3M Dental is proud to sponsor the Dental Economics year-long "Mastering the Art of Communication"

June 1, 2000
3M Dental is proud to sponsor the Dental Economics year-long "Mastering the Art of Communication" series.

3M Dental is proud to sponsor the Dental Economics year-long "Mastering the Art of Communication" series.

Mastering the art of communication

Part 6

The Art of Addressing Conflict

Sandy Roth

Who among us hates conflict and would rather avoid it whenever possible? Almost everyone I know, and perhaps you, too. Many of us were taught that conflict is something to avoid. We were also told that, "If you can`t say something nice, don`t say anything at all," as well as, "Sometimes you have to tell a little white lie to avoid hurting someone`s feelings." These rules are often passed down from one generation to another. With this kind of influence, it is no wonder people shy away from conflict at every turn. Nor is it surprising that many suffer from the emotional repercussions of their pent-up feelings. Emotionally repressed people are significantly less effective than those who can directly address issues.

Our inclination to avoid conflict, and to ignore disagreement and disharmony, does not create the peace and tranquility we hoped for. I can`t think of a single problem that was resolved or dissapeared because I ignored it. Many of the most difficult issues we face on a daily basis are of our own doing - and are made worse by avoidance. Most of us are so heavily burdened by our baggage that healthy relationships aren`t possible without a tremendous amount of remedial work.

The relationship between dentist and team must be clear before they can focus on such essential tasks as creating a new patient experience, working more effectively with new patients, or reviewing their systems for behavioral effectiveness. The first step is to address conflicts - that baggage which inhibits the ability to work together in the service of others. Any unspoken or unresolved conflicts drain energy from every corner of the pratice. Rarely is any practice conflict free; however, I often find groups crippled by their inability to face even simple differences of opinion.

Many people construct convoluted responses to conflict. In most cases, they don`t know how to resolve honest, legitimate differences. Not only have they developed responses which deny them the opportunity to grow and learn from differences, but they have also lost the ability to use instinctive responses which are part of their basic human wiring. Most of us are viscerally aware when something is not right. Our feelings have a purpose. All too often, we ignore them. We tell ourselves "it doesn`t matter," or "it`s no big deal." Our lack of action and attention to those feelings comes back to haunt us. We experience the repercussions in broken relationships, unclear expectations, and hurt feelings. All are avoidable. We need only pay attention to our feelings and senses.

In this month`s installment of Mastering the Art of Communication, I offer some guidelines for dealing with conflict - both within your team, and with your patients. Self-imposed interpersonal barriers may be the most significant wall between your team and success. Working with these principles may be the most important work you do together as a team.

Conflict is natural. Conflict has been at the core of virtually all of the important changes which have shaped our world. Indeed, conflict is such a natural and important life element that we cannot and must not attach a polarity to it. Conflict is neither positive or negative - it just is. Much of the stigma surrounding conflict comes from the mistaken belief that harmony, status quo, total agreement, and smooth waters are important to create and maintain. On the contrary, conflict is essential for growth and change to occur. From conflict results the new, the un-thought-of, the innovative. Nothing new comes from a conflict void. A team must understand that their ability to recognize conflict as a creative force is linked to their ability to grow and change. Their ability to introduce conflict parallels their ability to move to a higher plane. In the absence of conflict, the practice becomes stagnant, the behavioral equivalent of extinction.

What is conflict? Simply a difference of perspective or perception. When applied to human beings, conflict represents the energy which results when one person maintains a difference of opinion with others. The challenge is to make that energy work to your mutual advantage rather than your disadvantage. To do so, you must agree on some principles to govern yourselves - a behavioral constitution. If you choose to create a behavioral constitution for your team, it can be a significant event in your growth and development. To merely close your eyes and hope for the best will not serve you. As a group, you now have a powerful opportunity to address conflict, come to grips with its implications for you personally and as a team, and do something about it.

