Thursday, March 22, 2012

Resolving conflicts

by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.
It came as a surprise, but once I digested the request, it was understandable.  Several of the reviewer-critic-users of the ninth edition of my textbook, Communicating Effectively (McGraw-Hill, 2009) said that their students wanted more on resolving conflicts in the next edition.  I thought about the request and how best to respond to it.
How to deal with conflict was included in several chapters of the ninth edition.  I discussed it under the topic “Evaluating and Improving Relationships,” in “Small-group Leadership,” and in my chapter, “Communicating Professionally.”  After a great deal of thought, because it is not a small decision when you decide to change the order of chapters or add a new chapter to a well-received, heavily-used, popular college textbook, I decided to add a new chapter to the tenth edition titled, “Conflict Management.”  This would synthesize and unify my overall approach by drawing together all of the scattered elements.
Even the placement of the new chapter was important since it contained elements that had been part of three different chapters in the previous edition.  Once again, after a great deal of thought, I decided to make it the eighth chapter in the book just after discussing “Evaluating and Improving Relationships,” and before discussing professional and small-group communication in the next part of the book.
Also, in trying to satisfy the requests of my reviewer-critic-users, I had to decide what were the essential elements to be contained in the new chapter.  That is, how could I best supply exactly what my freshmen and sophomore readers wanted and needed.
One of the biggest challenges I have faced during my 35+ years of writing college textbooks is trying to satisfy my multiple audiences.  The first audience, of course, is always my editors and their judgment of what works and what doesn’t.  The second audience is my adopters — those teachers, instructors, and professors (my colleagues) — who must decide whether or not they want to teach from the book (whether or not they want their students to learn the material in the book).  The third audience is the students themselves.  For the most part, this is a silent audience, because I don’t hear directly from them at all.  Their wants, needs, wishes, and desires are filtered through the reviewer-critic-users’ heads; however, if I don’t satisfy them (as determined, of course, by the adopters), I don’t sell books.  You can see the challenge.
My goal was to give students tools to use when they faced conflicts; thus, on the second page of text in the new chapter on “Conflict Management,” I placed a marginal box, “Six Steps for Resolving Conflicts,” which listed them: 1) Cool off.  2) Tell what’s bothering you using owned messages. [This means taking responsibility for what is bothering you rather than blaming the other person.  It is thoroughly explained earlier in the book.] 3) Restate what you heard the other person say. [This helps avoid misunderstandings and makes certain that a conflict doesn’t occur just because one partner did not correctly hear what the other said.]
There are three additional steps as well.  4) Take responsibility. [You could say something like, “I’m probably getting too upset about this issue, but that’s me!”] 5) Brainstorm solutions looking for one that satisfies both parties. [Brainstorming is simply a method for generating a large number of alternatives without judgment or criticism.] 6) Affirm, forgive, or thank.  (An affirming response might be, “Okay, I didn’t let you explain your position.  Now, that I hear what you mean, you’re right.  It’s a great idea.”  A forgiving response might be, “Hey, I make a lot of mistakes, too.  I guess we all do.  Let’s just forgive and forget and move on.  What d’ya say?”  And a thanking response might be, “I’m so glad you pointed that out.  Thank you.  I just had never thought about it in this way before.”)
Within the text of the chapter, and in the section, “Resolving Conflict,” I offer readers a longer discussion about a conflict-resolution strategy that researchers in the field discovered.  After a thorough explanation of the six stages, there is a “Consider This” box inserted that quotes from a book, Feeling Good Together (Broadway Books, 2008) by David D. Burns, M.D.  The essential piece of advice (from a study he conducted of more than 1,200 individuals) regarding whether or not you will have a happy marriage can be determined from the answer to a single question: “Do you blame your partner for the problems in your relationship?”
Within my chapter on “Conflict Management,” I offer readers 13 specific techniques for resolving conflicts online, and there is a complete discussion of defensive communication and how readers can offset or counter a defensive climate with supportive strategies.  There is, too, a section of “Dealing with rejection.”  The marginal box in the section on “rejection” summarizes the section in four aspects: 1) avoid self-defeating assumptions, 2) don’t magnify its impact, 3) don’t let it compromise or derail your dreams, and 4) learn from it.
My chapter on “Conflict Management” also has sections on “Dealing with conflict at work,” “Conflict in groups,” and “Managing Group Conflict.”  Much of what is said within these sections is summarized in yet another marginal box.  One of the purposes of the marginal boxes is to highlight essential material that readers might not choose nor have time to read.  If readers are simply skimming a chapter to pick up some of the content (as opposed to all of the content), the marginal boxes might be something they would attend to.
One of the essential marginal boxes is labeled, “Nine Steps for Seeking Productive Solutions.”  These steps include: 1) Plan, prepare, and rehearse.  2) Set an appropriate climate.  3) Adopt a constructive attitude.  4) Assertively state the message.  5) All your message to sink in.  6) Listen carefully to the response.  7) Restate, clarify, and recycle.  8) Focus on solutions not on personalities.  And, 9) Plan to evaluate solutions.
If you have, or can adopt or assume, the following personality traits, you are best equipped to handle conflict situations.  Revealing maturity and wisdom rank first.  Consideration of and an ability to empathize with others rank second.  The third characteristic, but no less important than the first two, is the ability to remain open-minded, objective, tolerant, and flexible.  In addition to these important traits, your ability to see things in shades of gray rather than in black-and-white, a positive attitude toward conflict and its benefits, and the ability to offer options, alternatives, and choices.
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At the Free Management Library website, there is an excellent resource, by Carter McNamara titled, “Basics of Conflict Management.”  McNamara discusses the topics, 1) Clarifying Confusion about Conflict, 2) Types of Managerial Actions that Cause Workplace Conflicts, 3)  Key Managerial Actions / Structures to Minimize Conflicts, 4) Ways People Deal With Conflict, 5) To Manage a Conflict Within Yourself - "Core Process," and, 6) To Manage a Conflict With Another - "Core Process."  This is an excellent resource with a great deal of information.

At eHow, the essay is titled, “How to deal with conflict in relationships,” and there are five suggestions: 1) Respect the other person, 2) acknowledge the issue, 3) discuss the problem, 4) compromise, and 5) renegotiate if necessary.
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Copyright March, 2012, by And Then Some Publishing, L.L.C.

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