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Working Effectively with Group Conflict
by Suzanne Templin

“Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it.  That factor is attitude.” – William James, American Philosopher & Psychologist

“Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” – Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Practically no one enjoys conflict, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we aren’t taught how to engage in conflict with the right attitude. So often, conflict is “me vs. you” or “us vs. them” – it’s positional, which puts everyone on the defensive and creates an oppositional environment where there is a clear winner and loser. While there might be a decision made at the end of the conflict, relationships are often damaged along the way, and when it comes time for another decision to be made with the same parties down the road, everyone is braced for a fight because trust wasn’t established previously. 

The most effective way to engage in conflict that results in not only a positive outcome but also deepens the relationships of the parties involved is to move from positional statements to needs-based statements. An example of a positional statement might be, “Why do some people’s ideas in this organization always get listened to? My team has things it needs and we rarely get anyone’s attention.” Positional statements are usually chalk-full of assumptions, which are easy to spot when you hear or see words like “always,” “never,” or “everyone else.” If someone said this statement to me, I would probably get defensive, and I’d hazard to guess that put in a similar position, you would go on the defense, too.

Conversely, to yield a more positive outcome, one might say, “I need to feel valued and I need my team to feel appreciated and have their concerns heard.” That’s a much more universal statement – we all need to feel valued, appreciated, and heard. If you start from a needs-based statement, it’s much easier to find common ground with all parties involved.
There is a great parable that speaks to this theory – it’s a story about two sisters who are fighting over an orange. The first sister says, “The orange is mine! I saw it first!” and the second sister says, “No way! That orange is mine – I want it and you owe me ‘cuz I let you have the last slice of pie after dinner last night!” This goes on for awhile before their mother walks into the kitchen, hears them fighting, and says, “That’s it!  I’m sick of you two fighting!” and she cuts the orange in half, giving half to each of her daughters. The first sister eats her half of the fruit and tosses the rind into the trash. The second sister zests the rind for some cookies she’s making and tosses the rest of the fruit into the trash.

This story is the perfect example of why coming into a conflict from positions is so counterproductive.  If the sisters would have stated their needs from the start, each of them could have gotten even more of what they wanted and put a deposit into each other’s emotional bank account, thus nurturing their relationship.  Positional conflict is “one of us gets the orange and the other doesn’t.”  Needs-based conflict is, “I would like to use the rind of the orange for some cookies I’m making;” “Okay, well when you’re done with the rind, can I have the rest of the orange to eat?”  And while I recognize that most conflict is more complex and higher-stakes than the parable about the sisters and the orange, the core concept still stands.  When each person states their needs, it’s much easier to find common ground, and once you’ve found common ground, it is much easier to move forward to finding a solution to the conflict.

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