Conflict Competence Blog

Professionalization of Conflict Resolvers

August 12, 2012

Those of us speaking out against creating certification for conflict resolvers don’t seem to have a lot of allies. The weight of popular opinion is that certification with standardized credentials should (must) be done. I appreciate an opportunity to present a cautionary point of view.

Conflict Resolution is an ancient tradition

A first exposure to our field is often sibling rivalry and the parental response to it. Some of us may recall reading the Bible story of King Solomon’s solution to two women claiming motherhood of the same child. To this day he is synonymous with wisdom in resolving intractable conflicts. Conflict resolution is not something we recently created.
Many cultures have a tradition of taking conflicts to the elders, religious leaders, respected community members, or other wise men and women who earn that prestige on the basis of their personal qualities and position in the community. Those esteemed people act in the role according to their instinct and ability. Their cultures survive the lack of credentials for the role.

The conflicts of today may seem more complex and wicked. Some are. However, it is still the respect for and trust in the conflict resolver that should inspire people to bring their conflicts to her or him. To think about measuring the performance of elders, who have the role because of tradition and respect, puts a different perspective on the debate. Too often the standards are academic and the qualities of trust and respect, which are hard (not impossible) to measure, drop off the list. To the extent that conflict resolvers of color or ethnicity are disadvantaged in the credentialing process, the field would be wise to expand the conversation about credentials to encourage mediator diversity.

Standardizing the process

Since the mainstream acceptance of conflict resolution is what we wanted, what are some of the issues generating anxiety? Some are straight forward, such as, is conflict resolution a profession? What does competence mean? What is an appropriate model of intervention? What body, if any, should have responsibility for monitoring the field? What level of training entitles someone to practice? Should there be controls over what each process can be called? Who now speaks for the peace and conflict “movement”?

While these are interesting and important questions, which conflict resolution process are we asking the questions about? We do have a conflict resolution continuum and we know that many models are available. We understand that the list is not exhaustive, and some models were unheard of a decade ago. With the questions answered and processes standardized, are we stifling the creativity that gives conflict resolution its value? Let’s explore the discourses around credentialing.

Conflict Resolution is Interdisciplinary and Inclusive by nature

The discourse of standardization suggests that there is a best practice and the principles can be quantified. There is no one profession that can say it owns conflict resolution, or can claim that theirs is a more correct model. Mediation, for example, has historic roots in labor, civil rights, family, community justice, courts, game theory, cooperative problem solving, organizational development, communications, industrial relations, and more recently, complexity science, to name only a few. Law, which lays claim to much of the mediation field now came somewhat late in many ways to the conflict management movement.

Whatever the original discipline of conflict resolvers, they bring the sum total of their learning and experience to their conflict interventions. There is room for innovation and evolution in the conflict resolution universe. We should be encouraging more people from different disciplines to find new applications of the models and to bring their many skills to us.

If there had been credentialing bodies in the 1930s when mediation began to flourish, it is unlikely that innovations we today believe are good mediation practice would have found their way into our repertoires. Exclusionary requirements, such as needing the certification of one discipline or another, or some over-riding body, are contra-intuitive to the flexible, evolutionary nature of conflict resolution.

Education of users is the best protection

One of the more prevalent discourses for credentials is the need to protect consumers by telling them that a conflict resolver has met minimum standards. However, in reality, this would be neither protection nor a standard of excellence. There are at least two embedded concerns to unpack in this. The first is finding a competent mediator in the first place, and the second is recognizing competence during the mediation process.

Finding a competent mediator happens now, in the absence of any standardized process. The free market offers options ranging from word of mouth, referrals, reference checks, Internet searches and pre-retainer interviews. Websites such as doctor rating service site (e.g. http://www.ratemds.com and http://www.ratemymd.ca) are models of how public opinion is available to anyone with time at a wired computer. Rosters are available in multiple places and formats. Should those be standardized? Perhaps it’s more important to have sufficient credible information in accessible and user-friendly formats.

