I was in a conversation a month ago with Alain (not his real name), the chief IT officer of a large online retailer . Alain came to me when he realized that his inability to manage conflict effectively almost cost his organisation its life and certainly several million euros.
I like working with Alain. He has strong personal values and he is one of brightest guys I know. Alain has a very strong strategic vision of how his business will evolve in the coming years.
A year ago, Alain went to the board with an ambitious investment plan to improve the technical/IT structure. Unfortunately, he faced a big wave of opposition from the rest of the board (mainly the very dominant CEO), who were more focused on short-term commercial issues. For some reason, when Alain faces this kind of opposition, he has the tendency to become defensive, assertive, and even critical. So what started out as a conversation about the future of the organisation turned into an ego-driven exchange between two powerful men. You can probably guess what happened: ultimately, Alain failed to persuade the board to invest.
Six months later, the competition arrived with the same new technology Alain had proposed and quickly took market share from their organisation. Now Alain's company is finally investing in this new platform... but the wrong decision cost them a few million euros in lost sales.
It happens everywhere and all the time. Good conflict management can create extraordinary opportunities, but poor conflict management can also jeopardise an organisation’s very survival.
Delving into the topic of conflict management can be overwhelming, as there are so many theories out there. Here are a few examples I found when writing this article:
• The C's of conflict management
• What are the four strategies to deal with a conflict
• The seven steps of conflict resolution
• What are the four types of conflict
• Twenty-Nine (!!) conflict management techniques (can you believe this??).
Most of these methods have one thing in common: they’re based on rational approaches. Personally, I am sceptical about such approaches to conflict resolution, which describe the “steps” you should take to achieve a certain goal during the conflict.
Why? They ignore the notion of energy, the life that is actually in conflict, and how that energy is influencing the trajectory of the conflict itself. They also neglect to consider the fact that conflict is an interpretation. We all come to the plate with a different notion of what conflict is, and this affects how the conflict is handled.
So when conflict arises, the pressure that is often generated by the experience of conflict causes us to lose our ability to follow the steps these models prescribe, for two main reasons:
1. We are unable to manage the personal inner energy that is created during the conflict (resentment, anger, criticism, protection, distance, etc.).
2. We lack insight about who we are and how we have learned, throughout our whole life, to handle conflict in order to preserve our own sense of security.
As a result, we lose sight of what is really significant for the team or the organisation.
Build a centred presence
In the Embodied Leadership methodology, we propose that the very first step to managing conflict skilfully is to become aware of what is going on inside us during the conflict (thoughts, emotions, moods, physical sensations) and to explore how we have been shaped by our history in a way that will influence us when a threat is perceived.
From this awareness of our reactions to conflict, we can expand our choice of action. In other words, we cultivate a centred presence.
Extend your attention
With this centred presence, we can then extend our attention to the other, to recognise that the person has or has not done this kind of work. In other words, we are curious about how the person is shaping themselves in conversation. We listen to the whole person to understand who they are. Not to judge them, but to get a deep understanding of the person in front of us. We want to understand his or her own history of power and how it influences the way he or she deals with conflict in order to stay in touch with his or her own dignity.
Blend with your partner
Finally, we blend. We legitimise the other. We acknowledge the person as a human being. While this may sound simple — and there are many techniques for this offered everywhere— doing it in an embodied and sincere way makes a crucial difference and remains a very difficult practice. Being able to rephrase something like "I heard you didn't feel respected when I said that and I'm really sorry" in a way that is heard requires a real ability to get back to a place where we can eclipse our agenda to truly be with the other person.
In other words, we legitimize the other’s experience based on their history and we dissociate from who we are.
With these three steps, it is possible to transform the energy of conflict to generate a conversation for positive outcomes. While the approach may look simple, it is not. In fact, it is a very difficult practice because it arises from the energy of compassion.
Conflict is an opportunity, but it is also a threat. These are times when relationships can break down, when people can disengage, and so as much as we want to capitalise on the opportunity to deal with conflict, we also want to prevent ourselves from going to those more destructive places. That's where conflict energy transformation comes in. Using this revolutionary method of conflict management in organisations can strengthen trust, improve short-term performance, widen the scope of possibilities, and above all, refocus our attention on what is most important: caring for our planet and every living being on it.
So let’s get out of the cognitive space and into the emotional. Being prepared means being ready to experience the power of conflict energy transformation on our organisation the very next time we disagree.
Manu Henrard is a Executive Somatic Coach and an Executive Recruiter based in Brussels. He is also an associate from the Strozzi Institute for embodied leadership. Manu's professional commitment is to help leaders increase lasting impact and achieve inner peace. More about his coaching program here.