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Practice ways to diffuse staff conflicts


The tension at the office was palpable. People spoke in short, terse sentences. Small talk was absent. Doors and drawers were closed with a bit too much force. There was no laughter at all.

The tension at the office was palpable. People spoke in short, terse sentences. Small talk was absent. Doors and drawers were closed with a bit too much force. There was no laughter at all.

Sound familiar? Certainly we have all had to endure days when the conflictlurking beneath the surface made working very unpleasant. Sometimes theproblem "blew over," and other times it "blew up". Unfortunately,in many cases it was never really resolved, and the effects lingered on,waiting to come to the surface again when the right buttons are pushed.

How do you deal with it?

How do you deal with conflict in your practice or in your personal life?Issues with clients, partners, employees and family members are going tooccur; there is no escaping that. But there are things we can do to resolvethem in a positive manner, and then move on without the "garbage"trailing along behind us.

It is often not feasible to resolve a conflict at the time it is beingdemonstrated. But, if you acknowledge it to start, and then follow throughwith ways to address the issue, it is a great start to calming a tense orheated situation.

It may be helpful to simply say, "we need to talk about this latertoday", as a means of at least acknowledging things are out of balance.Then, make sure you follow through by calling the appropriate people togetherto address the problem. Make it a priority. Cancel something less importantif necessary. If today is simply impossible, set the discussion for theearliest possible time. Letting it fester simply prolongs the misery.

I try to follow Steven Covey's advice, as described in his book "SevenHabits of Highly Effective People".

"Seek first to understand, then seek to be understood," theauthor suggests. At this point there is no consideration of resolution,only understanding. The order is important. If we demonstrate a real interestin understanding the other (or others), then they are usually willing totry to see our point of view.

Being heard is powerful

I have on many occasions witnessed the tension go out of someone's face,and the anger disappear from their voice as they explain what is botheringthem, and experience "being heard". For this to happen, I mustturn my full attention to comprehending what they are expressing.

I must avoid planning my rebuttal, or tabulating all of the "yeah,buts" that come to mind. I need to simply listen, occasionally askingfor more detail or clarification. From time to time I can restate what Iheard, to let them know I really did get it. My body language is very importantas I listen. If my arms are crossed and I have a scowl on my face, the speakerwill not feel "heard" the way he or she will if I am relaxed,and leaning slightly forward. Strong eye contact with the speaker also helps.

I need to take as much time as needed to really understand the others'point of view. Once I am sure I do, and once they also believe I do, thenit is time for me to "seek to be understood". Again, we are notyet trying to solve the problem, only to understand each other.

There are times when the problem does not directly involve me, but ratheris between two employees, or a client and another doctor, or any two otherparties. If both are available, I can try to help them understand each other.If only one is present, then, for the moment, I can only hear that person'sviewpoint. Scheduling a meeting with the missing party may or may not beworthwhile.

It is important when discussing volatile issues to "speak personally".By this, I mean to describe what happens or is happening to you, ratherthan to judge the other person.

Get specific

Also, try to deal with specifics, instead of generalities. Consider asituation where a client had complained to your partner about your handlingof a case, and your partner did not support you. You might be tempted tosay "you never stick up for me when people complain."

This is a generality (probably an exaggeration), and also a negativeassessment of your partner. He or she is likely to become defensive, andbegin searching their memory for a time that they did defend you, and thediscussion is soon becoming less and less productive.

If instead, you simply say, "I felt abandoned when you did not defendmy handling of the case," you have factually described your own reactionto a specific event. Your partner is much less likely to become defensive,and the discussion can stay on track.

Okay, so much for understanding. Now what about resolution?

Understand first

In truth, resolution may come automatically once understanding is attained.Or it may require some compromise. All parties need to focus on solvingthe problem, not protecting their pride or winning the argument. In somecases, we must simply agree to disagree, but try to be sensitive to thesituation and try to treat each other with respect and consideration. Inany case, understanding is key.

There are many books, tapes and training events available to help uslearn conflict resolution skills. Increasing your knowledge in this areawill help you with relationships at all levels. For food animal practitionerswho regularly interact with farm families and staffs, you may find thatyou can offer an added service if you can serve as a facilitator at resolvingconflicts. You can even be well paid for this service.

All of us must experience conflict. Some of us try to suppress it, smoothingthings over and muffling the dissent. Others tend to fan the fires, leadingto an explosion of anger and frustration. A better alternative exists, leadingto understanding and relief of hostility.

Sometimes resolution follows, and sometimes more work is needed. We donot need to come to work (or go home) to tension and resentment on a long-termbasis.

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