Working Through Conflict

Posted on January 15, 2009

Jeannette South-Paul (bio) provides practical advice about how to deal with difficult personnel issues.


Are you in a supervisory role and there's conflict between folks to report you? Is it conflict between you and a colleague? Is it conflict in a clinical relationship? All of those have slightly different ways in which you manage them. But I always say it's usually worthwhile to start with a premise it's not about you. Even if it is, start with the premise is not about you, because if you get too emotionally enmeshed and you think that this is a person who is, the conflict is being fueled by a personal attack against you, you can't think straight and it impairs your ability to work through the conflict.

I've had folks who I go in and sit down and have a conversation with and they say, "Well, I want you to know that this is totally outrageous and there's no way that I'm going to budge on my decision." And so a very negative saying, "This conversation is closed." And I just let them vent and I say, "Why don't we really sit down and talk about this? Because that approach won't allow was to gain any resolution."

And it's funny, it does work. I mean the truth is if the person truly believed that, you wouldn't be sitting in front of them, you wouldn't of had that appointment. So a lot of times I say, so start by saying, "It's not about me," and look at what the goals are and I always say most of the time, when we're in leadership positions and there's a conflict afoot, we're there to represent those who have less voice than we do. That's something that comes out of my military training.

No matter where you were in the totem pole and you think that somebody is out to attack you, you're representing somebody who's less, who was more powerless than you are. And so, the risks of you backing away from this encounter have ramifications not just for you but ramifications for all the other people who put their trust in you to make a difference. So to me that helps to give me that extra bit of energy to sit down and say, "Let's look at things."

The other thing is I do my homework. When you go into a conflict situation, you want to know what are the issues because if you go in there and you don't know what the issues are, you don't know how you can really negotiate. So you really need to do your homework and see where you are.

And sometimes conflicts are meant to be continued another day. There are times when you go in there and somebody really is aggressive and they're really demeaning or disrespectful and the conflict is pretty fast and furious. And sometimes it's important to say, "Well, you know, I think we've probably achieved as much as we can today, but we need to reconvene on this issue." And so I tell folks that you don't always solve the conflict on day one. And if we look at some of the major world conflicts, they take years and years and years to resolve.

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Excerpted from interview with researcher at the 2008 Leadership Training Institute in Bethesda, MD.


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