The second concern is working with the selected mediator before and during the mediation session. Once the certificate of mediation competence is awarded, the certificate holder is still working behind closed doors within the bounds of confidentiality. The service user has no way of knowing if s/he received a competent service unless he/she has some conflict management competency.

The best protection, for users and providers alike, is to educate everyone about what good practice looks like. If parties want a transformative mediation and get a head-banging evaluator, they should understand it is the style of that intervener and the model s/he uses – not mediation in general – that is different than their expectations. If users know the differences, they can obtain what they need in the way of service.

The alternative is to keep conflict resolution as mysterious and labyrinthine as the law, so that only practitioners understand it and problems must be turned over to the practitioner for resolution. This is contrary to the stated claims of conflict resolvers that conflict resolution processes are empowering to the disputants and gives them control over the outcome. We cannot have it both ways. We either keep the knowledge and control or we share it widely. If we truly believe that conflict resolution is empowering and returns control to the parties involved with the conflict, we should not be the ones drawing lines around where that empowerment and control ends for them and begins for us. In short, we have to walk our own talk.

Conflict Resolution is a life skill

Another discourse is that conflict resolution requires hours of training and practice for proficiency. Hopefully, that is true. However, it also not true. What we do is largely common sense and everyone should have access to the knowledge behind it. A valid critique of this comment (by Diane Levine, to whom I am grateful) is that once in a conflict, the skills we easily use in times of calm are difficult to call upon. This is the reason mediators add value to the conversation. If everyone had the life skill, our services might not be necessary. However, the fact that conflict makes us subjective does not shift the fact the mediation skills themselves are ordinary and should be taught to everyone. Credentialing can turn a life skill into an esoteric ritual that only the ordained can practice.

Our goal should be to have every school child trained in and understand the theory and practice of good interpersonal relationships. There should not be any mystery about conflict resolution that demands that only professionals are licensed to practice. If we are to successfully transform the future into a peaceful place to live, a first step is to give everyone the required skills, not hoard them for a privileged few who qualify. The proliferation of conflict resolution training courses is a start. For example, an organization might sponsor a Human Resource expert’s training in the expectation the HR expert would then provide in-house mediation services for staff. If the organization and staff are getting value from the HR expert having this additional skill set, must the HR expert then have to meet qualifications external to the needs of the organization? Let us not set roadblocks in the path by letting people take the course, then making them qualify to apply the knowledge.

Conflict Resolution personalities

The discourse about testing as a guarantee of quality assumes that the right things are being tested. Taking a generic 40-hour training course, practicing the requisite number of hours and passing a test may entitle someone to a credential. It does not guarantee that they will be adequate conflict resolvers. One size never did fit all.
Recently, about a dozen very experienced conflict resolvers created a list of the qualities that make for an excellent conflict resolution personality. These included such attributes as clear thinking, calm, appropriate risk taking, wisdom and a sense of humor. Those don’t appear in four-step models that are the basis of mediation training.

Conflict resolution models abound and so do personal styles. A good blend of conflict resolution model and personal style may create an excellent conflict resolver. Someone with a good conflict resolution personality may use an intuitive, unregulated model all their own and be excellent at intervening successfully in conflicts. Someone else, with good technical skill in the four-step model, may have a completely inappropriate personality for resolving conflict. Credentialing may not be designed to or capable of assessing that. We do not know the answer to this question yet because it is not part of the standard test.

No matter how critical some may be of another intervener’s personal style, there will be a client and a conflict for which that style may be suitable. If the teacher, religious leader and community elder have conflict resolution personalities, they should be a part of the conflict resolution universe, without having to apply to yet another discipline for permission to do their jobs.

Whose interests are being served?

The discourse of providing a public service by pre-screening competence is high-minded and noble. Is it real? Where is the push for credentials coming from? My clients do not ask if I have a certificate of competence from any organization. Nor would a certificate to practice offer them protection if I have an off day during the intervention I do for them.

Since we are skilled at getting to interests, the questions might be asked: Who would benefit from an embedded system of credentials? What do the organizations pushing for credentials say is their motivation?

