Conflict is like cleaning

You don’t want to do it but you want to have a cleaner, clearer life. I’m sure my flatmate thinks I like cleaning, because ritually once a week our flat is cleaned. Like most people, cleaning is far from the highlight of my week and I’d really like to avoid it; the problem is I like to live in a clean home. And sadly I can’t have it both ways. Conflict is the same to me and, because I do have difficult conversations, sometimes I think my friends think I enjoy conflict. Trust me I don’t. And despite working with a vast range of people, I’ve not yet found anyone who does like conflict. In fact, I find quite the opposite; people who are very vocal about their complete, utter and total hate of conflict (which always makes me chuckle because who does like conflict? Like I said: I’m still waiting to find that person).

I work with people a lot on conflict, specifically difficult conversations around behaviour such as attitude, approach, impact, perception and many, many more. Be it coaching which brings out the issues the person wants to tackle, or me training people and teams in skills to enter into a difficult conversation well-prepared, I find it’s a common topic in my field.

The key thing to focus on (like with cleaning) is the end goal: a change in behaviour, an airing and understanding of different perspectives, an improvement in a relationship, not feeling guilty. Essentially wherever it is you want to get to with the other person. I work on the basis that most people don’t want to upset others. How often have you upset or annoyed someone unintentionally? We all have. The hardest challenge clients have is having the conversation. No amount of preparation can remove that feeling in the pit of the stomach. A lot of avoidance techniques can kick in here; it’s not a big deal really, I should just learn to live with it, that’s just how they are, I can’t change their personality (you’re not, you’re asking for a change in behaviour and behaviour is a choice).

A short series of steps can help you prepare to have that conversation:

  1. State the issue clearly (this is a sentence you can practice).
  2. Give evidence for why you feel the way you do (when ‘x’ happened I felt ‘y’).
  3. GOLDEN TIP: Start sentences with I instead of you, for example: ‘I felt angry when you wouldn’t make time for me’, ‘I’ve noticed that you seem reluctant to…’, instead of ‘you make me angry when’, ‘you’re lazy’, etc.
  4. Ask them for their perspective, give them time to talk without interruption (even if their reaction is emotional) and just listen.
  5. Then come back to the issue you clearly stated and work together to resolve in a way that works best for you both.

Whenever clients have had the difficult conversation, two things seem to happen; ‘It wasn’t anywhere as near as bad as I thought it was’ (great evidence for the next time they are faced with the issue) and the issue improves. Airing out and resolving issues honestly is a skill and, like all skills, practise makes perfect.

Dealing effectively with conflict is a key part of strong, high-performing relationships. If you find that you constantly avoid those tricky conversations, be aware that your relationships are unlikely to be as good as they could be. Please don’t go away thinking I’m saying arguments are good. I’m not. I’m saying deal with conflict, with issues, effectively.

If you would like to reproduce this Article on your website, you may do so provided that the following credit is given to the Article:

‘Sonia Gill is a founder and director of Heads Up Limited, an education leadership consultancy which specialises in supporting schools become outstanding. Their training and coaching is recommended by the 100s of school leaders she has worked with. To find out more visit www.ukheadsup.com.’