcome.

As we’ve stated before in this series, the credibility of the leader, and the predictability in terms of risk of the steps proposed are crucial in this respect.

We have named the approach that guarantees both credibility and predictability in dealing with conflicts the Predictability of Safety approach, or POS. (For more on this approach see the earlier article in this series: Leading people through conflict: how to create safety).

Provide Predictability

What you require to get over the perception of risk in handling conflict is that the safety of the next few steps becomes predictable. Everyone decides, at least internally, if the risk is acceptable on the basis of one’s own experience and criteria for evaluation.

When the safety of taking the next steps becomes predictable, the risk diminishes. The perceived constraints lose much of their power. People become to engage constructively in discussion to find solutions. The energy that was spent on risk avoidance may now be used to work towards the common business goal.

Create Credibility

It is the job of the leader to facilitate this process. The facilitation demands know-how about the way people behave when confronted with possible risk. This implies in particular that in handling conflicts productively it is a provision to understand individual perceptions of risk and safety.

You also need to appreciate the level of trust, both in you as the leader, and in the process as a whole. (More on this subject in the next article in this series). Know-how and applied understanding create credibility of your leadership.

Gain Trust

Trust is the make or break factor in this process. Trust is the result of the predictability of a safe route through conflict, and of the credibility of the leader when he or she proposes this route.

However, no one will say to you: I don’t trust you. It is just ‘not done’. The social and professional risk would be too high.

A few preconditions should be met to provide an environment where telling the truth about the level of trust in these circumstances is feasible. These are:

  • specific knowledge about the culture,
  • how risk and safety are assessed and expressed, and
  • a leader who is familiar with the approach that is necessary.

The leader should be able to show credible confidence, cause trust, and give trust. (For more on truth telling to power, see the last article in this series: Handling conflicts: how to get to the truth.)

Credible predictable safety leads to trust

As an example of such leadership you can look at highly trained people doing high-risk work. Here trust is a matter of life and death. Think of firefighters, commandos, surgical teams, but also mountaineers. In these conditions credible, predictable safety does lead to trust.

It is in these circumstances where life is on the line that everybody knows that you can take no action without trust. Trust is the result of the knowledge that everything possible has been done to reduce risk. Open communication about risk and safety is crucial. No potential conflict can remain unconsidered or undisclosed in these circumstances.

When credible, predictable safety is provided, the result is trust in the process, trust in each other, and trust in the achievability of the goal. As a consequence it causes trust in you, both as a leader and as a person. This makes it possible to handle the inevitable conflicts productively.

By Rudi de Graaf and Iris Dorreboom

About us: 30+ years of international experience in executive coaching, working with CEO’s, their colleagues and direct reports. We provide you with an experienced, unbiased outside perception, and results focused advice.

Handling conflicts productively

We focus on handling conflicts productively, because we know they hide unexploited opportunities for growth.

Please feel invited to ask us how we can assist you in handling conflicts productively and leading people safely through conflict. Contact us directly, or use the contact form below to ask us to contact you.

Read the first 6 articles in this series about Leading people through conflict:
Leading people through conflict
Getting your message across successfully while handling conflict
Handle conflict productively: take risk aversion into account
Leading people through conflict: how to create safety
Conflict and predictability: the first step towards trust
Handling conflicts: how to get to the truth

Or go to Part 8: How to organise an effective conversation

Interested in handling conflicts productively?

Ask us to contact you for more information.

  • We only use your e-mail address to answer your question.
  • (You can ask us to call you)

Dealing with confrontations #5 Good fences make good neighbors

good-fences-make-good-neighborsBeing able to deal with conflict and confrontations professionally is a critical skill. You need it to deal with colleagues, bosses and clients.

However, many people are not comfortable with confrontations. They avoid them, or tend to overreact. This makes it harder to remain professional. Let’s look at a proven method to become a pro in dealing with confrontations.

What does dealing professionally with confrontations mean?

It means the issue that needs to be resolved between you and the other party is concluded with both parties at a minimum coming out of the confrontation with a result you can both live with. A result that brings both of the parties closer to their goal and closer to each other is of course preferable. But let’s start with ‘livable’. Discussion should be rational, and deal with the issue. It should never become personal in a negative sense.

When is dealing professionally with confrontations not possible?

Dealing with confrontations professionally is not possible if you:

  • Tend to avoid confrontations on the one hand, or
  • Go into a confrontation with excessive force on the other hand.

Both of these behaviors make you lose your power to deal with a confrontation professionally and effectively.

What do you need to deal with a confrontation professionally?

You know about the alleged power of the Bermuda triangle to let ships disappear. Like this, there is a confrontation Barracuda triangle, which has an equivalent capacity to make your power to act professionally disappear. (We mentioned this earlier in blog #4 of this series: Catching the Frisbee).

The Barracuda in the triangle appears only when you don’t assign limits. This omission gives the shark the capability to suck away your natural ability to deal with all kinds of situations. The proof for this ability is that you are very capable outside the Barracuda triangle.

So what is it that you actually do outside the triangle, where you are able to act professionally?

  • You have assigned limits.

Since these are limits you share with others as part of  ‘common behavior’, you don’t experience conflict. At the very moment you do experience a conflict, the limits are not mutual anymore. Hence the right thing to do is to (re-)assign limits that you both agree on.

What happens when you have no mutually agreed limits?

A limit is a boundary, something that marks off your ‘territory’ from that of someone else. As the saying goes:

Good fences make good neighbors

Essentially this is what assigning limits regarding confrontations also means. You stake out what is important to you. The other person does the same. Now you look for a way to make this work together.

Let’s take it literally for a moment, and look at the limits between two fields. You have a field to plow and grow clover. The other person has a field for his cows to graze. There are no agreed limits between the fields. The conflict is about the cows eating your emerging shoots.

What do you do? Let them eat the shoots because you can’t deal with confrontations? Kill the cows? To put it to extremes these are to two utmost sides of the range of dealing with the problem of a confrontation. They correspond to avoiding the conflict or responding with excessive force. Neither is positive, neither is effective.

The solution to dealing with confrontations professionally

The proper solution is to assign limits and have a boundary that is suitable to you both. Both of you need access to your fields. Both of you need an economical solution.

What you do (here as well as in other ‘real life’ confrontational situations) is find a boundary that is applicable to the situation and doesn’t inhibit achieving the primary goal.

Find a boundary you can agree on and align it with each other’s goals and objectives. Forget the purpose and values, however much they are part of the confrontation and its emotions. The values and purposes you earn in time by experiencing this approach works and the Barracuda disappears.

This approach allows you to set limits, thus avoiding you get sucked into the Barracuda triangle. Experiment with this approach, and you will become a pro at dealing with confrontations professionally.

By Iris Dorreboom and Rudi de Graaf

The Good Career & Life coaching:

When you need to deal with confrontations professionally, we can help you prepare and hone your skills. Feel free to check if a conversation with us would be useful to you.

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Dealing with confrontations and handling conflict professionally is one of the soft skills we coach managers and professionals in.