When I read the papers of the task forces of the various organizations lobbying for credentials and barriers to practice, the majority of them are geared towards convincing the profession to accept the need for credentials. Thus, the argument put first is that it will assist in obtaining work. I have no problem with this, since the right to work is important. However, since we are trained to get interests on the table, let us be honest if it is our own interests driving the move to credentials, with the public interest as a cover.

It seems to be the certificate granting agencies that stand to gain the most. They write the rules, collect our fees to apply to get the letters after our names, administer the test for a (large) fee, and then charge ongoing amounts for keeping the certification current. It is an administrative empire being built on the backs of people doing work that they have been doing for years without the piece of paper. The value added to the practice, the client or the practitioner by this new bureaucracy is not yet quantified.

Where is the research?

The discourse of –˜everyone knows that some practitioners are incompetent’ suggests that someone has done some data collection and found incompetence everywhere. If credentialing is the answer, what was the question? Is there research showing that a large swath of incompetent conflict resolvers are out there giving bad process and harming clients, the administration of justice and the general reputation of the field?
We certainly hear anecdotally about some conflict resolvers we would not want to recommend because we disagree with their style. Do we have any statistics about how prevalent or frequent this is, to justify a new category of jobs called conflict resolution regulators? Is the push to credential warranted, or self-protectionist, empire building? Is it good risk management or an institutional money grab from conflict resolvers and their organizations? Is it the search for status as a new profession, or some other entity altogether? It would be helpful to know what harm is being addressed to better understand if credentials are the mitigation for that harm.

Alternative solutions

Perhaps we should be listing the main characteristics of each of the processes along the continuum. We could list the models of each of those processes and the best practices of each of the models, followed by the qualities of an excellent conflict resolution professional for each of the models. Only after that should we even consider such mundane criteria as the number of hours of course work required. As each innovation, evolution and mutation of a process arises in response to need, we could share the new knowledge by expanding the attributes continuum.
We should be emphasizing the best practices inherent in the many rich conflict resolution models, the need for depth of knowledge of the theory, core values, principles and the requirement for a conflict resolution personality that is appropriate to the models a person intends to practice. We could honor the depth of indigenous knowledge of the elders who have personal qualities and skills we do not yet teach.

The micro-skills of each particular model are the easiest issue. Yet it is towards those minimum standards of the micro-skills that the bulk of the energy in the debate about standards and credentials is directed. If we are going to test for competency, let us enhance the palette of what are important mediator qualities for the clients and users.

Conclusion

Professionalization under the guise of public protection seems to really be protection for the self-interest of the practitioner. It will keep the untrained – by our definition – out of the practice thus excluding the elders, the community workers, the intuitive naturals, those with stature in their cultures and others who have been doing the work for years without recognition or credit for the value of the work they are doing. It will marginalize those who cannot pay the thousands of dollars to be steeped in our standard first-world model that barely recognizes the voices of the other gender, cultures, races, classes, experiences or locations. Those who are ‘othered’ by the standard model of practice, which will be enshrined in the push for standards and credentials, are the very people who would gain the most from processes that champion empowerment, recognition and control over the conflict in the hands of the disputants.

Conflict management helps set goals and reduce stress

December 10, 2011

Clearly understanding roles and goals greatly contributes to stress management in many situations, whether in a family or organization. Uncertainty is stressful and becomes blame, confusion about who does what, and feeling what work you do is unappreciated. In one case I mediated, the manager and employee had such different ideas of what each one’s role was, that their goals were constantly clashing. By the time I was invited to help, the manager’s goal was to find a way to get rid of the employee, while the employee’s goal was to undermine the manager whenever possible. They were both very stressed and mistrustful.

By asking opened-ended questions to frame the conflict management approach in the mediation, we were able to reopen the communication about what was underlying the conflict:

1.Determine the particular reason for having a goal.

In this case, it didn’t take long to discover that the reasons for the two goals made sense to the two parties. They’d been tripping over each other because of unclear roles and expectations. Once they saw that as a shared goal, they could discuss the hurtful things they’d done and said to each other.

