Think about a few times when you’ve been angry. It could be a situation where you were just furious about a situation, locked in a debate or angry to have learned something unsettling.
What did you do? How did you handle the conflict?
Most of us have a sort of default way that we handle being upset. Here are four common reactions:
- You say, “bring it on!” and head right into conflict, ready to be honest and direct
- While you’re fine discussing anything with anyone, you’re uneasy being directly confronted or if you feel the conflict is a rejection of your ideas or values
- You don’t like upset and do your best to be a peacemaker and mediator (and sometimes even try to change the topic or agree with things you don’t really support just to keep others placated)
- You dislike being pulled into conflict (especially if it feels like a personal attack) and you want time to research and evaluate a position, response or options
Now, this isn’t a case where the way we react is BETTER or WORSE, or WRONG or RIGHT.
The way we deal with conflict is related to our personality style (there are different tools for understanding yourself and others and at Padraig, we use the Everything DiSC Assessments with our clients).
The reason that we react so differently to conflict is because our personality style influences:
- How we approach situations
- What we tell ourselves about things happening around us
- How we prioritize tasks we need to accomplish
- How we interact with others at work and in our personal lives.
Common causes of conflict
Conflict in any environment frequently arises when there are competing goals or pressures. It might be that there is some competition over resources or perhaps confusion over policies, rules or regulations – or friction between different positions of authority or responsibility.
Then consider that the people disagreeing over these issues may also have very different personality styles; suddenly perceptions, values and character traits are adding to the potential for conflict.
Sometimes the conflict arises when you both share the same personality styles (consider two take-charge dominant personalities who enjoy a good fight, erm, discussion or, alternately, two people-pleasing steady personalities who avoid conflict and don’t want to upset each other).
Being able to identify your own personality style and the personality styles of your team members and colleagues can be very helpful. If you can understand what motivates them and what is irritating for them, you can tailor your approach. Think of it as learning to speak their language.
It’s obviously easier to figure out with the folks you work with on a daily or weekly basis and a little trickier if you’re having conflict with someone in a branch office somewhere else in the world.
Ways to assess personality styles
There are a few ways you can try to figure out where you and others fall in terms of personality style – and ultimately conflict style. Here are some ideas:
Make observations: Watch how your team members react to various situations:
- What’s their usual default reaction to conflict? (NB: we highlighted four common reactions at the start of this blog)
- Are they considered abrasive, outgoing, calm or organized?
- Do they like to make decisions quickly, consider others’ reactions when making decisions, wait to see what the group thinks before they vote or are they all about numbers and research?
- How do they communicate?
People can learn to adjust their behavior but most of us have a default way of reacting when we’re under stress. When you see patterns, you can make an educated guess about personality style.
Listen to what others say: If you routinely hear that so-and-so always needs to comb through every financial detail and consider every possibility or that this person makes snap decisions and can’t stand long explanations, you can glean some insights that might confirm your own suspicions. If you trust someone not to gossip or create office drama, you could ask their opinion about how a colleague approaches certain things (but be careful – you want to solve conflict, not create more of it!).
Go straight to the horse’s mouth: Rather than trying to guess, you could go right to the person you’re in conflict with and broach the topic in a non-confrontational way. For example, you could say, “I feel like I am always very direct, but that might not be comfortable for you. Do you agree?” or, “I know that my need for detail can grate on your nerves. Is that a fair statement?” And then, based on their response, you can talk about ways to work through the conflict together.
Take a workshop: Learning how to correctly identify your own personality style and that of your team members can be the first step to a better work relationship. Learning together at a workshop gives everyone on the team a common language to use and problem-solving skills geared to communicate better with diverse personality styles.
Conflict is a matter of perspective
There is a very important thing to remember when conflict arises. Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston, has written five New York Times bestsellers. The most recent was published in 2018 after she spent seven years studying the future of leadership.
One of the many interesting results of Brown’s decades of research is that she found that people need to explain the cause of the conflict. But to do that, we often make up an explanation – and our brains feel good about filling in the blanks (accurate or not) and reward us with the feel-good hormone serotonin.
She emphasizes that what we assume to have caused the conflict may not be the truth, but we get that rush of serotonin to reinforce the ideas. Now, consider that if we’re making assumptions about conflict, the invented story might actually make the conflict worse.
It’s really hard not to get drawn into conflict. Instead of deciding to win an argument or prove your perspective, take a step back.
One of our favorite ideas to share with clients is to “listen to understand” (rather than listening to respond). It’s human nature to listen to RESPOND, but if you listen to understand the other person’s perspective it’s much easier to determine what that person thinks is causing the conflict.
Cause and effect
Ideally, you’re going to determine what is the source of strife and determine the conflict style of the person (or people) involved. Then you can anticipate how your style and theirs are similar and different – with a goal of finding out how to help your styles work together and how to make conflict productive..
For example, using the language of the DiSC profiles that we use with our clients:
- If you’re both take-charge Dominant-D personalities, you could clash (and take no prisoners) if you disagree. You may not resolve things in one conversation and may need to take breaks so you can stay respectful and productive.
- If you’re both people-pleasing Steady-S personalities, neither of you likes conflict (you usually try to avoid it!). The problem is that ignoring issues doesn’t resolve things – it usually makes them fester until tempers blow. You’ll need to initiate working through the conflict.
- If the conflict is between a Dominant and a Steady personality, the stakes are very different. In this case, you’re going to have to try to ensure the Dominant-D doesn’t railroad the quiet and patient Steady-S (and the Steady-S has to resolve to be honest and forthcoming, remembering that a Dominant-D personality likes concise information given quickly and is sensitive to being disrespected). The Steady-S may think they have avoided uncomfortable conflict by staying silent but keeping feelings bottled up wears you down over time; the Dominant-D will be surprised, dismayed and possibly disgruntled if it comes out later that silence didn’t signal agreement.
- The other personalities handle conflict differently so the interplay among personalities is always variable. For example, an Influential-i is sensitive to disapproval from the team, loves new ideas and happily works in broad strokes; it may be harder for an Influential-i to admit there is a problem and be honest about their position. The Conscientious-C personality is very analytical and may seem to other personalities to get overly mired in detail. It’s easy to see where an “i” might find a “C” very irritating and slow when making decisions (and conversely the “C” might think the “i” is flighty and not grounded in fact).
The beauty of realizing that different people have different conflict styles (because we’re not all the same personality style!) is that we can use that knowledge to help to see things from another perspective.
Instead of judging someone as domineering, flighty, sensitive or slow, we can instead appreciate that we all have different characteristics. The bonus? Sometimes it’s very helpful to rely on colleagues who see the world completely different than you do.
To make the most of the diversity around you, and still manage conflict, there are six simple shifts you can make to tackle the bad kind of team conflict.
Being able to communicate in a way that others who see things differently than you can understand and appreciate will help to resolve conflict and build a better working relationship.
What conflict styles are making your work challenging? What would you like to see change, in your relationships with these folks? Given our ideas above, how can we help?