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Managing Conflict and Managing Emotions

A recent incident reminded me of how important it is to stick to the content of conflicts and how difficult it is to deal with emotions disruptive behavior.

As I point out in my recent book, Managing Conflict in Projects, there are two major categories of conflict – content based and emotionally based conflict.  It is best to avoid emotionally based conflict and focus on the content.  This is easier said than done for a number of reasons.  For one, emotionally based conflict is often disguised as content based conflict.  For another, emotions are extremely powerful and often hidden behind a wall of rationality, particularly in organizations.  

Many people are so identified with their positions and with the need to win that anger comes up whenever anyone confronts them with opposition. Others are frightened into submission or lack the self confidence to engage in a content centered conflict.  Often the individual is so habituated to emotional reactivity that they do not consciously recognize what is driving their behavior.  They just act without reflecting on the impact of their actions.

To effectively manage conflict one must address the content through a communication and decision making process.  The process is affected by emotionality and, often unconscious, conflict styles.

The content can be anything from decisions about vendor selection to estimates, to the cause and cost of a change in requirements.  Content centered conflict is a good thing. It is an opportunity to find optimum resolutions that improve project results.   For example conflict over a design or over a tactic in selecting a vendor can lead to an optimal resolution that would not have been found had one party’s position prevailed without opposition.

But, when the communication process is disrupted the ability to come to an effective resolution that is in the best interest of a project and organization is diminished.  Anger leads people to turn to rhetoric, personal attack, even violence and lose track of the content and the mutual desire for a win-win resolution.  Fear leads to people withholding their information and avoiding a healthy exchange of ideas and facts.  People get lost in their emotional reactions.  Satisfying personal agendas becomes the focus.

When faced with a conflict that moves into the realm of emotionality and disruptive behavior the healthy flow of dialogue, debate and decision making is disrupted.  It is necessary to take action to avoid this and if it is occurring to address it and return to a healthy process.  

Most organizations and many individuals do not do well in addressing their communication process, particularly when it comes to interpersonal exchanges and emotions.  It is necessary to reflect on the cost of allowing emotionality to impact effective conflict management and to address the issue on a personal and organizational level.

On a personal level an individual can make it his or her responsibility to monitor emotions and mange them so as not to disrupt the communications process and distort the decision making.  This means stepping back and being self reflective and disciplined enough to recognize the rising of emotional charge and taking control of one’s words and behavior to avoid displaying emotions in a way that would change the focus of the conflict from the content and work against the goals of a win-win resolution and healthy relationships.  This is hard work that requires the cultivation of sufficient mindfulness and concentration to manage oneself and one’s situation.  The individual must increase his or her level of emotional intelligence.

On a team or organizational level, the group must be made aware of the nature of dysfunctional conflict management and its cost.  The organization that ignores this dysfunction is bound to perform less effectively than one that sets as a value for rational and effective decision making and then supports that value by teaching it’s members how to manage conflict so as to obtain optimal resolutions for individual conflicts or disputes while building and maintaining healthy relationships.

Emotions are a fact of life.  They are to be acknowledged and not suppressed.  At the same time reactive, emotionally driven behavior is to be avoided to achieve personal health and optimal performance.

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George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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