Extracting a positive outcome from conflict requires a new approach. We must eradicate the idea that conflict is a contest or game, with winning as the ultimate goal. The notion of winning - whether it`s the perceived goal for one or both parties - is a state of mind which interferes with healthy conflict resolution. If either party enters with the goal of discovering the "winning solution," the process will be subverted. Neither party will be served well, and the process will lose its potential magic. Healthy conflict resolution is energy-producing. In the absence of conflict, nothing happens and nothing changes. We become stagnant and allow outside forces to control our actions. Most of all, we lose the power of challenge and the opportunity for growth.

When we systematically eliminate those voices not in complete harmony with ours, we are left with only ourselves - rarely enough to take us through the demands of a changing world and a changing profession. We each become more powerful when we deliberately include challenge and conflict in our lives (by hiring high achievers, for example). We become more than we would be on our own when we open ourselves to the ideas, thoughts, and challenges of others.

Nine prerequisites for conflict resolution

(1) Look at your motives: The buck doesn`t stop with you - it begins with you. So, look first at yourself and your motives. Look back at a conflict you recently experienced with a team member. If you identified the issue and acknowledged the apparent conflict, what were your motives? Were you motivated by a desire to win, or to make the relationship and practice work? Was your goal to prove you were right or to make it right? If you`re motivated to serve your patients well, an open discussion of any conflict is definitely in order.

When key people are unable to carry their whole load, it lets the patients down. You have an obligation to raise the issue and work through it with the team member and the team. Only by entering a conflict with pure motives can you reap the true benefit of an honest, open discussion.

(2) Respect the other person. Respect involves honesty and integrity. In many conflicts, people have lost respect for each other. True resolution is not possible until the issue of respect is acknowledged, addressed, and resolved. The content or substance of the conflict is of no consequence in the absence of respect. How can you approach a conflict with others if you believe them to be dishonest?

How can you try to reach a resolution with someone whose integrity you question? You can`t. Resolution is impossible until the relationship is clean enough to allow mutual respect. If respect or its absence is an issue, begin there. Be honest with yourself and address integrity first.

(3) Commit to staying in communication with the other party. Many of us know people who shut down in the face of conflict. In those situations, it is almost impossible to move forward. In the midst of a misunderstanding or conflict, each party must be willing to openly communicate with the other. Shutting down may be a personal defense mechanism, designed to protect the individual, but it is a false protection. Moreover, it does nothing to facilitate resolution.

Many people find it difficult to open themselves to a discussion involving difficult issues. While this is understandable, each of us must realize that "shutting down" defeats real communication. Moving out of one`s comfort zone is critically important to personal growth. Allowing ourselves to communicate openly can be an important area of personal growth and is essential to the conflict resolution process.

(4) Forget "winning at all costs." Make it work!

An examination of your motives is vitally important to honest conflict resolution. For example, what kind of outcome are you expecting? Naturally, you value your own point of view. But must you always prevail? Is there a workable alternative to the one you initially envisioned? Are you open to that possibility? The discussion and resulting integration which occurs during genuine conflict resolution must be directed towards a workable solution for both parties. Each participant can enter the discussion representing their own perspective, but the goal must be to make it work. For a values-based team, the direction of this goal is predetermined. The goal will always remain the mission, philosophy, and shared values of the team. When a group is committed to achieving those goals, the answers to everyday conflicts are easily discovered - if you give yourselves the opportunity.

(5) Believe in the legitimacy of the other person`s perspective or position. Each party must enter the discussion believing in the legitimacy of the other`s perspective. There can be no discussion otherwise. There is no place to go and resolution cannot occur. Of course, you see your own position best. But in order to open yourself to the resolution process, you must acknowledge, openly and sometimes proactively, the other`s perspective. You may still disagree with them, but they remain legitimate.

