Learning to Turn Conflict Into Collaboration

A manager in a government agency shared an extraordinary learning experience.  He is familiar with the research from positive organizational scholarship and related tools for practicing positive leadership.  He recently had a challenge from which all of us can learn.  I will call him Jared.
Jared spoke of a hard week that ended with a sense of success.  His team was facing a challenging task and lacked the necessary time and resources to bring off a given event.  He suggested to his boss that the event be canceled.  The boss expressed a variety of concerns and indicated that the event had to occur.
Jared was in a difficult spot: he would have to accomplish what seemed impossible.  He asked for support from above but was refused.  He turned to the units around him.  He shared the goal, the limitations, and the possibilities.  Other units agreed to help.  They began to plan and organize.
After a few days, a supervisor from another unit, who had not been in the planning meetings or on the email chains, called Jared’s boss and expressed dissatisfaction.  A meeting was called.  The dissatisfied person noted that Jared’s boss was not present and indicated that, without the boss, the meeting could not go on.  She was suggesting that without the necessary authority, prevailing conflicts could not be resolved.
Jared tried to stay centered.  He calmly indicated he had spoken with his boss and the meeting could go on.  The woman expressed a long list of complaints and said she would talk to Jared’s boss after the meeting.  Jared again remained calm and did a difficult thing.  He asked that she express her feelings so the conflicts could be worked out in real time.  After a hesitation, she voiced a list of additional complaints, most aimed at Jared.
Jared could feel his heart beating faster.  He was losing his composure but determined to keep looking the woman in the eye.  He turned to his spiritual resources.  What he described, I find remarkable.
He said, “I began to pray for all of us.  I kept trying to see her as a human and not as an obstacle or problem.  I also kept trying to lead the meeting toward the basic outcomes we needed to ensure the event was a success.  It was hard.  My natural reaction was flight, to show I was defeated so she would leave me alone, but I knew that was manipulative and not helpful to the overall goal.  Somehow I stayed engaged.”
By the end of the meeting, the group made several decisions and started to joke and laugh.  The tension lifted.  The critical woman stayed behind.  Jared thanked her for being in the meeting and told her presence helped get things done that previously seemed impossible.  Exhausted, Jared packed up and went home.  As he traveled, he reflected on how hard it is for him to experience conflict.  It fills him with fear.
The next morning Jared encountered a colleague who had been in the meeting.  She made an observation: “I think it is amazing how calm you were in conflict.  If you could transfer some of that to me, I would appreciate it.”
The words created a sense of profound gratitude.  Jared told me he has encountered many recent conflicts at work and has been trying to learn how to transform them into cooperation.  He said, “This was the first and only one in which I handled myself in a way I was proud of.  I have a long way to go, but I am grateful for one success in leaning into a conflict and learning I can come out of it with my dignity and with my heart at peace toward the person who was attacking me.”
 
Reflection

  • How many leaders around you know how to turn conflict into collaboration?
  • How often are you confronted with conflict and what is your normal response?
  • What is the most remarkable aspect of this passage, and what principle do you derive from it? How could you better live the principle this week?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

3 comments on “Learning to Turn Conflict Into Collaboration

  1. I always wondered how far you should/can go in such a situation. Staying calm and working through the problem should be #1 strategy, no question.
    From a positive psychological perspective and also as self protection, when is it necessary to stop trying to solve a conflict?
    For Jared it was exhausting. How many sessions like this one do you want to endure on a regular basis in the hope that it ends well?

  2. From my perspective Jared’s key tool was stated and affirmed below:

    “He said, “I began to pray for all of us. I kept trying to see her as a human and not as an obstacle or problem. I also kept trying to lead the meeting toward the basic outcomes we needed to ensure the event was a success……..The next morning Jared encountered a colleague who had been in the meeting. She made an observation: “I think it is amazing how calm you were in conflict. If you could transfer some of that to me, I would appreciate it.”

    When we see others with the mindset to “believe the best” instead of “assume the worst” it actually gives us a sense of peace that enables “the calm”. Wouldn’t it be great if this could be bottled as the colleague suggests?

    It would be the best selling craft beer!!

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