It is possible to resolve conflicts so that all sides win. This "creative" approach requires conflict resolution to be seen as a joint problem solving exercise rather than a battle. If this "win-win" approach is adopted, conflicts may be resolved more quickly and easily than expected.
Don't wait for conflict to build up in an organisation. Make it a ground rule to deal with conflict immediately as it is much easier to find solutions to a conflict when it first develops.
The technique known as "mapping the conflict" is about clarification and examination of the underlying needs, feelings, fears and anxieties of those involved in a conflict situation.
The following is one example of how the technique can work. Imagine that a particular women's refuge is having a problem. During school holidays employees usually bring their children to work with them. Jill has worked at the refuge for 18 months and, like other employees, brings her children with her during the holidays. However, during the last vacation there has been continual fighting between her children and resident children. The mothers have become involved in defending the actions of their children while other employees are starting to take sides.
Everyone agrees the situation has become difficult. Accusations are being made and negative feelings have become a feature in the refuge. The employees call a meeting of residents and staff in an effort to sort out the problem. It ends in a screaming match, with three people in tears and one person storming off.
Step 1 Facilitate
- The employees ask someone to act as facilitator (a person who is seen as neutral in the conflict or an outsider - they don't necessarily have to be skilled in conflict resolution).
- The facilitator sets the scene by talking positively about conflict, explaining "win/win" solutions rather than "win/lose". Everyone is encouraged to feel the conflict can be resolved.
Step 2 Mapping
- The facilitator then draws "a map" of the conflict using a white board or butchers paper with the circumstances or features which prompted the conflict summarised in the most neutral way possible. The careful use of language that is not inflammatory or judgmental is very important.
- The main people involved in the conflict are listed with their needs and concerns written next to their names. The following issues are important.
- Make sure you list only the needs and concerns which are relevant to the conflict
- Map the needs and concerns of the main people involved first, then consider other people who are not obvious in the conflict but have become involved in the situation
- For the minor parties, list only their main need or concern. This process helps everyone to understand the emotional climate underlying the conflict.
Step 3 Discussion
- The map is then discussed. Areas of agreement where people have listed the same needs become obvious very quickly. People are able to see the feelings and concerns beneath the conflict, and to assess whether any are ill founded. This helps to ease the tension, and solutions become easier to recognise, with one or two usually standing out. A map of the conflict would show that:
- Most people want to resolve the conflict
- Most people have concerns, many of which are unfounded - the residents fear retaliation; Jill fears she'll lose her job
- The solutions appear to lie in dealing with needs of employees (especially Jill) for suitable child care during school holidays
Step 4 Solutions
The search for solutions can be brainstormed by everybody. A list of possible solutions might include:
- No employees' children are allowed at refuge (except for emergencies)
- Jill takes extra holidays during school holiday time
- The children of employees and residents are kept separated
- The refuge agrees to help Jill find alternative child care and will negotiate with local Vacation Care Programs, etc
- Everyone works at getting the children to relate better
Some of these possible solutions might be acceptable, others not, but this list is worked through until a solution is found that suits everyone. Once the conflict is put on paper the areas of agreement are obvious and this helps to encourage people to compromise on disagreements. This process also gives space and importance to expressing feelings. This in itself helps people to feel better about their involvement.
The group now has control of the conflict, rather than the conflict having control over them.
Step 5 Policy Making
- Once you have found solutions, it may be necessary to make a policy or a change in structure to prevent problems happening again in the future.
- In the case of our example it may mean writing a policy about how and when an employee's children are allowed in the refuge. This should be done in an open forum (which includes Jill) and with a spirit that has no suggestion of blame or fault.
Step 6 Trial Period
- Evaluate your solution to make sure it is practical and really works. The best way to do this may be to try it out for a fixed time period, and then review whether it has solved the problem.
- If managers initiate a conflict mapping process, they must be prepared to implement the outcomes of that process or will risk inflaming the conflict and enmeshing management in the conflict.
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