The reason for a goal is fundamental to the approach to setting the goal. If the reason is to meet a target, such as sales, then setting the goal might have quantitative questions: how much, what size, which territory, who is responsible etc. If the reason for the goal is to support someone’s personal growth and development, the questions might be more qualitative: what feelings, whose perspectives, when in time, is it in the job description etc.

2. Discover the nature of the relationship between the people involved in setting the goal.

Power played a big part of their mistrust and enmity. The manager had lots and wielded it in ways the manager thought appropriate to get the work done; the employee felt abused. When that was on the table, the employee could commit to working in the clarified job duties without needing to be whipped to do it.

The context for the goal setting influences the process. Is there a power differential that might set of tone of the more powerful person dictating goals to the less powerful person? Is the relationship so strained that the people involved might never be able to agree on who has what role or responsibility? Is it peers who are collectively setting a team goal that all will be asked to meet?

3. Delve into how empowered the people involved are.

The company shared some of the responsibility for the conflict because it didn’t have clear job descriptions or expect regular performance evaluations. In other words, the manager had also felt abandoned in trying to do a good job in management. The employee became much more obliging when it was apparent there were opportunities for both to grow in their jobs.

A common scenario might be a supervisor, who we’ll call R, giving a yearly performance review to a staff member, who we’ll call D. In this scenario, R and D may have a distant relationship based on past history of irritating each other, or a friendly relationship because they think on the same wavelength. R must still reflect on what his/her intentions are for the meeting with D to set her/his goals. The choices for R would range from: having a friendly conversation because all is well with D’s work, to having a disciplinary tone in which consequences are set out if D does not meet R’s expectations, or anything in between.

4. Develop a clear intention for the process of setting goals

One of the outcomes both were particularly happy about was the decision to meet more regularly to discuss their shared goals and set new expectations. They each wanted more structured goal setting and mutual support.

If you intend to set achievable goals, have an understanding of the power dynamic and options for how to frame the conversation. Some questions to ask yourself before going into the goal setting meeting might be: what assumptions do I have about the reasons, goals and employee; are those assumptions skewing my intention; if I change those assumptions do the intentions change?

Metaphors for conflict competence

September 24, 2011

It was a real pleasure to be in a workshop with Bernie Mayer on Friday in Edmonton Alberta. I learned a lot and very much enjoyed the conversation with about a dozen conflict managers. Somewhere in the discussion, this expression was used:–

Pick your battles.

It’s a cliché and it’s powerful in its message to walk away, avoid, withdraw.

‘Pick’ suggests exclusion, a narrowing down from many to one or a few. –˜Battles’ imports the image that we are facing many fights of which we will engage in the one or few we deem worthy of us. The aggression in ‘picking’ and ‘battles’ goes a little way towards making us feel in control of the course of life or relationships.

Other common clichés we say to explain the reason we accept something instead of resisting it, when the energy isn’t there for the effort.

This isn’t a hill to die on or
Live to fight another day.

  • Dying on any hill, literal or imaginary, detracts from the quality of the life I want to live.
  • Certainly, I want to live another day, preferably to engage with the world in a positive, productive and purposeful way.
  • We use hostile sayings mindlessly, meaning we don’t pay attention to the power of the words.
  • If we’re serious about creating a culture of conflict competence, here’s a good place to start – by being intentional about the metaphors and language we use.
    • Choose your conversation
    • My preference is to walk in peace
    • Live to engage in talk again

Next time you manage a situation to deal competently with conflict, give yourself credit for the decisions you made. Out of all the responses possible, let’s rewrite the expressions to use conflict competent words.

The power of apology in conflict

September 10, 2011

This week I witnessed the importance of sincerely offering or graciously accepting an apology. Granted, during times of high emotions, it isn’t always easy to do either. In these two cases, how an apology was offered (or not) and accepted (or not) had the power to change the outcome of the two relationships.

