We are all human beings with different agendas. It is inevitable that miscommunication and conflict will occur – when it happens, it can cause a lot of distress. The purpose of this page is to remind you that conflict is not just something which happens to you - there are both skills and attitudes that will help you to engage successfully with others when disagreements occur. Conflict can occur with clients and with colleagues. There are recognised ways to manage both the feeling and the content of a disagreement which help you to stay in effective relationship and reach mutual solutions.
This web page is not here to make you into an overnight conflict expert or mediator. It is here to remind you that:
There are attitudes to conflict which you can change
There are techniques and skills which work
These techniques and skills can be learned
This page is based on the excellent course Communication & Conflict Management Taught by Katherine Howell and offered by the Veterinary Support Personnel Network – part of the Veterinary Information Network. Recommended by the Editor.
Conflict isn't negative, it's neutral.
Successful conflict resolution clarifies and improves working relationships and can suggest additional ways of thinking and opportunities for action.
Conflict happens because (fortunately) we are diverse in our thoughts, attitudes, perceptions, social systems and culture. This is what brings richness to our lives. It is not necessarily negative. It's how we handle it that can make it an unpleasant experience or an opportunity. Conflict gives us a chance to clarify and improve a relationship and can suggest additional ways of thinking and opportunities for action. If we can think about conflict as an opportunity rather than a threat then it immediately opens up a whole string of possibilities.
Negotiate how you would like to be spoken to
Ask for further training
Commit to future action
Clarify personal responsibility
Here is an analogy. Driving in traffic could be considered to be (and often seems to be) engaging in multiple conflicts. To help us do this effectively, there are systems such as traffic lights and the rules of the road, there are mechanisms such as brakes and steering and there are skills – those of driving. Using these systems, mechanisms and skills – (with the exception of the occasional accident and the occasional episode of road rage) – most of the time you are engaging successfully in this conflict. You get a successful outcome which is to go where you want to go (and so does everyone else) win-win.
Listen actively – really listen – don't plan on what you're going to say next
Use empathy – really be interested in the other person's point of view – you can find it out and acknowledge it without necessarily agreeing with it
Don't assume the other person is trying to hurt you
Do assume they are doing their best
Be solution focused – aim at the problem not the person (if you attack the other person, it might feel good but is not likely to get you a resolution)
Use "I" statements ("when you talk like that, I get confused and have difficulty in understanding you")
Avoid using "you" statements if possible ("you are acting like a 13-year-old…")
Don't generalise ("when I get things wrong – you always shout at me…")
Communicate how you feel ("when you shout at me in front of the staff, I feel humiliated")
If possible deal with the situation at hand – try not to pull out a "laundry list" of past complaints – if you are holding onto past feelings or complaints it won't be easy to complete this conversation
If you do need to deal with other issues
"Bracket" them ("there are other things we need to discuss but right now I want to concentrate on this particular issue" )
Or group them into a single "I" statement ("I feel put down a lot on this job")
Run over all of the possibilities you can think of
I might get fired/they might leave
We might become enemies
I might cry
I might give in when I shouldn't
I might become insulting
I might get what I want
I might not get what I want
I might feel humiliated
and so on…
Keys to resolving conflict include careful listening, humility, a willingness to look at your part in the matter and above all kindness.
Ask for what you need – respectfully and politely
Know what you want
commitment to future improved behaviour? ("In the future, I'd appreciate it if you'd take me aside privately to discuss any mistakes I make – I'd also like some further training on………… so that I don't make the same mistake again.")
recognition of the wrong omitted against you? ("When you shout at me I feel humiliated and it makes it difficult to concentrate on my job…")
Look at your part in the matter – you may feel justified in being upset but what was your part in the conflict?
The use of personal warmth can dramatically move things to another level.
This step is frequently missed – leaving both people unsatisfied
When both people feel resolved there has usually been some commitment from each to future action or behaviour
This step is especially important if you feel wronged – it shows that even though you are upset and feel the message could have been delivered better, you did hear the message ("in the future I will turn up to work on time and negotiate extra time off well in advance – I want to do good job here and I do take the work seriously")
We are not very good at apologising
If you need an apology to move forward you may have to ask ("it would help me move forward if you apologised for telling me I was a waste of space…") – It takes courage.
Assume the other person's best intentions
Again – frequently missed leaving you unsatisfied and unresolved
Use kindness, use empathy, but stick with it even if the conversation feels forced or uncomfortable ("in the future I'd like you to speak to me before you undertake that particular piece of surgery – are you willing to commit to that?") – ("In the future I'd like you to find a way of pointing out my mistakes which is not a personal put down – do you think you could do that?")
What can you learn about yourself from the conflict?
Is there any training necessary?
Is there any way you can improve communication – both formal and informal.
Internal chatter – stopping you hearing the other person
Blaming others – it's always their fault…
Expecting others to change
Getting tied up in past resentments
No clear request for change
No final commitment
Gossiping, venting or complaining to others after the conversation is over
Being aware of this type of framework will help you develop the skills you need to make conflict into an opportunity to improve relationship and effect change. It's not going to happen all at once but this is something you can work towards – these are key personal and management skills.
"No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care"
Watch this space for tips on how to engage with and mentor people who have difficult communication styles – defensive, negative, aggressive, bossy, tearful, silent, irresponsible…
The difference between empathy and sympathy – coming into relationship even when you disagree with someone – handling client complaints and learning from them.
This site has a useful set of pages on Managing conflict including spotting the signs, understanding causes, prevention, managing conflict between groups and formal complaints procedures.
The Eight Essential Steps to Conflict Resolution – Preserving Relationships at Work, at Home and in the.Community. Dudley Weeks – not read by the editor but recommended by the Veterinary Support Personnel Network course on Communication & Conflict Management.