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CONFLICT RESOLUTION: The Well of Distrust

dmackin-7-07When I train on conflict resolution I ask people at the start to write down the first five words that come to mind when I say conflict. Invariably the following words come out:  stress, difficulty, tension, pain, loss, anger, frustration, and impasse. Only one or two will comment that conflict represents an opportunity or a positive challenge.

We have become conflict adverse, uncomfortable at trying to resolve differences because of the risk involved. Every time there is a news story on TV describing how someone took revenge in a violent way, we retrench further and further back in our willingness to share our concerns openly.

As a consequence, conflict festers beneath the surface. We pretend to get along — smiling and engaging — while underneath a huge well of distrust is forming. For many people, when they experience a conflict, their preferred option is to do what I call stamp collecting. Years ago when I was growing up, my mom collected S & H green stamps from the grocery store. She’d store them in tiny booklets that would get very fat when filled with the stamps from the store. After she had collected a number of booklets, she’d redeem them for merchandise like a lamp or a can opener.

If stamp collecting is our best alternative to conflict
resolution, we’re in trouble.

 

I think people do the same thing with their conflicts. When a conflict occurs, they take a stamp and stick it in their book, storing all the details of the conflict: who said what, when it occurred, who was there, what happened next, etc. As they hold on to the resentment — the grudge — they look for other occurrences that back up the original situation. “Ah-ha, there! It’s happening again.” The longer the stamp (and the subsequent ones piled on) stays there, the less likely that it will be redeemed.

Somehow in our twisted thinking during conflicts, we end up believing that collecting a stamp is a good thing. Yet, when I ask people if they would like stamps collected against them, the answer is always no. We don’t want to think that people are harboring all kinds of negative, secret thoughts about us. Yet, to get out of the trap, we have to be willing to surface our conflict and overcome the fear of taking a risk.

How do we know when a stamp is there? I have a few theories. When I see a group that communicates using sarcasm, I often think the zingers are covering up stamps. Sometimes I also see people adamantly refuse to do things that are truly no big deal. When we see an over-reaction to a benign request or event, it’s often an indication of a stamp.

If stamp collecting is our best alternative to conflict resolution, we’re in trouble. Most of the news stories we see are actually the result of stamp collecting. So how do we get people to be more willing to openly discuss their differences?

  • I have found by calling a problem as an opportunity to improve it has changed the reaction to the initial discussion. I have had to interface with many customers this year on problems and complaints and I have found only a positive reaction from them when I broach it as an opportunity to improve. So what I am saying, is I agree wholeheartedly – we hate conflict and we do think of these things as problems. It is our natural reaction to feel so, but if we can find ways to articulate the possibilities up front it really does change the way people respond to you.

  • Hi Jared – I always love hearing from you and thanks so much for commenting on the blogs. I really appreciate your thoughts/feedback. Hopefully, as time goes on we’ll get more people commenting.

    Couple of thoughts on reading material:

    1. Peaks and Valleys – Spencer Johnson – same guy who wrote Who Moved My Cheese. Very short but has some key points. I have attached a summary we did for a recent event we facilitated where we used the book. The big question: how are we using our “Valley” to prepare for the Peak that will come.

    2. Good to Great – Jim Collins – really speaks to the idea of having the right people in the right seats

    3. The Leadership Pill – Ken Blanchard – short, quick book on leadership strategies

    4. Groundswell – Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff

    5. New Rules of PR – David Meerman Scott (you can go to this guy’s website and download lots of reading material)

    Both of these focus on the importance of using social media to drive marketing, rather than the traditional “press release” approach.

    Keep connecting…

  • The impact of unresolved conflict in the workplace can profoundly affect business in many ways. I have observed people who hesitate or refuse to deal with others on a shared project because of “stamps” as noted in the original article. Some stamps are so painful to the collector they even go so far as to undermine and sabotage the person they have a stamp against.

    Unshared information, increased stress and missed deadlines are a few of the things that have happened. Having a tool to resolve workplace conflicts, and ensuring it is used appropriately can have a positive effect on performance and results.

    Addressing conflict does not come naturally to most people and many avoid it like a plague. Having a tool and being prepared helps and the most important thing is to have a spirit of resolution. One of the things that surprised me at first was that conflict was often a result of poor or misunderstood communication. Another thing that surprised me was how open and approachable other people were. As an example there was a person who would “zing” others, including me in a meeting and then say “just kidding”. He was using pointed denigrating humor when we were discussing important recommendations and decisions. I requested a private meeting with him saying that I felt that we had a lot of tension in our relationship and we should discuss. Using the tools we were able to work things out.

    Unfortunately I have also observed people abuse conflict resolution. They want to “punish” or “get even”. This is why “used appropriately” is noted above.

    One last thought – if you use conflict resolution skills, be prepared because the door swings both ways. People will expect you to be open to them and any conflict they have with you. When this happens keep in mind that you know what your thoughts and feelings are, so concentrate and focus in on where they are coming from, and their point of view.

    Judy Calhoun

  • There was a co-worker with whom I may have collected stamps or vice versa. She and I were like oil & water. I tried various ways to communicate with her and nothing seemed to work. Finally I just stopped paying any attention to her. That was the wrong thing to do because our departments needed to work together for the good of the whole. I never did resolve that issue and she left the company. What can I do to ensure this doesn’t happen again? Or rather if it does how do I remedy the situation?

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