The first example was between a man and a woman who had recently started dating. He did something quite tacky that upset her. She explained how his actions had affected her. He had a choice to make about how to respond. He might have argued that she was wrong to view his behavior the way she did. Or, he might have justified how he acted in order to explain it away. Or, he might have ridiculed her for being upset and made it her problem for taking offense. Had he taken any of these options, their relationship might have ended that night.

Instead, he decided to listen to her perspective, respect her emotions, understand her point of view, apologize for upsetting her, take responsibility for what he had done and ask if she needed something from him to make amends. It was an artful apology, sincere and strategically offered. It diffused her emotional reaction to what had happened. Their relationship deepened and grew stronger instead of being damaged.

The second example involved a mother and teenage daughter who were hiking. The mother inadvertently took a wrong turn and they wound up across a gully from where the rest of the family waited for them. The daughter, trying to return to the correct trail, plunged into the gully despite the mother advising her not to go through the bush, The daughter was wearing shorts and sandals, so–  she was hurt when she bushwhacked through a patch of stinging nettles.

The mom apologized for getting them lost and tried to give aid to her crying and distraught daughter. The girl refused to hear her. She was in full blame mode. The daughter told the reunited family she would never hike with mom again. Mom was crushed that her apology was rejected but remained steadfast in taking responsibility and never mentioned the caution against entering the gully. Eventually, the daughter was able to chill enough to accept the apology and all was well between them.

Having seen how they improve relationships, it seems to me that offering and accepting apologies are skills we should practice more, whether the parties’ affiliations are strong or weak. The couple in the first example now have a wonderful relationship that might have ended before it had a chance. The mother and daughter might have endured a fracture in their communication as the daughter went through her teen years, when communication is most challenging. An apology, and its acceptance, healed both harms.

In these two cases, the players had strong attachments to each other that encouraged them to try to make things better. Even the weaker ties of workplace and social club attachments can benefit from people taking responsibility with the power of apologies. Both the person choosing to make and the person choosing to accept an apology– wind up feeling empowered when they make the decision to take responsibility and fix the conflict.

Immediate success can nurture future conflict

July 15, 2011

A small story in the media 12 July 2011, is a cautionary tale about trust in conflict zones and the law of unintended consequences.

The rumour is that the CIA used a nurse and doctor to withdraw some blood while vaccinating suspects. They used the needle to get a DNA sample. Sometime afterwards, the CIA performed a military operation in the compound because it had confirmed the suspect was indeed there. The CIA has not confirmed whether or not the story is true.

So, what’s the problem with tricking people using a fake medical scenario to obtain medical information or data?

First, trust breaking. The West and the Arab world are in high stakes conflict situations in a few places. Medical personnel in high conflict zones put their lives at risk, relying on trust about their impartiality to deliver emergency services to all combatants in need of treatment. Will they now be trusted as impartial? Eventually, peace will have to be negotiated. Those negotiations will require some level of trust among the parties. Deceit and trust building are usually mutually exclusive.

Second, the law of unintended consequences. The Internet is– rife with conspiracy theories that inoculations are a Western plot against Muslims.– Already some Muslim communities are refusing vaccinations that they believe are a plot to sterilize them or introduce genetic mutations or illness. Polio could make a resurgence as a global plague because those communities don’t trust the West. This ploy to find a targeted man using a medical team to vaccinate and, without consent take blood for DNA testing, feeds that conspiracy story.

While the CIA operation of DNA analysis was high tech, the device for obtaining it was simple. However, peacemaking can suffer when linear thinking is applied to complex nonlinear conflict situations.– For one objective – finding a person – there may be a setback in a global health objective of using modern vaccines for eradicating diseases.

A conflict analysis of anger

May 31, 2011

Many people are uncomfortable with anger. It isn’t fun when you’re the target of someone else’s anger and it’s rarely a good feeling to be angry. Even non involved by-standers who witness an angry confrontation that has nothing to do with them can wind up feeling bad. It’s hard to know what to do when someone is showing the common signs of anger: loud voice, facial changes, rigid body language, aggressive words, and threatening gestures. What’s a person to do with that? To be clear, I’m not referring to violence – that’s another discussion altogether.