(6) Be willing to risk parts of yourself which you normally protect. Many of us have built up great defense systems to protect our soft underbellies. It is difficult to admit that we have told a lie, talked behind another person`s back, or said something unkind or mean-spirited. Face-saving has become the dominant priority in situations ranging from small town disputes to international conflicts.

We have built up so much resistance to acknowledging our own shortcomings that we box ourselves into a corner. Many relationships have been needlessly destroyed because one or both parties could not bring themselves to risk sensitive areas of their psyche. Are you willing to let down your defenses? Can you voluntarily let others see who you really are? Are you willing to expose those areas which you have worked hard to protect? If you are not willing to make yourself vulnerable, how can you expect others to do the same?

(7) Get into the other person`s space. Learning from another person`s perspective - and opening yourself to change - means leaving your shoes and stepping into theirs. Rarely do we have all the facts. Opening yourself to a fresh viewpoint can be valuable. In order to benefit - and reach greater understanding - we must be willing to move ourselves into the position of others and see things through their eyes.

(8) Acknowledge your own role. When a misunderstanding has occurred, both parties are usually responsible. Acknowledging your role in a disagreement or conflict is the first step in re-establishing the lines of communication. A standoff will remain a standoff until one party takes the first step. In resolving a conflict, you can enter with defiance and a well-defended position, or you can open yourself to the process of exploring your role in the misunderstanding.

Each of us plays a role in every interaction and in every relationship we have. What was your role? What part did you play? Did you jump to conclusions? Could you have been a better listner? Acknowledging your role is a key element. Do it often - not just silently and to yourself - but publicly. You`ll open a big door for everyone to walk through.

(9) Be open to hearing - really hearing - the other party`s position. Hearing means deliberately listening with intent, purpose, and resolve. Too often, a group of inexperienced communicators ends up stymied because their focus shifts to how things are said, the choice of words, and the language used. Instead of seriously listening to the speaker`s message, these folks use diversionary tactics. They don`t like the message, so they attack the speaker for their style.

In these situations, it`s very easy to side-step the issues (particularly the ones which hit home) by accusing the speaker of foul play, or by whining about hurt feelings. Each of us "mis-speaks" on occasion - particularly if conflict resolution is difficult or uncomfortable. Attacking the speaker stops the process cold. Listen instead for the intent of the speaker rather than dwelling on the style they are using. Give others the benefit of the doubt and assume they are noble in their intentions, even if clumsy in their delivery.

These nine prerequisites require maturity - in attitudes, approaches, and behavior. Without maturity, conflict resolution is difficult at best. I urge you to examine and apply these prerequisites - to yourselves and to any conflict situation that may arise. You and your team can create a behavioral constitution that will serve the team well as you strive improve your work relationships.

Positive outcomes when conflict is addressed

- Increased motivation and creativity.

- Feelings get aired out.

- Alternatives increase.

- Positive change occurs.

- A greater understanding of others is developed.

- People are forced to clarify their ideas.

Negative outcomes when conflict is avoided

- Productivity and profits decreased

- Important, relevant information is not shared

- Morale is lowered.

- The decision making process is disrupted.

- Stressful environment; high turnover.

- Poor working relationships.

- Misuse of resources.

- Organizational commitments are impaired.

Steps in confronting conflict

- Clarify your intentions. Be sure your motive is healthy and other-serving, not self-serving or defensive.

- Explain the situation as you see it.

- Identify how you got to this point.

- Describe how the situation is impacting the relationship.

- Describe and acknowledge your role in contributing to the problem.

- Ask for the other point of view about the situation.

- Ask for the other perspective regarding how you got to this point.

- Ask how the other person sees the situation impacting the relationship.

- Ask for the other point of view about each person`s role in contributing to the problem

- Determine the points on which there is agreement.

- Determine what you want to be different.

- Identify what should change.

- Explore and discuss possible solutions.

- Agree on a plan or strategy.

- Agree on what each person will do.

- Set a date to check progress and reevaluate the plan.

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