A collection of thoughts and ideas for success in dealing with difficult people or difficult issues compiled by Michael Shields, Salem Keizer Public Schools, Director of Transportation and Auxiliary Services, and David McCuistion, Vanguard Organizational Leadership (VOL).
Conflict and the Dynamics of Understanding
Why conflict? The business of transporting students safely to school will have days that have disruptive conflict with other human beings. How we deal with others, especially during a conflict, is probably the most important factor in our jobs. Dr. Mary Kay Whitaker of About Leaders: Making a Difference, writing in her White Paper on Conversation Map, says that it is a big mistake to avoid situation that are disruptive to workplace environments. Additionally, she said that it is equally important to address the disruption and conflict; not only to resolve the issue, but also to insure the safety and protection of everyone affected by the disruption. The better we do it, the easier our jobs and the better we will feel about ourselves.
As documented by Abraham Maslow in his Hierarchy of Needs, Every human being has basic needs that must be met before they can become comfortable is any environment.
The primary needs are food, clothing, and shelter. Other needs are to be loved, valued, and appreciated. People have a need to feel in control of themselves and their destinies. Many of the frustrations we encounter on a regular basis, whether from parents, staff, or employees, are because some of these needs have not been met.
When we are dealing with conflict situation it requires us to figure out what or why the person is frustrated or angry. People will get frustrated when they feel they are losing one of these needs. Dr. Stephen Covey encourages us to “Seek First to Understand then to be Understood”; this is habit number five in his book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” If we are to understand, we must first listen.
Dr. Covey tells us there are five levels of listening: ignoring, pretend listening, selective listening, attentive listening, and empathic listening. The fifth level of listening, “empathic”, is when you listen with both your heart and your mind. People often take positions (position = what they want) and dig their heels in. What you can do is find out their interests (interest = why they want it). Too often we all try to move to a solution before we clearly understand the “why.” The leader must remove him/herself from the position of problem solver and put themselves in the other person’s position to fully understand their position and conflict.
We must listen, not with the intention of responding, but to understand the other person’s position. Instead of thinking of a solution, leaders must listen with empathy to what is being said, to understand the intention of the speaker, the depth of their feelings, while watching for their non-verbal words to compliment the understanding. We must ask ourselves, “Is what I have to say really important to what is being spoken to me, will it really add to the conversation.”
Conflict is Often the Result of Unmet Needs
With many of the people that are frustrated or angry, you may never find out what their underlying problem is. For some of them it may require professional assistance. Your job at resolving the conflict is to attempt to understand what their motivation is for the subject matter before you not whether they need professional help. You must assess the situation. Can this conflict be resolved by conversation, preferably face to face? Does this person always approach you in a difficult manner? Are they swearing or using derogatory terms?
In Making Teams Succeed at Work it says; when two employees are having a conflict at work that they can’t resolve on their own, try this strategy: Ask each employee to paraphrase the other employee’s point of view. This will go a long way toward determining if each employee understands where the other one is coming from. It may be that it’s a simple misunderstanding, which can be easily worked out.
A New Look
Have you noticed the changes that have occurred in the last five years? People are questioning more, they seem to be less trusting.
If you are in a leadership role, then you are automatically in a position of being questioned about your decisions; whether you are a school bus driver and the students are questioning your authority, or an office person and the public is questioning your answers, or a supervisor and the employee is questioning your motives or intent. People today want answers; they want facts that support your answers. The public is upset with a bus driver, and they want written documentation that something was done. The bus driver writes up a student, and they want something in writing from the principal that something was done. All of us are in some leadership role and may have experienced this lack of trust.
I believe it stems from people feeling they are losing control, and they want that control back. The public is starting to vote down levies, because they are frustrated with government in general. Why, because they feel they do not have control. One of the ways we can try to offer people that feeling of control is to get them involved in the process. Find out what their interests are. Try to understand their wants. Then, work together with the information towards a solution.
The most impressive techniques I learned recently were at a three day workshop put on by John and Carol Glaser. The purpose of the workshop was to train the district teams for collaborative negotiations. These teams were from both labor and management. People donated their weekend to complete the training. So what was the training? The prime focus, in my opinion, was to understand the other person’s interests and then to work towards a collaborative solution that addressed both sides interests. The second focus, again in my opinion, was to stay focused on the interests and not on the person(s).
In the final analysis, conflict management requires several personal leadership skills that must be developed and honed in order to resolve internal strife that is detrimental to organizational success.