I find it helpful to think about the “because” of anger. To make it more explicit, think of anger as a secondary emotion. First, we feel something – for example, hurt, humiliated, rejected, misunderstood. Then, secondarily, we get angry because of that primary emotion and the meaning we make of the behaviour.

So, if I’m angry because my beloved has made me feel rejected through neglect, it’s quite a different than if I’m angry because I believed that my beloved had publicly humiliated me. In both cases I’m angry with him. In my opinion, he crossed a boundary in each case. The results I want from him are quite different in the two cases.

Unless I have the insight to differentiate between how his neglect makes me feel and how his statements in public make me feel, then telling him I’m angry is potentially unhelpful in initiating a useful conversation. In the cases of rejection from neglect, I may want him to talk. In the case of humiliation from his public statements, I may want him to stop talking. The statement “I feel angry …” seems to call out for a deeper exploration of the “because” underlying that statement.

The most helpful response in the face of anger is often to intuit the feeling underneath the situation that led to the anger. Stopping at ‘anger’ as the identified emotion seems to be stopping too soon.

Filed Under: Conflict Competence

High salaries don’t guarantee conflict competence

January 28, 2011

Even billion dollar deals can fall apart when the highly paid executives doing the negotiating get hurt feelings. Here’s a cautionary tale about the value of doing interest based negotiations, of managing your reactions to another person and of understanding how to have difficult conversations.

The Globe and Mail reported on January 28, 2011 (page B4), that the CEO of “of the fertilizer giant (Potash Corp.) who fought hard to fend off the $39-billion bid” blamed his opponent company (BHP Billiton Ltd.)– for the failure of the hostile takeover.

It wasn’t an economic failure, but a failure to make Potash Corp. feel good about– BHP Billiton Ltd.,– and its intentions once it had ownership.

“BHP Billiton Ltd. has itself to blame for Ottawa’s decision to reject its hostile takeover offer for Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc.”, he said. In one of his first media interviews since Ottawa denied the takeover almost three months ago, Potash Corp. chief executive officer Bill Doyle said the Australian mining giant — got in their own way– when they launched the bid to buy one of Canada’s resource champions. "Had they come with just a little bit of humility they might have had a different outcome,– Mr. Doyle said in an interview with The Globe and Mail on Thursday.”
That’s right; even $39 billion dollars couldn’t buy the company after the suitor BHP Billiton Ltd. allegedly insulted the decision makers of Potash Corp. If ever you wondered about the importance of relationship building in the high stakes of big business, this is a classic case study in the making. Even had BHP Billiton Ltd. done its conflict analysis and apologized for its faux pas, the CEO of Potash Corp. ought still to have done his conflict analysis of his reaction (over reaction?) to the slight. Some conflict competence training for all concerned might have been more valuable than humility.

Filed Under: Conflict Competence

Hollywood can teach about conflict management

November 17, 2010

It isn’t often I go to a Hollywood movie and then want to buy the DVD to use in my conflict management classes. When Martha, my colleague and friend, suggested we sneak in a matinee of “You Again” I agreed only because it was a rainy day and I didn’t have any pressing deadlines.

Now, I want to see it again and show it to everyone I like. I’ve bought the DVD.

You Again has a terrific cast and the script has truly funny lines. It’s marketed as a chick flick, which is unfortunate. Everyone of any gender or age could enjoy this movie and take away something for his/her own life.

The main character, Marni, was bullied in high school. She went on to achieve success in business. It did indeed get better for her. Her brother became engaged to the cheerleader who bullied her, so Marni sets out to sabotage the wedding. Marni’s intention is to save her brother from marrying a woman that Marni believes is a bad person. It gets hilarious as all the generations become involved, which doesn’t at all detract from the serious messages about bullying that lurk under the skin of Marni, her mother and grandmother. It seems that all three experienced bullying from their own perspectives.

