Conflict – managing or mastering?

Conflict is part of every relationship. How do we master the skills needed to deal consciously with conflict? How do we learn how to be assertive and how to be co-operative? We know that conflict plays out in the behaviour of a colleague that complains about unequal salaries, a family member who does not stick to agreements, or a member of the residents’ association finding fault with everything the committee does. We sometimes forget that conflict is also present in the mundane things that irritate and frustrate.

Many of us have benefitted from conflict management or conflict mediation interventions. But conflict management has one gaping weakness. Too often in the management of conflict, not enough attention is paid to the shifts individuals must make to establish a new conflict culture in a team, group, or household.

Conflict coaching addresses this weakness. An individual and the conflict coach work together to identify and develop the skills necessary to deal sensibly with conflict. Conflict coaching can produce the kind of relationships where those skills can be mastered.

Three approaches

Conflict management is a function of management and leadership. The task of the manager is to identify existing and potential conflicts. They then lead the process of resolving the dispute in a sensible and fair way.[1] Typically conflict management leans heavily on the five modes of conflict handling developed by Thomas and Kilmann.

Another approach is conflict mediation. Conflict mediation as an informal or formal process used by two or more parties uses to find a peaceful solution to their dispute.[2]It is the function of an independent person, the mediator. The mediator can use a facilitative, evaluative, or transformative approach.

Conflict mastering is a function of the conflict coach. Mastering the mental, emotional, and relational skills to deal with conflict is the outcome of a process in which coachee and coach work together.


Conflict, frustration, and self-talk

Conflict is understood as an inter-personal or intra-group problem, often defined as harmful or dysfunctional work relationships. Often it is only recognised after a chaotic meeting that tends to derail a critical project. Initially, the team leader or manager will facilitate a process of resolution or agreement. From time-to-time, they will employ the help of an outside consultant or conflict manager to assist.

Coaching sees conflict as conflicting needs and the expectation that those needs will be met in the workplace, family, and other social environments. Conflict begins with the awareness of frustration over unfulfilled needs and the suspicion that I am not valued. We can say that all disputes arise from the frustration we experience and the ensuing self-talk. It is frustration and the way we assign meaning to the causes thereof that leads to misunderstandings, highlights differences create discomfort, and eventually polarisation. Conflict coaching aims to uncover the existence and source of frustrated expectations and create an awareness of the way the frustrations play out in the here and now.

Two misconceptions and behaviour change

One misconception is that conflict is bad relationships and can be fixed through an acceptable compromise. Another one is that if we fix this relationship, conflict can even be useful and strengthen the team. However, the reality of conflict is not that simple. If conflict arises within our self it means that fixing relationships, resolving disagreements, negotiating peace, creating new agreements are dependent on changes individuals are willing to make in the way they think and act.

Knowing the five modes of dealing with conflict highlighted by Thomas-Kilmann is valuable here. They teach that competing, compromise, accommodation, collaboration, and avoidance are all legitimate ways to deal with conflict. All five modes require a change in behaviour, away from a default way of dealing with conflict to the one most appropriate for the situation. It is affecting these behaviour changes that conflict mastering comes into its own as an approach to conflict.

Systems versus person

In the teams that I was part off, we dealt with conflict in one of two ways. Both approaches deal with the team as a system. One method was to deal with conflict as a systemic problem in the team. This approach often resulted in a costly breakaway or intervention by a consultant. A second approach was to deal with conflict through so-called honest conversations. It often results in repeated and unproductive conversations and never dealt with the real causes of conflict in the team or the changes individuals must make.

The point here is that systems (the group) consist of sub-systems (individual members) that contribute to the efficiency of the group. If the change in the system must be sustainable, the behaviour of the critical parts of the system must also change with it. Conflict management focussing on the team needs conflict coaching to assist individual members to change through a process of mastering the required skills.

The process of conflict coaching

The ICF defines coaching as a “thought-provoking and creative process to maximise the professional and personal potential of the coachee.” This maximising of potential happens by creating deep awareness of the needs and motivations for our behaviour by bringing about mental changes and physical awareness. Conflict coaching appropriates these changes in an environment where conflict could become disruptive or is disruptive.

For a person to change it is sometimes necessary to unpack their needs, expectations, fears, and motivations that cause behaviour patterns. The coaching partnership provides safety, awareness, and planning for change. With enough experience, the ability to act appropriately becomes second nature and free up energy to focus on the main task of the group. But coaching is not a quick fix.

Two final remarks

Since conflict is everywhere, teams need to be pro-active in preparing for conflict. Conflict coaching can be effective in an individual process or as support of a broader conflict management process. Conflict coaching is the pro-active approach that saves energy to focus on the essential task of the group. Every team member can benefit from better personal response to conflict precisely because conflict is everywhere.