3 Questions To Change Perspective Before The Conflict Escalates

Tímea Csízik
Coach | OD Consultant | Developer | HR Professional
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One of the most frequent topic in business coaching sessions is conflict management.

No matter it is between leaders, colleagues or family members, people suffer from being in conflicts without the prospect of reaching valuable results. So they try to cope with them by various strategies using their own conflict management styles. These styles and strategies differ in the extent of asserting our own and others’ interests as well as the situations they are the most suitable and effective in.

But regardless of the strategy we choose, there is one thing that we always try to prevent: the conflict escalating and getting out of hand.

Signs of successful conflict management

Independently of the applied strategies, we define quite similarly how we would notice we are good in conflict management.

When people want to improve their skills in conflict resolution, they expect themselves

to keep their emotional balance during the conflict even when offended,

to gain their emotional balance back quickly and able to focus on the problem objectively (if their feelings have been touched somehow),

to be able to express their (unmet) needs in an objective manner that is acceptable for the other person,

to turn their partners’ behavior and attitude from resisting into co-creation, into a state when they are ready to think together about a mutual solution.

As we can see, emotional balance is a key factor in successful conflict management.

No surprise, as it is essential to prevent conflicts getting out of hands and turn to the way of solutions. It is the basis of being able to express our needs in an objective way and to get our partner to co-operate.

Most of the time, we lose our emotional balance in a conflict because we feel attacked, disrespected or hurt.

Good news are that in most of these cases there are small but meaningful misunderstandings in the background.

Misread messages

Conflicts rarely rise suddenly. They often grow from small misunderstandings.

During communication we misread some messages of our partners, we feed them with our preconceptions, believes and fears. And there we are: the fundamentals of conflict have been perfectly laid.

Next time our perception becomes more sensitive to the messages and signs that reinforce our former experience. We repeat this train of thought for a few times and the conflict is ready: one of us starts to turn into a ‘monster’ – at least in the eye of the other one.

So the easiest way to prevent conflicts getting out of hand and escalating to an emotional level where we won’t be able to handle them is to clarify these misread messages in our mind.

prevent conflict from escalating

3 questions to change perspective

To prevent the ‘monster situation’ described above we offer 3 simple questions that help you to change perspective before a misread message would blossom into a conflict.

There are signals that the risk of misreading messages are increasing. They are your emotions. So, capture these signals.

And when you feel offended, angry, upset, embarassed or frustrated by somebody doing something with you, you should ask yourself and answer honestly:

  1. What does this action / behavior tells me, what message I hear from it?
  2. What message have the other person probably wanted to send me by doing this?
  3. What should he/she have done to make me get the exact message he/she wanted to send me?
Let’s see an example (which is a true story):

Take a manufacturing company with an operations manager, his subordinates as shop-floor supervisors, and his boss as the director of the factory. On a Monday morning, after an internal audit the operations manager does a daily walk to identify deficiencies on the shop floor.

Together with the shop-floor supervisors they make a list of actions to improve compliance with standards. During the day, according to the instructions of the operations manager, supervisors start to complete these actions.

Meanwhile, during the same afternoon the director of the factory also does a daily walk and identifies some deficiencies.

Next day the director suddenly gathers a town hall meeting in the factory. On the meeting he instructs workers regarding the most important actions that they immediately need to accomplish in order to improve compliance before the next audit. The operations manager, participating on that meeting, gets frustrated and upset finding himself in this awkward situation.

It’s obvious that a conflict is around the corner.

Fortunately, this operations manager attended one of our conflict management trainings before this incident, therefore he applied the 3 questions that can prevent any situation to turn into a conflict. So he asked them in order to change perspective, regain emotional balance and find a rational solution.

How could these 3 questions above help him?

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“What does this action of the director tells me, what message do I hear from it?”
“He repeated exactly what I did. It says to me that my work was useless, and that he doesn’t trust me.”

“What message do I think the director probably wanted to send me by doing this?”
“He wanted to show that he had serious expectations towards the shop floor. And he wanted to highlight his priorities.”

“What should he have done to make me get the exact message he wanted to send me?”
“He should have come to me first to involve me by asking me our own experience from the daily walk. That would have make his own investigation needless, and would express that he relies on my work on the shop floor. After involving me, he could hold his town hall meeting anytime, feeling free to emphasize his own points to the workers. That way I could feel that he appreciates my work and we agree on the main points.”

 

Answering these questions thoughtfully gave the operations manager an opportunity to regain his emotional balance and express his true needs regarding the future co-operation in similar situations. He initiated a constructive face to face conversation with his boss on the same day.

Prevent the escalation of conflicts

Changing perspective helps us to understand the motives of the other person and to clarify our true needs and feelings as well.

Moreover, these insights may lead us to take actions that prevents the escalation of the conflict.

 

This leads us to next difficult step: we should initiate a conversation with the other person…

…to share our newly gained perspective,

…to give feedback regarding how his/her actions affected us,

…to express our needs and visions related to situation.

These hopefully constructive and structured conversations offer opportunities to turn the sprouts of conflicts into a momentum of harmonizing our needs. As a result, we may prevent other conflicts emerging from that situation in the future.

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