The subtext also includes the transformative power of insight into our own behaviour and the adaptive changes we are all capable of undergoing. Marni is hostile to a memory of what someone did to her, and that person no longer exists. The enemy has evolved into someone Marni could actually like. And, the bully has her own story to tell about what it was like for her in high school.

All the characters turn out to be sympathetic and likable once we get to know them. The story is a conflict management equivalent to a work of art. You’ll find something in You Again that reflects your taste and point of view.

Relationships matter as much as technology

October 22, 2010

There is a pattern in two major events that occurred this month:– 33 miners were rescued— in a breathtakingly heroic effort in Chile and, at the other end of the hemisphere,– Calgary elected a new mayor. What they have as a common theme is the credit the media gave to the technology that led to the success of both endeavors.

In Chile, amazing machines brought 33 men and a few rescuers to the surface. In Calgary, an almost unknown professor with about 1% popular support when he entered the race used electronic devices to raise his popularity high enough to sweep the competition. At least, those were the stories that made the news.

The better and mostly untold story is about the relationships of collaboration and consensus decision making that created the conditions for success in both cases.

The 33 men in the mine shafts, after initial trial and error about how to get along in extraordinarily harsh circumstances, self organized their lives underground and averted interpersonal disaster. When the technology found them, they had figured out how to survive as a group. The new mayor of Calgary understood the technology was only a tool for policy and platform content. He had something to say that was worth hearing and social media and networking was how to get out his good messages.

Bottom line: the technology is good to have, but it isn’t the whole story. Without the tools of interpersonal relationships and consensus decision making, which supported and made the technology fit the situations, both stories might have ended differently.

We still need to have our own resilience, conflict management, and interpersonal relationships skills. We might never run for office or be trapped by forces beyond our control. Yet, each day we have challenges that technology can’t fix and our skills can.

Clear roles and goals reduce conflict and stress

August 22, 2010

Last month I wrote about confusion in roles and responsibilities contributing to conflict. Having said that, someone asked for more information about how to fix the situation.

Clearly understanding roles and goals greatly contributes to stress management in many situations, whether in a family or organization. Uncertainty is stressful and becomes blame, confusion about who does what, and feeling what work you do is unappreciated. In one case I mediated, the manager and employee had such different ideas of what each one’s role was, that their goals were constantly clashing. By the time I was invited to help, the manager’s goal was to find a way to get rid of the employee, while the employee’s goal was to replace the manager. They were both very stressed and mistrustful.

One of the relevant conflict management skills is asking good opened-ended questions. Here’s some steps to take, which is not an exhaustive list but will help frame the approach:

1. Determine the particular reason for having a goal.
The reason for a goal is fundamental to the approach to setting the goal. If the reason is to meet a target, such as sales, then setting the goal might have quantitative questions: how much, what size, which territory, who is responsible etc? If the reason for the goal is to support someone’s personal growth and development, the questions might be more qualitative: what feelings, whose perspectives, when in time, is it in the job description etc?

2. Discover the nature of the relationship between the people involved in setting the goal.
The context for the goal setting influences the process. Is there a power differential that might set of tone of the more powerful person dictating goals to the less powerful person? Is the relationship so strained that the people involved might never be able to agree on who has what role or responsibility? Is it peers who are collectively setting a team goal that all will be asked to meet?

3. Delve into how empowered the people involved are.
A common scenario might be a supervisor, who we’ll call R, giving a yearly performance review to a staff member, who we’ll call D. R and D may have a tense relationship based on past history of irritating each other, or a friendly relationship because they think on the same wavelength. R must still reflect on what his/her intentions are for the meeting with D about work goals. The choices for R would range from: having a friendly conversation because all is well with D’s work, to having a disciplinary tone in which consequences are set out if D does not meet R’s expectations, or anything in between.

4. Develop a clear intention for the process of setting goals
If you intend to set achievable goals, have an understanding of the power dynamic and options for how to frame the conversation. Some questions to ask yourself before going into the goal setting meeting might be: what assumptions do I have about the reasons, goals and employee; are those assumptions skewing my intention; if I change those assumptions do my intentions change?